Lorne Greene greeting cousins Jane, Ellen, and Martha at Weir Cook Airport, 1961.
In May, 1961, Lorne Greene, the actor known for portraying patriarch Ben Cartwright on the long-running TV western, Bonanza, came to Indianapolis to be in the annual Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade and to attend the race. He wasn’t the grand marshal of the parade this time. He would have to wait until 1967 for that honor, which he shared with co-stars Michael Landon and Dan Blocker. His arrival in Indy was a big deal to many of us, because celebrities didn’t come to Indianapolis very often back then. My Aunt Betty drove cousins Jane, Butchie, Martha, and Ellen out to Weir Cook Airport to see him arrive and to get his autograph. Back then, travelers walked down a staircase pushed up to the plane and then across the tarmac to the terminal. There was no security or TSA to contend with. So, you could easily see people as they arrived and walk right up to them if you wanted to. Bonanza had been on TV only two years at that point, and would run another 12 years before it was retired (but continued in syndication). After NBC moved the show in September, 1961 to Sunday evenings at 9:00, the show soared to number one and stayed there for many years. Lorne Greene was a Canadian actor known for serious roles and Shakespeare before Bonanza. You can see in these photos that he’s traveling in his Pa Cartwright TV costume. He must have really bought into his character! He even named his home after the name of the ranch on the show, The Ponderosa II. Cousin Jane reports that as he approached the crowd of teenagers waiting for him that day, he looked less than thrilled. Perhaps he was still adjusting to being a celebrity. My cousins got his autograph, of course.There’s a reference to all of this in Chapter Ten of The Ghost of Cheeney Creek where the family decides what to watch on TV and settles on Bonanza after a brief discussion about going to the airport to see him. A.J. Foyt won the Indy 500 race in 1961. The Official Pace Car for the race was a custom-made, gold Thunderbird convertible with a white top and pearl beige interior. It was given to A.J. as part of his winnings. It’s rumored that A.J. gave that Thunderbird to his mother. Some lucky lady!
Lorne Greene arriving in Indianapolis in 1961.