Sketching on the Helipad, M*A*S*H Part 2

I climbed up the dirt road to the helipad that is featured in the opening credits of the show.

The very last shot in the opening is two jeeps headed slowly down the road, carried the wounded to the hospital tent and doctors madly attempting to help the wounded. The names of three actors appear: Loretta Swit, Larry Linville, and Gary Burghoff. The opening credits was one of the main reasons I headed to the helipad to sketch.

The road leading down from the helipad in the foreground and the Goat Buttes in the background.

The iconic opening, as seen in the pilot episode, shows some downtime at the M*A*S*H unit: doctors golfing, doctors and nurses drinking champagne, reading, resting, and men playing catch. One solider catches the football, turning away in the process. He is about to turn back to the game of catch when he pauses and listens. He seems to know when something is about to happen before others do. “Here they come!” he announces. An off camera voice says, “I don’t hear noth’in.” And the solider, Radar O’ Reilly, quickly responses, “Wait for it.” We don’t have to wait long. The next shot is of Radar, from behind his right shoulder, as we look on with him, the camera zooms in to two helicopters flying over the mountains when the guitar refrain of “Suicide is Painless” starts off (in B minor).

M*A*S*H’s introduction is a part of my life’s television soundtrack like the opening of the Dukes of Hazzard, Dallas and Dynasty, The Facts of Life, The Electric Company (“HEY YOU GUYS !!!), Villa Alegre, and the Waltons. But somehow the M*A*S*H intro still holds up for it’s audio and visual impact, and I couldn’t wait to sketch the landscape of this groundbreaking series. In the 1970’s and early 80’s when you heard the first three notes of Suicide is Painless, it was time to rush into the living room to watch a new episode (or a repeat) of M*A*S*H.

I wanted to sketch this iconic opening, the choppers flying over the Santa Monica Mountains in the background and Radar in the foreground. To do this, I first sketched Radar (Gary Burghoff) to the left of my panoramic view. I did this a few weeks before heading out on the trail and it was based on a screen shot of the pilot episode opening. This preliminary sketch would be my anchor for the rest of the image. I just had to match the mountains in the background with the right angle. I knew that this scene had to be filmed from the helipad.

I searched all points on the compass and looking to the southeast, I saw the mountains that matched the opening exactly. I traded my pack and poles for my pens and journal and began sketching. The result is the featured sketch.

My aim was not to capture every detail in the landscape and I really just focused on the contours of the hills which have not changed much since they were first filmed for the opening almost 50 years ago. To outline their form I used my expressive brush pen which give vibrancy and economy to the line. This is where sketching holds it’s own over other visual media like photography. When I was tracing the curvaceous lines of the Santa Monica Mountains, I was really getting to know my subject in a deeper way. I was really seeing the landscape.

When I finished sketching this perspective, I then sketched two other perspectives from the opening credits. I then did a quick sketch of the road leading down to the main set featured at the very end of the opening credits. Let’s call it the “Loretta Swit, Larry Linville, and Gary Burghoff Road”.

This is another sketch from intro of M*A*S*H. The sketch to the right is what is seen briefly in the intro and what is on the left extends the landscape of the real location. I wrote in the lyrics of “Suicide is Painless” in the foreground hillside (This song was used in M*A*S*H the movie). Originally, director Robert Altman wanted the lyrics to sound like “the stupidest song ever written”. When the songwriter, Johnny Mandel could not come up with the right lyric, the director asked his 15 tear old son, Michael to write them, and this became one of the most memorable songs in cinematic and television history.
This is the last panoramic sketch I did from the helipad, this time looking west. In this scene from the opening in the foreground, Hawkeye Pierce gestures to others to head in as they move to the right, just after the chopper has landed with casualties. l lined up the background from a screen shot of the opening.

I then headed to the core of the set and I wanted to sketch the burnt out ambulance. This ambulance had been used in the original series but had been damaged during a brush fire during the final season of the show’s production in 1983. I took a seat at a picnic bench and started sketching away.

The contrast between the ambulance that had seen better days with the unchanged landscape of the Goat Butte was an essay in the unchangeable change in the world around us.

What a great morning of sketching at the M*A*S*H site. The skies where clear, having shaken off the showers of the pervious day and I had the entire site to myself!

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