A man named Paul Henning was the creator or co-creator of a number of TV shows. For this piece, I’m going to concentrate on what has been dubbed the Hooterville Trilogy, all appearing on CBS-TV in the 1960s.
The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971) starred Buddy Ebsen as Jed Clampett. If you’ve heard the theme song, written by Henning and performed by bluegrass artists Flatt and Scruggs, with Jerry Scoggins on vocals, you know the whole story. Poor mountain man finds oil on his property and moves his family to southern California, where they are in a series of “fish-out-of-water” situations. The show also starred Irene Ryan as his mother-in-law, usually referred to as Granny; Donna Douglas as his daughter Elly Mae; Max Baer, Jr., son of the boxer, as his nephew Jethro, and occasionally as Jethro’s sister, Jethrine. Also featured, the conflicted banker, Mr. Drysdale (Raymond Bailey) – he liked their money in his bank, but not always their antics; and Drysdale’s put-upon assistant, Jane Hathaway (Nancy Culp). There was an occasional appearance by Jethro’s mom, Pearl Bodine, played by Bea Benaderet, who was the original voice of Betty Rubble on The Flintstones.
To understand just how popular The Beverly Hillbillies were in the US, look at a list of the top rated show episodes of all time. Over 20 are Super Bowls; eight are from miniseries (six Roots and two The Thorn Birds); three are series finales (The Fugitive, MAS*H, Cheers); 11 are special/rare/highly anticipated events (the Beatles on Ed Sullivan; Olympic figure skating with Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding; the “Who shot J.R.” episode of Dallas, e.g.) The highest-rated “regular” TV shows on this list: some episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies from 1964.
The network wanted more, so Henning created Petticoat Junction (1963-1970), featuring Bea Benaderet, the proprietor of the Shady Rest Hotel, on the train line, just outside the town of Hooterville. The widow Kate Bradley had three pretty daughters, Betty Jo (redhead), Bobbie Jo (brunette), and Billie Jo (blonde), who we see in the opening, skinnydipping (presumably) in a large railroad water tank. Here’s the season 1 and season 3 theme song, written by Henning and Curt Massey, and sung by Massey. Billie Jo was played by three different actresses over the years, the longest by Meredith MacRae, daughter of singers Gordon and Sheila MacRae. Bobbie Jo was played by two actresses, the latter, Lori Saunders. Betty Jo was played by only one actress, Linda Kaye, who was the voice of Jethrine on the Beverly Hillbillies; not incidentally, she was Paul Henning’s daughter. Maybe that’s why, even though she was the youngest, she was the one to win the heart of handsome pilot Steve (Mike Minor).
When Bea Benadaret died in 1968 from lung cancer, a new character, Dr. Janet Craig, was created, requiring a change in the theme lyrics: “Here’s our lady MD, she’s as pretty as can be”. She was played by June Lockhart (pictured with the latter Jo’s), who had played mom to Timmy and Lassie, and on Lost in Space. Uncle Joe (Edgar Buchanan), who’s “a movin’ kinda slow” was the only actor to appear on every episode.
A direct spinoff of Petticoat Junction was Green Acres (1965-1971). CBS offered Henning yet another half-hour on the schedule, but he didn’t have the time, so he suggested his buddy Jay Sommers create the series. A New York City lawyer, Oliver Wendell Douglas (Eddie Albert), decides to ditch city life for the country, much to the chagrin of his fashionable wife Lisa (Eva Gabor); it’s all there in the theme song, written by Vic Mizzy, and sung by the stars themselves. Interestingly, Lisa seemed to fare better than Oliver in encounters with the wacky locals. The shopkeeper Sam Drucker, played by the late Frank Cady, was a regular on Petticoat Junction, and even appeared on the Beverly Hillbillies, but who was a pivotal player on Green Acres. Despite decent ratings, Green Acres was canceled due to the infamous “rural purge” decision by CBS.
The head of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow, had indicated back in 1961 that television was a “vast wasteland” of violence and frivolity, and to the latter category, these shows were often guilty. Yet, much of my misspent youth was spent watching these programs.