Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: Michael Landon had the set for Little House on the Prairie destroyed so that no one other shows could re-use the set and that there could be no future reunions for the show.
The Western has long had a significant presence on American television. It doesn’t seem as though a single television season passes without at least one Western show on the air (AMC currently airs Hell on Wheels, for instance). However, by the time that Little House on the Prairie debuted in 1974 (first with a popular TV movie in the spring that worked as a pilot for the series and then the series proper that fall), westerns had fallen from the prominent spot that they once held, where shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza were regular features in the top 10 of the weekly Nielsen TV ratings. So it was somewhat surprising to see former Bonanza star Michael Landon do a new series about a group of settlers in Walnut Grove, Minnesota (based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s best-selling Little House series of children’s books, which were based on her own life as a settler) become such a popular series.
Little House on the Prairie lasted for nine seasons, with Landon starring and producing the first eight seasons before going fully behind the scenes for the final season, which saw a new family take over the “Little House,” while Melissa Gilbert’s Laura (now married) took over as the main lead of the series from Landon. The show’s ratings dipped in the final season and the show was canceled. Landon, though, was given a chance to wrap the series up with a series of three television movies. Oddly enough, through a bit of a scheduling fluke, the second film (a Christmas story) ended up running a year after it was originally intended to run, in December of 1984. So the third film, which worked as a finale to the series, was not actually the last to air. The third film, “The Last Farewell,” was very much a finale. In the episode, the citizens of Walnut Grove discover that a land developer has bought up all of their land. They try to fight his claim but fail. Laura inspires the citizens to make a stand against the developer by actually blowing up all of the property in Walnut Grove. So yes, the last episode of Little House on the Prairie ended with them destroying the town that fans had grown to love over nine seasons. Why the set was destroyed has been a matter of contention ever since. Here are two various ways I’ve seen the story repeated over the years:
Did Michael Landon really burn down the Little House on the Prairie sets after the series wrapped so he’d never have to do a reunion movie/series?
The primary reason Michael Landon blew up the town was because he was mad they canceled the show and did not want anybody to use his set.
What is the truth?
It appears clear that Michael Landon did like the idea of people not being able to use the Little House on the Prairie sets, but I think the answer to why he went with the destruction of the set is pretty clear, and it is something that Landon was quite open about at the time.
First off, Landon understood why the show was canceled. The ratings were low. He himself had left the series as an actor the year before. He knew that nine seasons was quite a run. And NBC even worked it out that he could wrap everything up with three TV movies. Landon had been working at NBC for almost twenty-five years at this point (between Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie) and his next series, Highway to Heaven, was ALSO at NBC. In other words, Landon did not have a problem with NBC. As he told the New York Times, he never expected the show to last THIS long.
More importantly, though, there was a very pragmatic reason for the destruction of the town. Little House on the Prairie producer Kent McCrary explained it all to PrairieFans.com:
A lot has been said of late about why on Little House on the Prairie we blew up the town. I would like to set it straight so that everyone understands what actually happened. We have to go back to the start of the series when I made an arrangement to rent the property from Newhall Land and Development in Newhall, California.
The agreement that I had with them was that at the end of the series we would put the acreage back to its normal state. The reason for this was that Newhall Land and Development used the acreage as a feedlot for their cattle empire. Therefore, they were afraid if the buildings still stood one of the animals might get into them and get hurt or children in the area might get into the area and start to smoke, and with the high grass area that could be very dangerous. So it was in our initial agreement that we put the land back to its original state–thus filling in the areas where we had the stream and the town, and the stream by the little house, and taking the buildings down. That was the original reason.
Now, lets talk about why we blew up the town. On a given day in the tenth season we had already done two two-hour shows and our commitment was to do a third. We had not decided on a script at this point and I was in the office working with Don Winter, our construction coordinator, about what it would take to dismantle all the buildings. While we were doing this and trying to run an estimate on the cost involved, Mike walked in the office and listened to what was going on and said, “How are you going to take the buildings down?” And I said, “We will probably bring in a large size crane similar to what you see on home makeover and knock the buildings apart, pick up the debris, and cart it away.” He said, “Let me think about that for a minute.” He went into the office and Don and I continued working and finished what we were doing.
About an hour and a half later Mike came back into my office and said, “What if we blow up the town? That would get the buildings all in pieces and you still can bring in your equipment to pick up the debris and cart it away.” And I said, “That’s fine.” He replied, “I will write a show that is where we will blow up all the buildings. I will not blow up the little house nor the church, but my thinking is to blow up all the other buildings.”
(NOTE: McCrary is referring to the series of TV films as the show’s “tenth season,” just in case that was confusing)
Landon told that same story to the New York Times back in 1984 and also noted:
I think it makes for a good strong pioneer ending. It was also a nice catharsis for the cast and crew. There were lots of tears when we finally blew up the town. The actors had all become very attached to their own buildings, so it was very emotional.
Actor John Ivar (who played the head of the family who took over the “Little House” in the final season, actually took home the actual set for that house, which was one of sets which were not destroyed. A replica was put up in its place back but it was destroyed in a fire back in 2003).
But yes, it is true that Landon also found it nice to not have to see other TV shows or commercials using his old Little House on the Prairie sets. I don’t think there is any indication that that was the driving force for the destruction of the set, but it is fair enough to mention it. TV Land did a special where they argued that that was the primary motivation and that special was what compelled McCrary to come forward. Since what he says now fits exactly what was said thirty years ago, I’m inclined to believe his take on the matter.
So I’m calling the legend as…
STATUS: False (even if it is sort of technically true)
Thanks to Kent McCrary and PrairieFans.com for the information!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.