Artist who created TV 'Bonanza' map dies at 98
Artist Robert Temple Ayres died Feb. 25 at his Riverside County home at the age of 98, but not before making one last pilgrimage to the Ponderosa two days before his heart finally gave out.
In his career as an artist for MGM, Paramount and the Walt Disney Co., Ayres created his most famous work, officially called “Map to Illustrate the Ponderosa in Nevada.” It was created in 1959 so it could burn up weekly on television screens for the ensuing 13-plus years.
While the immortal “Bonanza” theme music played at the start of each episode, Ayres’ map appeared, then dissolved in flames, revealing the Ponderosa ranch’s inhabitants on horseback –- the Cartwright clan played by Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker and Pernell Roberts.
The map had hung for decades in the home of “Bonanza” creator and producer David Dortort before his family donated it to the Autry National Center of the American West after his death in 2010. When the Autry Center announced last June that the Ponderosa map had gone on permanent display, The Times contacted Ayres to get his thoughts on his TV icon that was now a museum piece.
In a blog post several days later on the Autry website, museum staffer Tessie Borden reported that Ayres’ reaction upon re-encountering his handiwork for the first time in more than 50 years was, “Oh, for goodness’ sake! I had no idea where that had gone.”
Don Richards, husband of Ayres’ only child, Sharon, said last week that the family made three visits in all -- the first when Ayres' granddaughter visited from Seattle, the second in September, when his grandson was visiting from Australia, and finally, three days before his death, with a grand-nephew visiting from the artist’s native Michigan.
Richards said that on that first encounter “he didn’t think it was the original map, because it was so big. It was a neat thing, and he was just enjoying it.”
The highlight for Ayres of the final visit, Richards said, wasn’t seeing his own work again, but the chance to see many other painters’ interpretations of the West in the Autry's current “Masters of the American West” exhibition. “He enjoyed the unbelievable art. He was in awe of all that. To see other people’s art was fun for him.”
Richards said his father-in-law had been coping with heart trouble and growing more frail, but continued to enjoy day trips -- the Autry visit being his last.
Before breaking into Hollywood, Ayres had made a mark as an illustrator for a Nashville-based publisher of “The Golden Treasury of Bible Stories” and other religious books, sometimes painting the then-small Sharon into scenes of Jesus surrounded by children.
“You’d bump into people who would say 'I know that picture,’ ” from reading the religious books, Richards said. “It’s amazing how many lives Dad has touched.” The Richardses will continue operating a website offering prints of Ayres' landscape paintings and religious scenes.
Autry spokeswoman Yadhira De Leon said that a very observant reader of the museum’s Trading Posts blog had noted that its Ponderosa map differs in several small details from the one that burns in the opening credits of "Bonanza." The Autry consulted experts, who said that rather than burn the original rendering, the “Bonanza” team likely would have made numerous hand-drawn, and probably inexact, copies for the purpose of torching them until they got just the right effect on film for the show's opening sequence.
Watch a clip of the opening credits of "Bonanza."
-- Mike Boehm
Photo: Robert Temple Ayres at Autry National Center in 2011, with the map of the Ponderosa he created for TV's "Bonanza." Credit: Tessie Borden / Autry National Center