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The Inside Story of Prairie to Page

by Mike Burns published 2021/01/28 10:06:00 GMT-5
The Inside Story of Prairie to Page

“If enough people think of a thing and work hard enough at it it’s pretty nearly bound to happen, wind and weather permitting.” This Laura Ingalls Wilder quote could apply to the PBS American Masters documentary Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page, which premiered on 29 December 2020. As I viewed the ninety-minute program, I reflected on its lengthy journey from the imagination of Chris Czajka to a primetime PBS show.

I met Czajka in 2009 at the “Holy Terror Days” celebration held in Keystone, South Dakota. The event focused on Laura Ingalls Wilder that year, featuring cast members of television’s Little House on the Prairie and Wilder authors. I was among the latter group. While there, Czajka and I chatted about his work at WNET, the PBS station in New York City, and our common interest in Wilder lore. Czajka’s nearly life-long passion for Wilder literature and history had led to his involvement with Little House on the Prairie: The Musical, then touring the country, as a historical consultant and a key player in its promotion.

Czajka’s admiration for Wilder mirrors that of generations of students who discovered the Little House books in elementary classrooms. “It started when I was in second grade in Rochester, New York,” he told me. “My teacher yanked three of us out to form our own reading group, using children’s novels as texts. I first read Little Town on the Prairie, and loved it. I went on to finish the whole series. I remember asking my surprised mother if we could go to South Dakota on a vacation!” Before long, Czajka became a fan of the television show as well. Having adopted “the attitude that the books are the books; TV is TV,” he was “hooked on both.” In 1993, he visited the Little House book sites.

After completing college, Czajka worked in Broadway theater before starting his career at WNET; he’s now a twenty year veteran of public television. “Shortly after I arrived at WNET I thought that a Wilder film should be made,” Czajka recalls. “The idea continued to fascinate me.”

I was also smitten with the concept of a Wilder documentary. A dozen years ago, when Czajka told me that Wilder could become a subject for the American Masters series on PBS, I perked up even more. I had periodically used clips from the series to enhance my teaching of American History and literature courses. Like the Little House books, the American Masters documentaries are great teaching tools.

Perhaps surprisingly, NHK Television of Tokyo produced the first major documentary on Wilder in the early 1990s. NHK crews visited each Wilder hometown searching for evocative footage. Filmmakers captured wide stretches of open prairie, along with the tangible remains of Wilder’s life. At Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, a helicopter crew filmed the Wilders’ home and the rolling Ozark land surrounding it. Neta Seal, a close friend of Laura and Almanzo Wilder, was incredulous. “What would Mrs. Wilder have said about that?” she wondered. Having been intrigued with the UFO craze of the 1950s, even claiming to have spotted one flying over her farm, Wilder would no doubt have been amused. NHK interviewed many remaining people who knew the Wilders well, including snippets of their conversations with Japanese voice-overs in the documentary. Unfortunately, the original recordings were not preserved.

Years later, actor-filmmaker Dean Butler, who played Almanzo Wilder on Little House on the Prairie, channeled the Wilders' lives in two documentaries. “I truly benefited from being a part of that series,” says Butler. “My purpose in making films about the real Laura and Almanzo was to give something back. A way for me to utilize my skills and continue advancing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work.” Butler directed and narrated Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura in 2008. Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder debuted in 2011.

In 2016, Czajka learned that American Masters was considering a series of films about children’s authors. “Are we doing Laura Ingalls Wilder?” he asked. Some staffers were enthused, others dismissive. Czajka prepared a one-page pitch document for Michael Kantor, Executive Producer of the series. The concept was accepted. In 2018, the National Endowment for the Humanities approved a grant for the Wilder project. Mary Murphy, whose American Masters film on Harper Lee won acclaim, agreed to produce the Wilder film. Its production spanned from July 2019 through February 2020.

When Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page premiered at the end of 2020, it inspired nostalgia, discussion, debate, and strong viewership. “The subsequent online streaming of the film is through the roof,” says Czajka. “The views of the Wilder film have exceeded many other cultural icons. Everyone is shocked. I am not.”

There was significant comment from viewers of Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page concerning its length. Viewers simply wanted more! How could ninety minutes adequately encompass Wilder’s amazing life? I agree. There are so many more Wilder tales to tell.

—William Anderson

 

William Anderson is a contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder.

 In the photo at top, Chris Czajka stands with a cardboard cutout of Laura Ingalls Wilder in the kitchen of her Mansfield, Missouri, home. Photo courtesy of Chris Czajka