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.