The Western Street
In March of 1959, NBC-producer David Dortort selected Paramount Studios in Hollywood to film the series. They had the largest soundstages and a Western Street that was appropriate to use. They were and still are the largest film studio in the movie business. Incidentally, the Western Street was specifically built for "Whispering Smith" (1947). The late Alan Ladd was the star of the film.
Filming on the Western Street would encompass one day's filming of
their 6-day shooting schedule. The exterior facades filmed on the street were the Sheriff's
Office and Jail, Bucket of Blood Saloon, Silver Dollar Saloon, 2-story
Virginia City Hotel and International House, Opera House, Courthouse,
Church, Bank, Doctor's Office, and The Territorial Enterprise.
The interiors of these buildings were located on Stage 17, with painted
backdrops some feet away from them, with correct lighting applied. In a
few exceptions, there were some facades on the street that had interiors
that could be filmed, for limited filmed cuts, as noted below. Limited
filmed cuts could be filmed out on the street in front of the buildings
of the actors walking in and out of them. In rare filmed cuts, in some shows
as in the Silver Dollar exterior, the camera could film inside, looking
out the saloon doors and you would see the real street with people and
Building exteriors that contained filmed interiors were the Wells Fargo Office, Overland Stage Lines, Telegraph
Office, Doctor's Office, Barber Shop, Feed and Grain, General
Mercantile, Livery Stable and Barn, Virginia City Bank (there were two
filmable exteriors with interiors used, one of which later became Doc
Martin's Office), a little cafe, and a small restaurant and saloon. Towards
the end of the lot was the Mexican Street which had Spanish-American exteriors occasionally seen on the series and in
Dortort's "The High Chaparral".
The cast would tie up their horses many
times during lunch and walk off the lot to Nickodell's, a cafe, and have
an odd drink, off to the side of the Western Street. The "mountain" at the rear of the Western Street was actually
constructed of a chicken-wire framework and covered over by plaster and
was immobile. A painted backdrop was erected directly behind it of a
blue sky with clouds, but after the first few years, was taken down
since it looked too phony.
The reason the fake mountain was erected was because RKO had sets
stored in the late 40's, and later in 1957 when Lucille Ball bought them
out and created Desilu, she had a construction mill and sawdust
collection tower built. Another painted backdrop was
located to the right of the Western Street, for other shots, of a blue
sky, with clouds and is the only old backdrop intact at the studio
today. The painted backdrops used on Stages 16 and 17 for interiors were
manufactured at Paramount, in a large enclosed room, like a soundstage.
The sides of the room would be a sunken-in pit and scaffolds would be
erected, so the NBC art department could get up on them and paint all
the backdrops for the show. The
Western Street was much smaller than seen on 'Bonanza'; wide-angle camera
lenses made it appear much larger than in real-life. The local pigeons
would frequently land and perch atop the fake mountain, shattering the
illusion of distance and filming would be stopped until one of the crew
members scared them away. Anyone driving or walking down Melrose could
see them filming through the gates.
Other TV series made at the Western Street for exterior filming while
"Bonanza" was being made there were "Have Gun-Will Travel", "Branded",
"The Guns of Will Sonnet", and Dortort's "The High Chaparral", along
with all the A.C. Lyles films, John Wayne's films, Elvis Presley's
Hawaii village films and James Clavell's "Walk Like a Dragon".
In 1979, a demolition team demolished the Western Street for an
executive parking lot. The only building that was saved was the barn
which was first seen in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Squaw Man" the first
feature film ever made in 1914. On the 'Bonanza' series it is
infrequently seen as the freight station. Paramount donated this
structure to Hollywood Heritage, Inc., using it as the Hollywood Studio
In the winter of 1970, Dortort and the company couldn't afford the increased lot rental fees at Paramount. They decided to move to the pine-dotted Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank. In June of 1974, Michael Landon rented the Western Street and soundstages at Paramount Studios to film "Little House on the Prairie." By 1978, he'd filmed segments for 17 episodes over the series' first five years on the Western Street. It was demolished the following year. Paramount's commissary was called the Cafe Continental. It was located
on the northeast rim of the Western Street. It was an art-deco designed
building constructed in the mid 1930's, beautiful, well maintained and
had no wear. It was a very comfortable setting and had a separate
executive dining room. The lunch waitresses were all older ladies, so
efficient, worked in town's finest eateries on La Cienega's Restaurant
Row at night.
Paramount's creator, Adolph Zukor, would slowly walk to
the executive dining room as he approached his 100th birthday in 1973,
just three years before he passed away on June 10, 1976. The commissary
was demolished in 1979 along with the Western Street for a studio
parking lot. The famous Oblath's restaurant was located just several
steps from Paramount's main office building windows, where actors would
always eat as well as the commissary. On Melrose Avenue, were two other
famous restaurants, Nickodell's and Lucy's El Adobe Cafe.
The Ponderosa Ranch house exterior, barn, bunkhouse and horse corral
were built on Stage 16. Other front sections of the house facade would
be used with the actors entering and exiting doors for some shots. The
barn and bunkhouse were filmable on the inside. The cyclorama backdrop of the mountains that circled the Ponderosa
house exterior and front yard was 30 feet tall and 200 feet long. A
series of backdrops were painted on white canvas and all sewn together,
then mounted on metal tracks in a 360 degree circle around the house and
yard. It was also called "The Green Room"
since it was decorated with fake trees, plants, and paper mache
Stage 16 is approximately 170 feet long by 104 feet wide, with a height
of 40 feet. Real Ponderosa pines were shipped from Lake Tahoe, Nevada every
spring and planted on the soundstage to make it look more real looking. Other exterior sets on Stage 16, a few with the filmable interiors were
the Virginia City Schoolhouse and other exteriors such as cabins, line
shacks, and other ranch house front exteriors, with the interiors filmed
on Stage 17.
The Ponderosa house was a facade; the living quarters were not inside it
at all. During certain scenes they would film limited cuts looking in and
out the front door, and they would have the empty inside dressed with
props, furniture, and a fake fireplace, and many shows they would place a
fake wall behind the front door for the actors, to get the lighting
perfect, as they would enter and exit. The front facing upstairs bedroom window housed no bedroom, just a fake floor and wall, dressed with props, and the actors would walk up a built stairway to the fake second story floor and do certain filmed cuts. Bonanza's art director Earl Hedrick, scenic art designer Hal Pereira,
and David Dortort designed the Ponderosa interiors and exteriors on both
Stage 16 and 17. Pereira was in charge of designing the backdrops and the variety of scenery settings for Stage 16.
Note: The Ponderosa house exterior was originally built and located on
Stage 17 the first season. The first incarnation of Hop Sing's kitchen
was the large, wooden left wing that protruded from the left side of the
house exterior. The mistake in building it was it had a roof and when
they tried to film it from the other side, it was too small to use. Other problems were Stage 17 is a large rectangular stage and the house
exterior was hemmed in around the other interior sets. The resulting
problem was it was too cramped up, and the grips would keep moving the
Ponderosa trees from one part of the yard to the other, so they could
film the yard and house with better clarity. It never worked out.
The house exterior, barn, front yard, and backdrops were moved to Stage
16 in March 1960, just after the first season was completed. The left
wing exterior of the unfilmable kitchen was eventually removed and put
in set storage when filming for season two was underway, in early summer
of 1960. David
Dortort and Earl Hedrick had the kitchen set built and attached to the
living room-dining room set on Stage 17 and Hop Sing finally had his
rightful kitchen with plenty of room to film it. The Ponderosa house
exterior and front yard now had plenty of room to film on Stage 16 and
the Ponderosa trees finally could rest in one spot on the ranch.
The Ponderosa interior sets which consisted of the adjoined living
room, dining room, kitchen, and separate bedrooms, were all on Stage 17. The approximate dimensions of Stage 17 are 186 feet long by 67 feet
wide, with a height of 35 feet. As
you would enter the stage doors, the living quarters sets were to your
right. The front entrance consisted of identical wooden walls and windows
with the entrance and front door, just as on the Ponderosa exterior over
on Stage 16. You would walk in the front door and you were inside the
living room and adjoining dining room and kitchen. Above the living
quarters, a fake slanted ceiling was erected and catwalks ran right
above them for filming and lighting for interior cuts. A backdrop was
placed behind the dining room window where Ben and the boys would have
meals at over the course of the day's scenes. The stairway from the
living room ran to the second story landing and only two fake doors the
actors could enter and exit--making it appear as they were coming
downstairs from the bedrooms--when there were none. A facade. The filming
crew created a masterpiece of illusion.
Set decorators Samuel M. Comer and Grace Gregory were hired on the crew in 1959. They were experts in set decoration in the film business. Sam's daughter is actress Anjanette Comer, who appeared in "Love Me Not." Grace was the only lady who worked in this field of the male-dominated Hollywood business in those days. Together, they decorated the Ponderosa with antiques from all over the world. Grace would stay with the series through the end of its thirteenth year and would continue bringing in antiques from flea markets and antique shops, giving the Ponderosa sets such an unforgettable look. The bedroom sets were further down
stage and were slightly above ground level and all the filmed bedroom
cuts were done there proper and edited in with other filmed cuts. Catwalks were above the bedroom sets for filming and lighting purposes,
just as with the other living quarters on Stage 17.
Stage 17 also housed the interior sets for the Silver Dollar
Saloon, Bucket of Blood Saloon and any other saloon or cantina
configuration on the series. Painted backdrops would be affixed to the soundstage walls surrounding the interior sets and were very convincing. The two hotels, Virginia City Hotel and
International House interiors were filmed on Stage 17 and any other
hotel configuration could be made. Other interior sets contained the Courthouse and Judge's chambers,
Opera House, Church, Bank, Doctor's Office, and Territorial Enterprise,
which could be made into any different set configuration for filming.
The interiors of Sheriff Coffee's office and two jail cells was on Stage
17 with sometimes painted backdrops behind the cell windows and always a backdrop of the street, as the actors would enter and exit the main door on the set. In the first season episode "Enter Mark Twain", the interior of the Bucket of Blood Saloon was really the interior of the Ponderosa living room and study redressed, with painted backdrops of the Western Street affixed on the soundstage wall, looking outside the saloon doors.
The Silver Dollar Saloon interior also on Stage 17 and
painted backdrops of the buildings would be seen, and not always the same buildings, still a convincing trick in making movie magic. Rising costs in 1969 prompted NBC and Dortort to leave Paramount and all the sets on Stages 16 and 17 were loaded up on trucks and by the winter of 1970, were erected on the soundstages at the pine-dotted Warner Brothers Studios in nearby Burbank, California.
Additional Paramount Studios Info
Michael Landon would use two soundstages to film the interiors for
"Little House On The Prairie". They were Stages 31 and 32 at Paramount,
on the western part of the lot, right next to each other. They were
originally Stages 9 and 10 at Desilu Studios in the 50's through 1967. When Paramount bought Desilu for $17 million from Lucille Ball in 1967,
they tore down the walls, repainted, repaved and renumbered the Desilu
Stage 9 housed the alien sets for the original Star Trek
series and some years before was used for "My Favorite Martian" from
1963-1965. Stage 10 housed the Starship Enterprise sets. In 1967, after
Paramount bought Desilu, Stage 9 was renumbered as Stage 31 and Stage 10
was renumbered as Stage 32, both Michael Landon used years later in
"Little House On The Prairie".
The approximate dimensions of Stage 31
are 145 feet long by 109 wide, with a height of 35 feet. The approximate
dimensions of Stage 32 are 145 feet long by 109 wide, with a height of
45 feet. Incidentally, Stage 16 at Paramount, which housed the interiors
for "Bonanza", decades later would house the interiors for "Star Trek:
Voyager" in the 1990's.
The soundstages used for "Mission: Impossible" were Stages 7 and 8 at
Desilu Studios. They were located on the southeast section of Desilu
across from Paramount Studios. They were adjacent to Stages 9 and 10 used
for Star Trek. In July 1967, when Paramount bought Desilu, they
renumbered Stages 7 and 8, as Stages 29 and 30, followed of course by
Stages 9 and 10, renumbered as Stages 31 and 32, also mentioned above. The reason for renumbering the Desilu stages was because Paramount had
many with the same numbers and to avoid confusion this was done, once
they adjoined Desilu and it became part of Paramount Studios that year.
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Warner Brothers Studios
David Dortort decided to stop filming the series at Paramount Studios
at the end of the 1969-70 season because of the increase of the lot fees and also with the Janss Conejo Ranch and Iverson Ranch being fully urbanized in the valley, they could no longer do local exteriors there. They could only do so much footage at Big Sky Ranch and other locals, but it was too costly. In winter of 1970, he chose Warner Brothers Studios because it had a wooded backlot and that would serve as the most frequently seen backdrop the last few years of the series, from 1970 to 1972.
Unlike the soundstage at Paramount where they would do many Ponderosa exteriors inside of from 1959-70, the Warner backlot had real trees, plants and a green flat and was more realistic, with the Verdugo Mountains in the background. When edited in with the Sierra footage at Idyllwild, the backlot would be much more realistic since it was real. It would also save them from filming stock footage and since the cast was aged and Michael Landon had very long hair by 1970, the old Tahoe-Truckee stock shots and all the others were no longer used from previous years, a few exceptions in some episodes. The old stock footage of a younger Michael would not match with him being older by 1970. New stock footage would be made at Idyllwild when filming the last last two years with Dan Blocker and edited in with the wooded backlot at Warner. The 1972-73 season's new stock footage at Brown's Meadow and the Red Hills, would be edited in with live-action shots at the Warner backlot.
The newly rebuilt Ponderosa Ranch house exterior, along with the barn,
bunkhouse and horse corral were located on Stage 25. David Dortort and
art director Earl Hedrick supervised the moving and reassembly of all
the sets and backdrops from Hollywood to Burbank, from February to April
of 1970, when the show's hiatus was in effect. The newly rebuilt
Ponderosa and Virginia City interior sets were located on Stage 19,
along with other interior sets that would be filmed and edited in with
the exteriors on Stage 25. The Western Street was used and quite good. Some of the exterior facades on the street housed filmable interiors for
limited filmed cuts for the scripts.
By the time Bonanza came there, the era of Warner TV westerns was over. Ponderosa pines were shipped from Lake Tahoe, Nevada to Warner Brothers every spring, and they were planted on the new soundstages through Bonanza's fourteenth and final season. The approximate size of Stage 25 where the newly rebuilt Ponderosa house exterior, along with other exterior settings is 160 feet long by 135 feet wide, with a height of 35 feet. The approximate size of Stage 19, where the Ponderosa interiors and other sets were housed is approximately 160 feet long by 135 feet wide, with a height of 35 feet.
The mid-lot had two Western streets, a New York street area, French street, and a mid-western street area. The New York and mid-west streets were ideal for TV shows going to the big city. All were in good shape at that time. At the back of the lot, was a wooded area called Doonevan Flats, where "The Waltons" was shot at. Below it was some more "pine" woods and a small manmade lake, often used as a swamp or a fishing hole.
The Western street was much larger than Paramount's, and the obvious difference in seeing them on TV, was that Warner's had the real Mount Lee in the background. The backlot also had Laramie street and a Mexican street. Warner Brothers was also called The Burbank Studios. The dismantled "Bonanza" sets are still in storage at Warner Brothers 34 years after the series' cancellation in November of 1972. Other TV shows that filmed the exterior of the Western Street while "Bonanza" was being made here were "The Waltons" and "Kung Fu".
The Western Street and town used in 'Bonanza's' last three years (also
used in 'Kung Fu', 'The Waltons', and 'Maverick'), was torn down in
September 2003 to make room for a modern-day New England set. It was the
last remaining Western town set used for TV-Westerns and movies.
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