A look at the popular 1960’s TV sitcom Petticoat Junction.
The cast of Petticoat Junction posing for a publicity photo in the mid-1960’s. Image via Wikipedia
In 1962, both writer/producer Paul Henning and CBS had tremendous success with The Beverly Hillbillies, the popular TV sitcom about a backwoods family who moved out west to Los Angeles’ Beverly Hills section after finding oil and becoming financially wealthy in the process — The Beverly Hillbillies was a prime example of the so-called “rural sitcom” that was popular during the 1960’s. While TV critics didn’t care much for The Beverly Hillbilliesduring its nine year run on CBS, the millions of viewers who helped make it a ratings success wholeheartedly embraced Jed Clampett and his hillbilly clan.
By the time The Beverly Hillbillies had finished its successful first season on CBS and would soon be renewed for a second season, Paul Henning had already become a powerhouse producer in TV and could write his own ticket as far as future projects were concerned. After bestowing the Clampetts upon the American viewing public, Henning would create another TV sitcom featuring another rural clan. Drawing upon in part Henning (and his wife Ruth) growing up in Missouri — particularly the small town of Independence — the writer/producer was working out the details that would blossom into Petticoat Junction. Pitching the idea to not only CBS, but also Filmways, wasn’t hard — after all, both parties were not only profiting from The Beverly Hillbillies‘ success in the Nielsen ratings, but also sensed another potential hit in the process, especially if Henning was at its helm.
When it debuted on CBS in late-September 1963, Petticoat Junction — which took its title from not only the piece of women’s clothing, but also the term describing the intersection where auto highways or railroads linked up (and which also inspired its unforgettable opening credits, in sync with its title song, written by Henning and composer Curt Massey, with the latter singing the tune; Massey also did similar composing chores for The Beverly Hillbillies in its later seasons) – focused on the small farming town of Hooterville, particularly the Shady Rest Hotel (inspired by a real-life hotel that the family of Henning’s wife Ruth ran in Eldon, Missouri in the early-20th Century), run by its widowed owner, Kate Bradley, with help from not only her daughters Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo, and Betty Jo, but also their lazy uncle Joe Carson, the hotel’s manager; the Shady Rest Hotel was located not far from the local railroad where the steam-driven train engine called the Cannonball traveled on during the series’ run.
A great number of episodes focused on the day-to-day activities at the Shady Rest Hotel, while others focused on the romantic lives of Kate’s daughters. Other episodes focused on Kate’s frequent run-ins with Homer Bedloe, the unscrupulous vice-president of the C.F. & W. Railroad, who was determined to close down its steam-driven branch, including scrapping the Cannonball and firing its engineers Charlie Pratt and Floyd Smoot — Henning obviously (and perhaps purposely)injected a bit of social satire in the conflict between Beldoe (who wanted to modernize the C.F. & W. Railroad’s fleet of trains in spite of what Hooterville thought) and the Cannonball (which resisted change, even though the steam trains of old were already becoming a thing of the past by the time Petticoat Junction debuted in 1963). Still more episodes focused on the Bradleys’ relationships with the citizens of Hooterville, including general store owner Sam Drucker and Fred and Doris Ziffel, the latter characters first appearing in scripts written by Jay Sommers; the Ziffels and several other Hooterville residents would go on to appear on Green Acres, another CBS “rural sitcom” created by Sommers and executive produced by Henning, which debuted in 1965. The connection between the two series was so great, that various characters “crossed over” from one series and into another — in the late-1960’s and early-1970’s, the cast members of both sitcoms would end up interacting with those from The Beverly Hillbillies.
Like The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction was blessed with a great cast — including Bea Benaderet (as Kate), who had worked extensively in not only TV (co-starring on The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show and voicing The Flintstones‘ Betty Rubble) and film (voicing Tweety and Sylvester’s owner Granny and other female characters in Warner Bros.’ Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes animated shorts), but also radio (Fibber McGee & Molly, The Jack Benny Show)since the 1940’s, and who had worked with Paul Henning during the first season on The Beverly Hillbillies, playing Jethro Bodine’s mother Pearl (who was, in a way, related to Kate, as acknowledged in a 1968 episode of that series); character actors Edgar Buchanan (as Uncle Joe), Charles Lane (as Homer Beldoe), and Smiley Burnette (as Charlie Pratt), familiar faces to both film and TV audiences since the 1930’s; Paul Henning’s daughter Linda Kaye as Kate’s daughter Betty Jo; and Frank Cady as general store owner Sam Drucker (a role he would also play on Green Acres).
But there were a number of casting changes during Petticoat Junction’s seven year run that soon became obvious to die-hard fans watching it (and who were too busy enjoying it to even complain about said changes), particularly when it came to the roles of Kate Bradley’s two other daughters — Jeannine Riley played Billie Jo during the first two seasons, soon to be succeeded in said role by Gunilla Hutton (1965-66), and Meredith McRae (1966-70); Pat Woodell played Bobbie Jo from 1963-65, before Lori Saunders took over the role for the rest of the series’ run.
Another cast member of a more four-legged kind was Higgins, the trained dog owned by Frank Inn (who also supplied the animal co-stars for The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, including Arnold the pig), who hung around the Shady Rest Hotel and became both a companion and friend to the Bradley family. In 1974, Inn and producer Joe Camp would help make Higgins a star all over again, by renaming him Benji for a string of highly successful feature films and TV specials.
Petticoat Junction, like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, proved to be ratings winners for CBS throughout the majority of the 1960’s. In addition to making them laugh, Petticoat Junction struck a chord with 1960’s TV audiences, including those in rural America, reminding them and rekindling memories of a simpler time that was already disappearing in the decade dominated by violent unrest at home and the Vietnam War overseas that would divide the country by decade’s end. For a generation troubled by a changing world, TV shows like Petticoat Junctionhelped viewers temporarily escape the grim realities that were part of the 1960’s.
In the fall of 1966, crop duster Steve Elliott (played by Mike Minor) was added to Petticoat Junction’s cast of characters — though Steve was initially intended to become Billie Jo’s love interest, he would end up marrying Betty Jo and move to a home of their own the following season, and have a baby girl the season after that. (Interestingly, Linda Kaye Henning and Mike Minor, who played, respectively, Betty Jo and Steve, would get married for real towards the end of Petticoat Junction’s network run — and like other real-life show business marriages, it wouldn’t last that long, proof that life doesn’t always imitate art.)
By the end of the 1967-68 season, several unexpected changes would start to occur that would eventually signal the end of Petticoat Junction. Bea Benaderet fell ill and was unable to appear in the last episodes of the 1967-68 season — veteran film and TV actress Rosemary DeCamp played Kate Bradley’s sister Helen in said episodes, until Benaderet was well enough to return to the series. Sadly, it would never happen — on October 13, 1968, Benaderet died of lung cancer, her character’s death would be acknowledged (if only in passing)in the series’ final season. To replace Benaderet, Henning cast veteran film and TV actress June Lockhart (Lassie, Lost In Space), who joined the series at the end of 1968, as physician Dr. Janet Craig, who moved into the Shady Rest Hotel, and became a surrogate mother to Kate Bradley’s daughters — but while Lockhart was a capable actress, she couldn’t help boost Petticoat Junction’s already-declining ratings. And as Lockhart found out, Benaderet — the glue that held the sitcom together — was a tough act to follow.
By the end of the 1969-70 season, CBS canceled Petticoat Junction — and a year later, all other “rural” TV shows, including The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, partly to attract younger TV viewers. By that time, a new generation of TV sitcoms — including CBS’ The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All In The Family, and M*A*S*H — would help to both define and change the television industry in the 1970’s. And yet, Petticoat Junction would live on forever, as reruns of the series would be aired in syndication and on cable in the decades following its cancellation — in recent years, reruns of the series has aired on Me-TV. Both CBS and Paramount own the syndication rights to Petticoat Junction — at least, the color episodes from 1965-70, since the rights to the series’ first two seasons (which were shot in black and white)have since expired and are now in the public domain; in late-August, 2005, MPI Home Video released a DVD collection of twenty-one black and white episodes from the first two seasons. In 2008-09, Paramount released two Petticoat Junction DVD collections, collecting what it claims to be the series’ ”official” first two seasons.
If Petticoat Junction were made today, it’s highly unlikely that it would last even a single season, especially in the current era dominated by so-called “reality TV” shows. The fact that Petticoat Junction was a product of the 1960’s and highly popular with a generation needing to escape — albeit briefly — from the pressures of a changing world is certainly one reason why it’s still fondly remembered today, and will no doubt remain so beyond the 21st Century.
John Lavernoich is the author of the novels Code Name: Chameleons (published by iUniverse/Writers Club Press) and Chameleons To The Rescue (published by Lulu Books/Highroad Books), and the recently published short story e-book collection Tales Of The Psychiatrist (published by Book Country), as well as various non-fiction articles and short stories that have been published in print and on the Internet. To learn more about Mr. Lavernoich and his writing achievements, please visit his official website (https://sites.google.com/site/johnlav65), as well as his pages on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/john.lavernoich?ref=name), MySpace (http://www.myspace.com/jlavernoich), Twitter (http://twitter.com/JLav65), and WordPress (http://johnlav.wordpress.com). Mr. Lavernoich also maintains his own video channel on YouTube’s website (http://www.youtube.com/user/JLav65?feature=mhsn), his own Author Spotlight page on Lulu Books‘ website (http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/Highroad), his own Profile Page on Amazon Studios‘ website (http://studios.amazon.com/users/59488), and his Chameleons, Inc. and Pictures Shop websites via Google Sites (Chameleons, Inc. website: https://sites.google.com/site/chaminc2002; Pictures Shop website: https://sites.google.com/site/picturesshop13).