Bonanza, the long-running NBC television series, features Lake Tahoe and Virginia City settings. The series gives Nevada its strongest tie with westerns since it has been watched by millions for more than five decades in its original telecasts and in syndication. The series began in 1959 and continued for 14 seasons covering 430 episodes. These then went into syndication on specialty networks and many are available on video and DVD.
Images of a burning map with Lake Tahoe and the Ponderosa Ranch opened the show, inspiring audiences to seek the real locations. Though primarily filmed on Paramount stages in southern California, second unit shots featured vivid hues of the Tahoe region, partly to sell a new product—color television. Tahoe landowner Bill Anderson realized the program also sold Nevada and worked closely with producers to build a Ponderosa Ranch to NBC specifications on his property at Incline Village. On its completion, producers used the ranch to shoot authentic locations for two weeks a year.
Besides colorful locations, Bonanza's strengths included a cast who started as unknowns but quickly earned star status. Despite working in other films and movies, Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker, and Pernell Roberts are most strongly associated with Bonanza. The show also brought outstanding guests, such as Jodie Foster, to various episodes. In a decade now defined by civil unrest and the generation gap, Bonanza promoted honesty, integrity, and family values. Though it has since been criticized for simplicity and contrivances, Bonanza's shortcomings are overwhelmed by the genuine warmth and sincerity of its creators and stars.
Nearly a decade after the popular series went off the air, its long-lasting appeal inspired producers David Dortort and Tom Sarnoff to resurrect the concept with three television movies featuring Pa Cartwright's grandsons, showcasing classic western stars John Ireland and Ben Johnson to head the ranch. The three movies—Bonanza: The Next Generation (1988), Bonanza: The Return (1993), and Bonanza: Under Attack! (1995)—were shot entirely in the Lake Tahoe region, with some action filmed at Bowers Mansion in Washoe Valley.
"My feeling is that Bonanza belongs in Nevada," Dortort said in 1988. "It's an American story." The whole Bonanza concept, he noted, shows what the western represents, "not only in terms of recapturing the beauty of nature by shooting outdoors, but in telling a kind of story which is essentially a morality tale where good, honest values are important."
Though the "next generation" concept never took off as a series, attendance surged at Incline Village's Ponderosa Ranch where Bonanza was supposed to take place. Until its sale in 2004, the ranch provided the first, strongest, and longest example of how location filming can be turned into a tourism treasure.
By the turn of the century, the old program experienced popular resurgence through PAX TV airings. In 2001, the network began a prequel series called The Ponderosa. This time the show was fimed in Australia because it was cheaper to produce; the exchange rate was fifty-four cents. By keeping the camera off on the mere six pine trees of the Katteminga set, avoiding the mass of gum trees in the backdrop, and steering clear of kangaroos that hopped by at dusk, the Cartwrights lived again.
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