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Timing: Becoming an authorized 'Bonanza' writer

THE internet, a little timing, luck, and some ridiculous miscommunication. Of course ridiculous miscommunication and the internet do go quite well together, so this success, as with most success, the key was in the timing.

Back in 1992 I was head of “the Bonanza Board” on Prodigy’s internet site. I had found no other Bonanza fan sites and since I had just started writing Bonanza fanfic for a western fanzine, craved communicating with other fans.

It was a different kind of internet back then. There was email but no IM’ing and the sites did not send email from other people directly into your inbox. Instead, you had to link on to the public bulletin board to read what others wrote to your posting. Today we would call them ‘blogs’ without RSS feed. 

I got nearly an immediate response to the start of this Bonanza fan site, and the first Bonanza-dom was born. Inside that universe I found what I did not expect—all the anger toward Pernell Roberts (Adam) for leaving the show. This eventually led me to give up the site in 1994, at least as its leader. I openly confessed there that after Roberts left I lost interest in the show, so many of those who came together under this Prodigy roof began to revile me.

But I was there long enough to get series creator David Dortort’s attention. Because of timing.

*** 

IN early 1993, with several short stories published and a Bonanza novel idea conjured, I heard that they were making a new Bonanza TV movie. This fueled the fire in me to write a movie script. But immediately after hearing about the movie I thought this would be the perfect time to sell my Bonanza stories, as part of my goal as a published writer. So I wrote Mr. Dortort and told him about the Prodigy Bonanza Board where fans gathered to talk about the show. I sent him a fanfic story I’d written along with the story of my life, and explained that keeping Bonanza alive in every way possible was my goal.

Now the story of my life might not be unusual to some, but it caught his eye. I told him that Ben Cartwright, and not my parents, taught me how to be a parent, someone who does not play favorites with their children, as my parents and their parents had done. I also told him that I had three children, which had been my goal because of Bonanza, and also that my sons’ names were Adam and Bennett (Ben) and husband’s name was Joe. Coincidence? My daughter, however, would not let us call her Hoss. All three of my children seemed to possess qualities similar in birth order to the three Cartwrights. Eventually I also told him that Bonanza saved my life—not once, but three times.

After that initial letter I didn’t really expect a response. His show had tons of fans after all, as I was coming to learn firsthand.

In June, I was contacted through the Prodigy board by Danny Sarnoff, assistant producer of the Bonanza TV movie, Bonanza the Return, and the Bonanza retrospect due to air that November. He told me that Mr. Dortort would be in touch with me shortly. Life can turn on a dime just that quickly! Of course you can imagine my reaction - I jumped out of my chair, ran upstairs, ignored the supper burning and dragged my husband down to see if it really said what I thought it said!

Thus began Sarnoff’s correspondence with me, and with my fan board. He wanted our help, you see, sent there by Dortort to get the pulse of the fan world. Sarnoff, as Dortort’s rep, wanted us to help choose favorite clips to use in the Retrospect. We had months of fun with this, but the pending specials also led to more angry discussions when fans realized that Mitch Vogel and David Canary would be ignored in the movie and not given much attention in the Retrospect.

Aside from his postings on the board I emailed privately with Sarnoff, hearing about problems with filming along the way. Sarnoff also agreed to read the script I’d written for a potential second TV movie, impressed that I’d written it even before the first movie aired. Well, heck, if you know Bonanza, you know Bonanza, right? Once I heard about the characters, I knew I could write them.

*** 

BY the end of that month I received my first letter from Mr. Dortort. He was extremely gracious while delivering bad news. He told me that he appreciated my writing, but that Stephen Calder had an exclusive contract to write Bonanza novels through the end of 1994. Now, no offense to Calder (or the two writers who comprise this pen name), but it seemed when I read them that Calder never saw the show but once or twice, and penned westerns, rather than historicals, which is what Bonanza was. Undaunted, I felt Dortort should at least consider my movie script. I sent a copy to Sarnoff, but also sent one to David.

Meanwhile the Board enjoyed awaiting these big Bonanza events – we even saw mention of our Prodigy board in one of the national news promotion articles! And we were all delightfully surprised that both the movie and retrospect pulled in good ratings; the movie was #6 for the week and the Retrospect in the top 20.

After the fun was over, David told me that the second Bonanza movie script was already chosen but he appreciated my interest. Undaunted again, feeling I had a much better script than the first and maybe even of the second, I queried NBC and various production companies who might be willing to look at it.  But I understood their reluctance. You see, in my script I brought Adam back to the ranch to 'die.' I felt sure Pernell Roberts would relish killing Adam off – he’d never had a farewell on the series. I kept in touch with David, telling him all the places I was sending the script - and I kept telling him that I just knew Pernell would do this script.

In the meantime the second movie bombed and it seemed no one would take a chance on making a Bonanza movie again – unless, I figured, we could convince Pernell to be a part of it. What a blockbuster that would be!

*** 

FOR three years I continued these efforts, in the meantime going back to college to get a B.A. in history and finishing other writing projects. And my brother Bill moved to Los Angeles. I thought about visiting him, and knocking on some producers’ doors; I also wrote some other, non-Bonanza movie scripts. I wrote to David in April 1996, telling him I was going to be in LA and would he like to talk about the Bonanza script in person? He wrote back, gave me his phone number and told me to call him when I got to town.

I booked my plane ticket that same day.

Bill worked as an 'extra' for movies and television. I stayed at his little apartment, where he didn't have any furniture except a TV where he could watch Christian broadcasting. He gave me his mattress on the floor and slept on a blanket. I called all kinds of agents and producers about my other scripts, but the goal was to talk to David about the ‘perfect’ Bonanza sequel movie script. My hand shook as I dialed his phone number.

When he answered the phone I couldn't believe it! He sounded glad to hear I’d made it to town and we set up a 2 p.m. meeting at his house.

Since I had to find my way to his house, near UCLA, on a bus, I got to campus at 11 a.m. I followed his directions until I stopped in front of the big wrought iron gates, with an intercom button to announce my arrival. But I still had well over two hours to wait. So I took a walk on the UCLA campus. I bought a bottle of water, read a while, and looked for a restroom.

To make a long story short(er), I got lost. I got totally lost on the UCLA campus!

It happened during my search for a restroom. Finally after a long walk with the fear of entering a strange college building, and with no gas station around that I could find, I found a movie house that was open. But the women’s restroom was broke, so I had to use the men’s. When I came out, I must have been in a hurry and turned the wrong way. All I had to do was find that bus stop and I could find my way back to Dortort's house. And time was ticking - by now it was after 1:00!

Well, there must be more than one bus stop because everyone gave me different directions. My feet hurt, my makeup ran, I was sweating out of every pore on this hot June day in the black clothes I wore. Swearing, sweating, crying, at 1:45 I finally found the bus stop. I took off my shoes and ran with nyloned feet in the grass along the side of Wilshire Boulevard.

I could imagine what people were thinking – “she must be making a movie.”

Somehow, I managed to ring Mr. Dortort's intercom bell at 2:00 p.m.

The intercom clicked on. “Hello?”

“Hello, Mr. Dortort?!”

“Yes?”

“It’s Monette, here for our 2:00 meeting?” Hoping I didn’t sound out of breath. Hoping he didn’t forget.

“Oh yes.” I jumped back as the iron fence opened.

*** 

THEN it was all uphill. The Dortorts lived on the top of a hill with a driveway winding around a beautifully tended garden of all kinds of flowers. At the top of the driveway, which did nothing to help me get my breath back, I saw David and Rose Dortort standing in front of their house, waiting for me. There was the creator of my favorite TV series of all time, standing there waiting for me. For me!

As I reached them I shook their hands in a kind of stuttered greeting, and then David took me in his arms and gave me a big Bonanza hug. One of the basic things to know about David is his extreme devotion to Bonanza and to all who love it. If there is one man in the world who is proud of his legacy, it’s David Dortort, and his affectionate nature toward all the fans who love it is part of what made Bonanza great. Even so, he rarely responded to fan letters. This I learned as time went on.

They took me inside the most wonderful house I’d ever had the pleasure to visit, big rooms, dark oak trim, but I didn’t get a tour. Instead David took me into his library – walls and walls of books, the sight of which made this Bonanza writer sigh – and we got down to business.

David has such a friendly face, so when the first words he spoke came out in anger I nearly bolted from the house. "What did you think you were doing, sending that script out to studios without my permission? Do you always do things the hard way?"

Stunned and suddenly so scared I stammered in response, "I guess so, Mr. Dortort. But...what's the right way? No one's ever told me."

Well, that made him laugh. I tried to explain that I kept him informed of every place I sent it, all the while hoping to convince him to read it. I was even more unprepared for the next thing he said. "So what do you hear from Pernell?"

I think the world stopped at that moment. I understood immediately what I’d done and wanted nothing more than a big rock to crawl under.

"You said you knew Pernell would do this script. Did he tell you that? Has he read it?"

By telling Mr. Dortort, "I just know Pernell would do this," he got the idea that I knew Pernell personally.            

I explained in the best way I could that I felt Pernell would want a chance to get the 'goodbye' on the show he never had. I gave David all the reasons I could think of why I thought that. And then he opened up. For the next two hours, David talked. He told me things I'm not sure he's ever shared. I didn’t record him or even write things down, because I felt he wouldn’t be comfortable. The gist of it was that he recognized that even though Ben Cartwright never played favorites, he did - and he regretted not recognizing it at the time.

He told me about the big screen movie version of Bonanza, a script being written by two 'A' screenwriters and it was "80% wrong!" He told me that the episode, "the Gamble," credited to Landon, was mostly his, that he was proud of getting Landon started on his very lucrative writing and producing career. But no, since the day Pernell left, he has not been in touch. And that, along with timing, was what allowed me in his house. He had hoped – and I let him down – that I could help him bridge that gap with Pernell.

But he also loved my script. He finally did read it, you see, once he realized I was coming to LA. He said my capture of the characters was right on - although when I offered to read the "A" script he just shook his head. He wanted me to rewrite mine. He didn't think we were going to get Pernell for anything more than a cameo, so he offered suggestions for a rewrite. He didn't know if we could get it made, because the second Bonanza movie bombed. And yes, he also knew why—they had to re-cast the actor who played Adam Jr. Alistair McDougall had been hugely popular with the fans but he got picked to do a TV pilot and backed out of the second movie. The second Adam Jr. looked too much like a Little Joe fan. Plus the script … well, I’m overly critical of that, I guess.

I totally forgot to get permission from him to publish Felling of the Sons! He talked about the two of us writing another script together, and in the months that followed, we did that by mail and by phone, until Adam was no longer in the script at all. Pernell never responded to either of us. And then I got the idea that David was embarrassed to have been working with me at all, because he told me to never tell anyone—which is also what Sarnoff told me. So much for connections. The last script idea David had was to write a Hoss script where Dirk Blocker would play both Hoss and Hoss’s son. He felt bad that he didn’t have Dirk Blocker play Hoss’s son in the two movies. But Dirk was excellent in the role he did have. Anyway, I couldn’t do it. I told him that. So even though he agreed to let me publish Felling for 10% of the profits when I sent him a request for his signed permission, he decided we could no longer stay in touch.

*** 

NEITHER I nor my agent could find a traditional publisher for Felling of the Sons because the Calder novels did so poorly. But I did stay in touch with David over the years, and even though at times he could be a little cruel, most of my memories of communications with him are positive ones. I remember many times listening to him rant and rave about Beth Sullivan’s new series, Ponderosa, the prequel to Bonanza. I even sent two of my scripts to the series producer, but with bad timing—too late for first season and the series never got a second season.

We also talked on the phone about Mystic Fire, my second Bonanza novel. I got permission from Bonanza Ventures to produce and publish this within two years of the contract, but since I had just started back to school to get a master’s in history, I asked David to amend that and he did, to ‘whenever I get it available.’ Because of this master’s degree, I feel Mystic Fire has a lot more validity as historical fiction, showing Lincoln for what he was really like in 1862, something I could not have done without better research on my nonfiction book on the Civil War. He loved that I knew so much about the Civil War, too, because he considered himself the eminent Civil War historian of his day in Hollywood. I was able to deliver him a copy of Mystic Fire in September, 2009, the year before he died. But I’ll never know what he thought of it.

And now, with him gone, I will continue, even more fervently, to try to keep Bonanza out there and help draw in more fans for the series. Because that’s what it’s all about. With hope that the future of Bonanza is as secure in the hands of its fans as it was in the heart and mind of its creator, a man who recognizes that we're all human, we make mistakes - but not in loving the four Cartwrights, who once stood for pure family moral values and still do today. That's something that’s always in perfect timing.

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