Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Rifleman …when I was a kid you couldn’t throw a TV dinner without hitting a good western. Westerns had it all: action, suspense, good versus evil; and all set in the great outdoors. Hunting and fishing shows notwithstanding, for outdoor adventure, the western was king.
While wetting a line, a friend and I reminisced of old westerns, debating which was best. Six bass, much consternation and a couple of sunburns later, we had our hands-down, lead-pipe cinch of a winner: Bonanza.
It’s true our runner-up, Gunsmoke, had a pretty cool name and ran forever (twenty years to Bonanza’s fourteen), but that’s where the comparison ends. Bonanza outclassed Gunsmoke like Armstrong outclasses the French.
Bonanza opened to the Cartwrights, four larger-than-life heroes on horseback, galloping though a burning map. Could it get any better than that? Sure it could – just add the driving guitar rhythm and inspiring tune of the mother-of-all television theme songs.
Bonanza starred Ben, Adam, Little Joe and Hoss Cartwright – real names and real men who could back you up when trouble was brewing. Gunsmoke touted Matt, Doc, Newly, Festus and Kitty – characters more appropriate to a Disney sitcom and likely to pop in while espresso is brewing.
The Cartwrights were monarchs of the Ponderosa, a spread so big a volcano could erupt on one end and you’d hear of it first in the newspaper. A 1,000 square mile scrap of heaven nestled between Nevada’s Comstock Lode gold mines and Lake Tahoe….a mere gallop from Caesar’s Palace if the Cartwrights ever got the itch. The Gunsmoke clan called a Kansas saloon and jailhouse home. Yee haw!
Who wouldn’t prefer watching four bachelors on a majestic spread? Living lakeside, riding horses, shooting guns, camping and not a lick of responsibility – did you ever see them do dishes, vacuum or mow a lawn? Heck no. It just doesn’t get any better.
As a boy I wanted to be a Cartwright just to not change clothes or bathe. Four hundred thirty-one episodes, same tan vest on Hoss, same blue shirt on Little Joe, and never so much as a bath between them. Role models like these don’t come along often.
Saloon brawl … Bonanza versus Gunsmoke … who do you put your money on? Marshall Dillon or Hoss? Adam or Doc? Little Joe or Festus? Ben Cartwright or Miss Kitty? It’s Bonanza in a Texas-sized butt whipping if you ask me. Anybody lays cash on the Gunsmoke gang and I’m heading for the ATM.
Hoss Cartwright, the biggest, toughest dude in history, was from DeKalb, Texas; Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty were … you got it …Yankees.
Bonanza inspired not one, but two steakhouses: Bonanza and Ponderosa. Gunsmoke never inspired so much as a hamburger hut.
Okay, don’t take the word of two lying fishermen. I wouldn’t, even if I happened to be one of them. Having second thoughts myself, I realized there was only one way to prove indisputably which western ruled and was, by default, the best outdoor show of all time. I had to conduct the highly respected eBay lunchbox test.
Gunsmoke: six lunchboxes, average price $17.04, Bonanza: eight lunchboxes, average price $23.66. Case closed.
Festus, buddy, you missed out.
Tripp Holmgrain is an avid outdoorsman pining for a western, a TV dinner and a big bottle of ketchup. Email him at email@example.com.