One hundred years ago, a young father, mother and their three children walked away from their cabin in the snowy woods of Wisconsin, climbed into a covered wagon drawn by two horses, and set out for the newly-opened territory of Kansas.
Everyone hated to leave Wisconsin, especially to say goodbye to grandma, grandpa and friends. But father said they had to travel. Too many people were moving in and scaring off the game he hunted for food and clothing. Besides, in Kansas, the government was offering 160 acres free to anyone who would homestead their plot. A man could be his own man there.
The father — young, rugged and restless — was named Charles Ingalls. His wife was named Caroline and the three children, all girls, were Mary, 11; Laura, 10 and little Carrie, 3. Mary was pretty, but timid. Laura was not so pretty, but very bright and adventurous. Carrie was just happy.
Years later, when Laura grew up, she married Almanzo Wilder. As Laura Ingalls Wilder, she began to write books about her family’s life in the America of those early days. She called the first book, about the Wisconsin days, “The Little House in the Big Woods.“ The second book about the move to Kansas and the struggle to survive there she named “The Little House on the Prairie.”
Seven more books followed. They came to be known as the “Little House books.” Harper & Row published the first one in 1932, the last one in 1971, with each one topping the one before it in sales. More than 1,500,000 copies were sold in the past two years.
These figures impressed show business executive Ed Friendly, who went from vice-president in programming with NBC in New York to co-executive producer of Rowan and Martin‘s Laugh-In. Friendly said he spent months exploring the possibility of preparing companies to acquire the rights to the series in September 1972.
“One big reason why we won,” said he, “was our announced intention up front to present these books as a saga, a series of dramatizations in which the characters will grow and change.” Friendly said he spent months exploring the possibility of preparing this saga for the motion picture screen before convincing himself that it more properly belonged on the television screen.
Friendly said he also was convinced that Michael Landon, former star of Bonanza — as Little Joe — would be perfect as the young father. Landon, in turn, was so enthusiastic about the story that he not only wanted to star in it, but also direct it. Friendly concurred and started the wheels turning.
Screenwriter Blanche Hanalis, who also did the TV adaptation of the novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” was engaged to write the script. A cast was painstakingly assembled-TV newcomer Karen Grassle to play the mother. spirited Melissa Gilbert to play Laura, lovely Melissa Sue Anderson to play Mary and, as baby Carrie, a tiny thing with a big name, Lindsay Sidney Greenbush [Lindsay and Sidney were actually the names of the twins who played the role].
At the same time, Friendly and associate producer Kent McCray were crisscrossing the Southwest looking for the right place to film this story. Needed were snow and woods for the Wisconsin scenes. rolling plains for the Kansas scenes. For the former, it was decided to use the hills outside Sonora, California. For the latter, the plains outside nearby Stockton.
Finally, in January, everything was ready and the cameras rolled. It was decided to shoot the Sonora (Wisconsin) scenes first for fear the snow might melt. No danger. It was freezing cold on those grey dawns in outer Sonora. Filming continued through February, followed by editing, dubbing and adding the music. Now comes the culmination of all this activity, going back to the 11-month effort to get rights to the books.
On Saturday (March 30 ) Michael Landon stars in “The Little House on the Prairie,” a two-hour, fact-based World Premiere drama on the NBC Saturday Night Movie from 9 to 11pm. The motion picture tells the story of the Ingalls family in its move to Kansas from Wisconsin, and its struggle to survive there, as seen through the eyes of young Laura, who also narrates.
The family’s new life, like before, has its joys and sorrows. On the way to Kansas, the scenery is breathtaking and the sunsets incredible, but the horses break down. At night, the stars are almost touchable and it’s fun at the campfire to hear father play the fiddle. But the coyotes’ howl keeps getting closer.