Our latest survey asks, "What is your favorite Little House on the Prairie Christmas Episode?"
* When Mr. Edwards crosses the creek to bring the Ingalls girls their Christmas presents their first year in Kansas during The Pilot?
* Is it that first Christmas on Plum Creek when Baby Carrie says, "Happy Birthday Jesus!"
* Did you enjoy the drama of the episode Blizzard, when some of the children get lost in a sudden storm that catches them unaware on their way home from school?
* How about when the Ingallses, Wilders, Kendalls, and Hester Sue share stories of Christmases long ago as they wait for a storm to pass?
* Or was it the final Christmas episode where Almanzo, Laura, and Isaiah frantically search for Rose, who has been kidnapped, while Jenny and the Carters are treated to a bit of Christmas cheer thanks to Mr. Montague?
Please vote in our new survey and feel free to elaborate upon your selection here. If you recognize the photo I used, then you'll already know my favorite.
Administered by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was first given to its namesake in 1954. This bronze medal honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.
Winners of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award include E.B. White, Theodor S. Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Marcia Brown, and Eric Carle.
For a complete list you may go to the ALA website.
Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder, her books, and the shows based upon them, will find another way to appreciate Laura's legacy in Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura, a direct to DVD documentary produced by Legacy Documentaries.
Narrated by Dean Butler, who played Almanzo Wilder on the the classic TV show Little House on the Prairie, this DVD was produced in partnership with the Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder Association (ALIWA).
Using old photographs, excerpts from Wilder's Farmer Boy, and the beautiful landscape in Burke, NY, Butler has brought Almanzo Wilder to life in a unique and touching way. His passion for this material is obvious from the outset. He brings viewers through the year in Almanzo's life that Laura Ingalls Wilder so lovingly wrote about in Farmer Boy, and he does it in a way that makes viewers want to immediately pack their bags and head off to Burke, NY to discover the timeless beauty of the Wilder Homestead.
Garth Williams's Farmer Boy illustrations have been colorized and animated so that the viewer can almost imagine herself sitting in the Wilder's house eating popcorn and walking to school with the children. Life Before Laura also briefly discusses the Wilder family's journey to America, the times in which Almanzo grew up, and encourages the viewer to recognize how the Wilder family flourished in a time that didn't include many of our modern day conveniences.
Special mention must be made of the beautiful music provided by Jay Asher and the warm, endearing reading of the excerpts from Farmer Boy provided by Katherine Cannon (Father Murphy, Beverly Hills 90210). In addition, on camera experts provided helpful insights into various aspects of Almanzo's life.
Butler and his crew did a superb job of working around the challenges of having so few photographs of the Wilder family available and having limited seasonal time to shoot on location in New York. I would have liked to have seen more reenactments where members of Almanzo's family actually spoke to one another. The actors did a wonderful job of making Almanzo and his family real for the viewer.
Also included with this documentary is Wilder Homestead Today. This bonus feature talks about the restoration of the Wilder Homestead, the many activities and events taking place there, and surrounding points of interest.
I eagerly anticipated the release of this DVD and I was not disappointed. This collector's DVD will make the perfect holiday gift for your favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder fan.
Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura is available exclusively through the Wilder Homestead and proceeds will go to support the Wilder Homestead, its mission and its programs.
Title: Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura Produced by: Legacy Documentaries, Santa Monica, CA Total Run Time: 53 minutes U.S. Price: $21.95 plus shipping
For more about Dean Butler, Legacy Documentaries, and Life Before Laura, read my interview with Dean that starts here.
I was thrilled to see that 60% of our readers plan on purchasing Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura by Legacy Documentaries. I've just received notification from the Wilder Homestead that they are ready to fill pre-orders, so I am excited that I will have a copy of this DVD in my hot little hands soon.
I will be reviewing this DVD at Laura's Little Houses, so make sure you check back for that soon.
Also, for the few readers who voted that they never heard of this new production from Dean Butler and Legacy Documentaries, go to this link to read my interview with Dean. He shares a great deal of information about this new documentary that would make a wonderful addition to any Laura Ingalls Wilder fan's collection.
A friend turned me onto this article from News-Leader.com out of Springfield, Missouri that talks about First Lady Laura Bush's visit to Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum. The article states that the museum's curator Jean Coday was presented with a letter and certificate designating the site as an official project of Save America's Treasures at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Save America's Treasures is a program dedicated to the preservation and celebration of historic and cultural treasures and according to Bush they will give advice to Coday and the board so they can apply for an SAT grant.
Sounds like good news for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum and all of Laura's fans.
Anyone who knows me can tell you just how much I love Christmas. We sing Christmas carols all year long and almost every single room in our house is decorated in some way for the holidays. So, now that it's October, I feel safe in making this next book the Featured Book of the Month.
Some of the most wonderful moments in the Little House books tell us about the Christmas holidays spent with family and friends. From the Christmas in the Big Woods when Pa made the decorative shelf for the China Shepherdess to Mr. Edwards bringing presents to the Ingalls girls so Santa wouldn't have to cross the creek, from the horses that Santa brought to the Ingalls Family on Plum Creek to the boughten cap and jack-knife Almanzo received as presents in Farmer Boy, from the Christmas barrel that arrived once the trains were finally able to get through in The Long Winter to Almanzo's surprise return in These Happy Golden Years, each of these stories will tug at your heart, fill you with the joys of the season, and remind you why Laura's books attract new fans year after year.
The cover on this book is simply gorgeous. The stunning gold that contrasts so nicely again the red background, is repeated on the bound edge and Garth Williams's illustrations have been brought to life in color to add a special touch to A Little House Christmas Treasury. My husband bought this for me last year as a surprise Christmas gift and it remains one of my favorite books of the season.
Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura is a documentary about Almanzo’s childhood before he met and married Laura Ingalls. What made you decide to focus on this period of Almanzo’s life?
Well, I had been invited in September 2006 by the Wilder Homestead to be their special guest for Almanzo’s 150th birthday celebration the following year. During that year I had been making all this bonus content for the series and I started wondering what I could do for the Wilder Homestead that would really be meaningful and helpful to them in their mission to share Almanzo’s life experience with visitors. I decided to create a documentary for them about Almanzo and his life on the farm.
You and your crew traveled to New York several times for filming. Can you give us a preview of what viewers will get when they purchase this story of Almanzo’s early life?
The challenge is we had very few days to shoot. You can never shoot enough in four days to really tell the full story, especially when we didn’t have four uninterrupted days. We had four days with crowds there and autograph sessions and then there were breakfasts and dinners; all the things you do when you make an appearance. So, we shot two days last September and another two days this last June. In an effort to try and get as much of the farm experience as we possibly could out of those four days, we’ve come up with two separate pieces.
The core of Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura is Almanzo’s connection to the farm where he as raised as presented in Farmer Boy. That’s what our story is about. The fact of the matter is there isn’t a great deal written about Almanzo as a child beyond Farmer Boy so the book was obvious source material.
Again, shooting in four days you couldn’t do the book. You can’t get the seasons; you could never shoot enough to do that. Focusing on the book and through the life at the homestead—the house, the barn, the land—we selectively chose a number of events from the book and recreated those events using excerpts of text from the book and the Garth Williams illustrations to support the material we shot. In addition, we did a little bit about Almanzo’s family and where they came from; we talk contextually about what was going on in the world that Almanzo grew up in; the things he had, and maybe what’s more to the point for the audience who is going to see this, what didn’t he have that we have. In terms of technology and equipment Almanzo’s family had very little compared to what we all have, and yet, they survived, they flourished. As Laura wrote it, Almanzo had a fantastic, rich, abundant life as a child in Burke, NY; nothing compared to the struggles that she had to endure growing up. She wrote her life in this semi-optimistic way, but reading between the lines, this was not an easy time. Almanzo didn’t have an easy time either, but he lived in one place. He wasn’t moving around in Farmer Boy. This was a boy’s life on his farm as he’s growing up trying to convince his father that he is mature enough to raise and train his father’s beautiful Morgan horses. That’s really the central thrust of what carries us through this book. It’s about Almanzo wanting to be a man. I’ve thought about it, Farmer Boy is not a coming-of-age story; it’s a getting ready to come of age story. At the end of Farmer Boy when his father gives him Starlight, he is beginning to come of age. That’s the jumping off point. His life adventure really begins. Farmer Boy is all about what he had to go through to get to the point where his life is ready to begin as an adult. It established who he was as a person and it established the values he was raised with. We tried to capture that.
We’ve animated pictures from the book, we’ve re-imagined historic photos and we’ve composed a very lovely musical score for the program. One of the challenges that you have with something like this is that so few pictures of the Wilder and Ingalls families exist. There are literally two pictures I’ve seen of Almanzo as a boy. One of him standing with his sister Alice in a formal portrait and a separate one when he’s a little older—well past the age we’re talking about in this program—when he’s with his entire family. So, we had to find ways to use these pictures to help us tell the story, by essentially recreating the picture contextually in different environments. We’ve done the same thing with Laura, where we’ve taken her out of the picture of her as a little girl—the one where she’s with Mary and Carrie—and put her alone on the prairie. It’s a wonderful way to make a point about her life.
In addition to talking about Almanzo, I thought it was also important to set up how they (Laura and Almanzo) met. We hear about Laura and Almanzo’s meeting, we learn about them coming to De Smet, we go through their romance, get them married, and 47 years later she writes Farmer Boy.
We’re covering a large range of material: from Farmer Boy to These Happy Golden Years and Little Town on the Prairie. I handled their first meeting differently than Laura wrote it, so it will be interesting to see how fans react to that. It needed to be something I could shoot very simply and quickly. I alluded to it in the trailer when we say that Laura first saw Almanzo behind a team of Morgan horses. I think it’s nice and it’s a good way to step in since we had these beautiful Morgan horses.
We invited three people to participate in the documentary as experts. William Anderson is our on-camera expert. There is no doubt about it, when Bill speaks about Almanzo Wilder and Laura Ingalls, homesteading and life in that time, Bill tells a great story. So I think people are really going to enjoy his insights. We also had Barbara Walker, who wrote the Little House Cookbook. We have her on-camera talking about food and the role that food played in the writing of Farmer Boy. Then we have a woman named Karen Lassell, who is the equine manager at the Miner Institute in Chazy, NY. She’s there to talk about the Morgan horse, the training of the Morgans, and the Morgan breed. With Bill, Barbara, and Karen we have three people who can communicate about some of the important parts of Almanzo’s life.
I’m putting together a trailer now that I’m going to be putting up on YouTube and I’m going to make a trailer for the Wilder Homestead to run in their store. People are going to see that we got some really good stuff. [Author’s note: You can view this trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zq0HbQ7Kd0g]
Can you tell us a bit about the talented actors who helped with the reenactments?
A very lovely young woman named Kylee Disotelle played Laura Ingalls for us. She could’ve come right off our set – very sweet and eager to play. We had three boys who played Almanzo doing different things on the farm. I took the position that Almanzo is a state of mind. Almanzo is not just one boy, but that he is a representation of boyhood. There’s a little Almanzo in every boy. All three of our boys were terrific.
Jarod Ball, who is on-camera most of the time, particularly with the horses, is going to remind people of a young Brad Pitt. I was sort of amazed as I watched Jarod on screen He has a very nice, honest quality—which is what you want.
A great horseman named Don Sayward played James, Almanzo’s father. He had a beautiful team of Morgans that he drove for us and he worked very well with Jarod. The setting was just gorgeous and we got beautiful pictures of the horses.
Are these local actors?
Yes, absolutely, they are all from right there. The key to casting Jarod was that he was comfortable with horses. He was referred to me by Karen Lassell at the Miner Institute. It was very important to the handlers of the Morgans that our Almanzo be at ease around large animals because they can sense nervousness and discomfort. I feel so lucky that Jarod was one of our boys. In a few shots he actually looks like Almanzo as we see him in the picture with Alice. A great deal of our show features Jarod and Don Sayward as Almanzo and James, but everyone who worked on-camera with us was great.
Can you tell us a bit more about the musical score for the documentary?
I hired a composer friend of mine, Jay Asher, who has a wonderful feel for this material. He’s a romantic spirit. The cues are touching and very much in keeping with the feeling that Little House evokes. His music adds greatly to the impact of the program. I’m happy with what Jay did and I hope audiences enjoy it too.
Will this documentary be eligible for any awards?
Our show is a direct to DVD documentary. There are award programs to which it could be submitted. I have not made any decisions about whether I will enter the program in any awards competitions yet. I’m more concerned about getting it out there.
What is the release date for the DVD and where can interested viewers purchase a copy of Almanzo Wilder: Life before Laura?
The program will available for sale at the Wilder Homestead in Burke, NY for $21.95 on September 25, 2008. This DVD can only be purchased at the Wilder Homestead. [Author’s note: The Wilder Homestead has received these DVDs and is working on filling the pre-orders. Be on the lookout for more information coming soon.]
Do you ever see your website being set up to handle Internet sales?
We’re looking at an online component and they’re (Wilder Homestead) doing an online component too. People will be able to buy it online there, if they choose to do that. The Wilder Homestead and I are talking about other online sales opportunities too. I’ll keep you posted.
Does your wife (Katherine Cannon) do a lot of the narration on this documentary?
Katherine did all the reading of the Farmer Boy excerpts and she was great. She’s a wonderful actress and she really brought great warmth to these excerpts and they worked beautifully. She’s been very supportive of this process.
The continued popularity of the show and Laura’s books generates new interest in the historical sites where Laura and her family lived. Should fans expect to see more from Peak Moore Enterprises and Legacy Documentaries about Laura and the members of her family?
I think that the next one will be about Laura. That’s all I want to say about that right now.
What about Laura’s daughter Rose?
I think Rose is the great wild card element in all of this. Rose’s skill and capabilities as a writer made it possible to craft these stories that allowed them to be taken seriously when they hit a publisher’s desk. It’s one thing to have the story; it’s another to be able to tell it in a way that is going to be compelling, touching, personal and engaging to an audience. Bill Anderson talks a little bit about what an important role Rose played working with her mother. I think Laura was lucky to have her daughter Rose on hand to offer moral support while she was writing.
We’ve talked about a lot this evening. Is there anything you would like to add?
I’m just gratified by the ongoing love affair people have with Little House: the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, our series, the historical sites, and the new musical. I’m very grateful and so honored to be a part of it because it speaks to so much that is good about people. To be connected to that in a real way is very rewarding. I thank everybody who loves this material and I am so honored to have the opportunity to share my passion for the Laura Ingalls Wilder experience with people all over the world.
Thank you for spending time with us today, Dean. Little House and Laura fans applaud your commitment to keeping Laura’s legacy alive.
We would also like to remind our readers that Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura would make an excellent holiday gift for the Laura Ingalls Wilder fan in your life. Go to http://www.almanzowilderfarm.com/index.htm to place your order today!
You formed Peak Moore Enterprises while you were still acting on Little House. Had you always been interested in production?
Peak Moore was not originally designed to be a production company. It was designed to be a holding company. I moved from job to job and the employers always changed, but with Peak Moore I was always employed by the same company. I was employed by Peak Moore and Peak Moore was hired by NBC Productions in the case of Little House and guaranteed to provide my acting services. So, Peak Moore was under contract to NBC, not me.
What I liked about it is when I wasn’t working for NBC and I did something for FOX or CBS or something at Universal, I still only had one employer. When asked who do you work for, I work for Peak Moore Enterprises. For an actor that is very comforting because for most of the time as an actor you are employed. If I form this company I’m always employed. I always worked for Peak Moore Enterprises and I still do.
In the mid 90’s, it became the structure from which I started working as a producer. And in more recent years we developed the brand name, Legacy Documentaries. It’s a division of Peak Moore. When you hear Peak Moore Enterprises it has meaning to me because it’s all related to family things, but it doesn’t mean anything to anybody else and it doesn’t describe what I do. Legacy Documentaries says something about what I do. We say, “Legacy Documentaries captures life’s defining moments”. The message is that he creates stories about people.”
Were you interested in production at all when you were on the show?
During the years that I was on the show I was always as interested in what was going on in the editing room or on the scoring stage or in the writers’ offices as what was going on on stage. I loved the process of it and I still love the process of it. All these people did such interesting things. All those other people were the ones who really made the show happen. The writers, the editors, the producers, directors, the composer, costumers…all these people had a huge impact on what the audience saw each week. The actors play the smallest part in the process of making the show in terms of time. Actors generally get too much credit when a show succeeds and too much blame when it doesn’t. When your face is on the screen that’s the way it goes.
I always felt like all the toughest creative work had been done before I even got a script. The writing is done, and by the time I get the script it’s set in stone. There’s nothing I’m going to do to influence that, nor am I being invited to influence it. You don’t really have a lot to say there, so your job is to execute the script as it’s been given to you and do your best to deliver what the writer and director are trying to accomplish. Then it goes to the editor once the film is developed and they see how they want to cut it. The editor is shaping the performance. The performance doesn’t happen on the stage. It doesn’t appear in a continual flow the way it appears when you watch it. The performance is literally cut together by the editor who must use the footage he’s been given and find the best way to tell the story. In the case of Michael Landon as a director, Michael didn’t give editors a lot of choices on how to cut it. He shot things in a way that really dictated to the editor how he had to cut it. Editors didn’t have a lot of options. Today—certainly on television and always in movies—directors will shoot three or four versions of scenes with elaborate coverage that encourages far more complex editorial construction of movies and television .
Michael’s show was cut on a moviola so you were literally dealing with holding the film in your hand and taping it together. That was a very deliberate process and I loved watching that happen. The sound effects people would get a hold of it and they would build all the sound effects reels. Then the show would go to David Rose and he would go away for five days and write a beautiful score and he would come back with a sixty-piece orchestra and play this gorgeous music, and oh my god, we have a show here. You didn’t really feel like you had a show when you came off the stage. You knew you had the pieces, but you didn’t have a show yet. It didn’t become a show until all these other people got their hands on it. And that process is really exciting to me.
While I didn’t get the chance on Little House to have any responsibilities beyond acting, I appreciated and respected what was being done there because the outcomes were always wonderful. We had a very skilled group of people working on the show who understood Michael’s vision and they delivered that vision for ten seasons, and Michael got all of us to deliver it too.
My work now puts me in every phase of the process and I love it.
Is too much involvement a good thing?
You need to have other people to see things you can’t. If you work totally alone inevitably there are things that are going to get missed. It’s tough when you don’t see mistakes until it’s too late to fix them. In the very end, it’s all done, it’s in the can and you send it out. You relax a little bit and after some time has passed you watch it again, and you see that you missed something. It’s heartbreaking, but at the same time it’s part of the process. In today’s world it’s not all bad because it gives people who are watching what you’re doing an opportunity to see it, find it, comment on it, talk about it on blogs. It becomes more of a participatory thing for people.
The most recent thing that I finished yesterday, I watched it today I saw a mistake and it’s too late. I can’t fix it now. I can fix it in the next run of the show, but I can’t fix it now. It’s just part of it and I have to live with that.
Many years after Little House on the Prairie ended, the show became available on DVD. You had a hand in producing some of the bonus content for those DVDs. Can you tell us how you became involved in this project?
I was contacted by Imavision to come and do an interview for Seasons 6, 7, 8 and 9. Patrick Loubatière—who you know from France—is Imavision’s expert on Little House. I’ve never met anybody who knows more about Little House the television series than Patrick does. So I sat down with Patrick for an interview. He asked great questions and these interviews have showed up on Seasons 6, 7, 8 and 9.
I realized after sitting for that interview that I had a perspective as a participant that Patrick could never have. I would also have access to people that Patrick would never have. As much as Patrick has gotten to everybody, I knew I could touch it in a way, because I was there, that he never could. He could ask questions but I could tell people what happened and frame things from that perspective as an insider. I contacted Imavision up in Montreal and pitched them a few ideas hoping they would be intrigued. To date, we’ve probably made about 5 hours of content; virtually all the bonus content that is in this Mega-Pack that’s coming out we’ve made and most of it’s brand new. Some of it’s been released in France (about 3 hours that we released 2 years ago) because Imavision controls French territory. This is the first American or domestic release of this material as part of the 60-DVD set that is coming out in November. The majority of the bonus content is ours and I’m very proud of that.
Do you know if all the other bonus content from the single season DVDs will also be part of this Mega-Pack?
There’s a bunch of commentaries from earlier seasons. I think they’re giving people everything that they’ve got.
I hope people want to see this content. We had fun making it. Particularly the interviews with actors that no one had done before: Katherine MacGregor, Richard Bull, the Labyorteaux boys, Merlin Oleson and Karen Grassle. We were able to talk to them and they would talk to me. That was the advantage I had that other people covering this might not have had. They knew that we would not do anything that wasn’t positive or respectful of the work that was done years ago. I can’t speak for how true it is of other shows, but people love the programs that they’ve been on. For an actor the shows become part of who you are. As a cast we are all extremely protective and supportive of Little House and I believe we will always be that way.
Joining us today is Executive Producer, Dean Butler. Dean founded Peak Moore Enterprises in 1981 and years later created Legacy Documentaries, which produces customized content and image programming focused on “capturing life’s defining moments”. We’re going to be talking to him about one of his latest projects, the documentary Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura.
Welcome to Laura’s Little Houses, Dean. It’s a great pleasure to speak with you.
Thank you, Cheryl. I appreciate everything you have done in regards to Little House; the fan network is just terrific and the blog is very attractively done, very comprehensive, and thoughtful. You’re all just very strong supporters of what we’ve been doing and I appreciate it very much.
When did your connection with Laura and Almanzo Wilder begin?
It began with my first audition for the show. I had no prior knowledge of Little House. I had never seen it prior to auditioning for it. I certainly had been aware that the show was on the air, but being a guy in college when it was on Monday nights at eight I was watching Monday Night Football. It was one of those things in the early years when it was on that it wasn’t a connection for me. If I had watched it during those early years I have no doubt that it would have touched me but I probably wouldn’t have been willing to say it. I wouldn’t have been comfortable sobbing over a show about little girl and her family in the 1800’s. After I was hired to do the show and I started watching during the summer prior to shooting it, I felt incredibly grateful to have been asked to be a part of this and I have always remained so.
Little House is one of those things that was old when it was new, so it’s never been a fad; it’s always been a little old fashioned, will always be old fashioned and that’s the wonderful charm of it. I like things that are timeless and Little House will always be timeless.
New shows seems to come and go, but here we are many years after Little House has gone off the air and you can watch it 3 or 4 times a day in some places and new fans are drawn to it all the time. It’s simply amazing.
On my first trip to Walnut Grove I was amazed at how many books I signed for little girls that were in fact the books that the mother’s mother had given them. So here I am signing a book that was a grandmother’s book for her granddaughter passed down generation to generation. That speaks volumes about the way this material communicates with people. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote nine of the most successful pieces of children’s literature in publishing history until Harry Potter.
The wonderful thing about the show, because it’s timeless, it has the ability to draw new fans to it year after year after year. There’s a new fan born every minute. If parents are willing to expose their children to it, they will become fans. I hope they expose their children to the television show; I hope they expose their children to the books—which are absolutely charming—and I hope that they take their children to experience the historic sites because I think that brings the Little House experience together. They can see what the whole legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder represents. The people who travel to these places have to really want to because none of these sites are easy to get to. And the people who preserve these places are there because they love what they’re doing. At any of the sites you go to it’s a lovefest between the people who run the sites and those who visit. It’s always a terrific experience.
Had you read Laura’s books before taking on the role of Almanzo on Little House on the Prairie?
I had not read the books before I was on the show. I was not encouraged to read the books. I could not tell you which book I picked up because I bought the whole set when I got hired for the show, but I read probably a little bit of the first book, Little House in the Big Woods, and what I read was just enough of the book to get the tone. And the tone of the book was everything. It’s not as much what it said, as how it said it. And that was important to me in terms of what would translate to our show—which was not strictly following the books, by necessity or choice; and I think it’s a little bit of both. I think most fans of the books and the show would agree that we captured the tone and feeling of the books. Even if the story wasn’t exactly what they read in the books they were in familiar territory when they watched the show because the emotional life was very similar.
What type of additional research did you perform to incorporate the real life of Almanzo into your TV character?
What I did was read some books about homesteading. Of course, we weren’t really dealing with homesteading the way homesteading occurred. Laura gave a very romanticized view of homesteading in her books because she was telling it from a little girl’s perspective and little girls have a sunny, open view of the world; at least Laura had a sunny, open view of the world. The book that I read really focused on how incredibly difficult life was for people…how hard it was to survive and how every day was a struggle. As I read and processed that material and then looked at what we were doing on a weekly basis, it wasn’t really the vibe that Michael was trying to create. Michael went for a little girl’s story; that’s what he was focused on. He was looking at the romance of what was in the books and allowing that romance to set the tone for what he was doing…everything from the set, the costumes, the music, and the locations. While not accurate (the locations) to Walnut Grove—they rarely resembled anything that Walnut Grove looks like—he captured the ideal romance of those places and what the imagination might tell you it could be like. That’s what he was able to capture.
I was trying to factor in how brutal and rugged and how desperate these people were to survive. Michael didn’t want people with dirty faces and dirty feet. He wanted food on the table. He wanted people to see a happy, positive life experience in this very rustic, simple environment. And that’s what he focused on. I think that’s what made the show so charming to people. That combined with the emotional life that he brought to it—Michael was a very emotional guy and he had a lot of emotional stories in him. This was the conduit for that place in his life where he could go to that and write about that and then he could fashion those stories to make them appropriate for our show. The emotional stories he wrote were far from the life that he lived as a child. He had a deep well of stories to tell. Between Michael’s stories and David Rose’s music it was sure to be a tear-jerker every week. I think it was David Rose who made audiences cry most of the time. David Rose wrote these beautiful melodies—these gorgeous, romantic, lyrical melodies that absolutely carried people away week after week after week. It was this wonderful cathartic experience. We had sadness but it was not desperate sadness, it was heartfelt sadness. I have a feeling that most of the actual homesteading experience was closer to what Laura experienced at the Brewster School in These Happy Golden Years. I think there were people who were just desperately unhappy being out there. They were just so desperate to get their piece of the American Dream that they were willing to endure everything.
That just wasn’t the show Michael wanted to make every week. We were doing something else. We touched on those themes but that was not the regular diet that we were going to be on. Michael wanted romance, he wanted touching, he wanted heartfelt, he wanted tears, he wanted laughter, and he placed these characters in that kind of an emotional world. The audience loved it then and they still love it today. That’s what I am always incredibly proud to have been a part of.
There are very few episodes of Little House that I can get through without crying. You wanted to be the Ingalls family despite their hardships, despite their struggles. You wanted Pa as your father and you wanted Ma as your mother. You wanted that experience.
You know, it’s interesting because Laura wrote so lovingly and adoringly about her father, but I don’t think that the real Charles Ingalls was the man that Michael Landon portrayed. At least that’s the sort of a sense that you get. Charles Ingalls was forever itchy to move to the next place always thinking there was something better around the corner and never quite content or able to make a go of it where he was. It made it very tough on his family. Yet, you don’t get that from the way Laura wrote it. She wrote it in this adoring way where you never get the feeling that she was anything but utterly, totally, completely supportive of everything her parents did and that she was loved and nurtured. Now, I have no doubt that she was loved and nurtured, but she was loved and nurtured in a very, very tough environment; much tougher than the way she wrote it and certainly much tougher than the way we portrayed it.
When you look at the sunup and sundown and beyond effort that was made by everybody in these families to get the things done; they just used every available minute of time. Yet, I think there is great comfort in that and I think what people respond to so beautifully in the books and from the series is that there is this sense that the families were bonded together. There is a romantic view of the family, that if we’re together, and if we stick together and work hard, we will survive and we will do well. We love each other so we are going to stand up for each other and help each other. That’s an inspiring and wonderful view to have.
We don’t have the life and death daily struggles today, but we are dealing with things that are every bit as challenging. Our comforts have created enormous challenges for us as a society and its led to alienation and isolation in our lives because we can do so much alone that it’s not about the family anymore. Because we are so focused on ourselves, and we can be so focused on ourselves because we can have time for it, it can lead to unhappiness and dissatisfaction because we don’t really have to focus on something that’s bigger than ourselves. It’s a tough circumstance for families and a tough thing for kids to grow up with. Those who are exposed to the Little House series and the books find themselves longing for that kind of life—where you need each other and care about each other and you depend upon each other to survive and to flourish. We’re very lucky if we have that emotional connection to each other today.
If you could go back in time and live when Almanzo did, would you do it?
I don’t know that I would. It’s kind of like asking someone to take someone else’s life, but I think most people would say, “No, I just want to live my life.” My life is now. One of the things I can do with my life is celebrate something that is very meaningful to people and is personally rewarding to people. This is one way I can use the gifts that I have today to help support and nurture something that is very pleasurable, meaningful, positive, hopeful, and optimistic. That’s a great deal of what my life is about as a creative person now.