Everyone is Welcome on The Waltons

As we celebrate some of our favorite families, The Walton family has to be on the list. Those of us who were kids in the seventies grew up with the Walton kids. Debuting in 1971, the show was canceled a decade later.

The Cast of The Waltons Photo: theguardian.com

The show was listed as a historical drama, but it had a lot of humor in it as well. Based on the book Spencer’s Mountain by Earl Hamner Jr. from 1961, the show was incredibly popular. In 1963 a movie was released based on the book. Hamner created the book from his childhood memories, and many of the plots and characters were based on real events and people. The ending of the episodes has often been parodied, and even if you never watched the show, you recognize the ending when the kids all said “Goodnight John Boy”, “Goodnight Ben”, “Goodnight Erin”, etc until they were told to go to sleep. Hamner said this was a regular activity in his home, and he did have six siblings.

In 1971 a made-for-tv movie called The Homecoming: A Christmas Story received great ratings, so the show was ordered by CBS for a new series. It was produced by Lorimar Productions and distributed by Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution in syndication. After the show went off the air, both CBS and NBC aired a total of six sequel movies.

The Waltons have a big family. John (Ralph Waite) and Olivia (Michael Learned) live with John’s parents Zebulon (Will Geer) and Esther (Ellen Corby). The couple has seven children: John Boy (Richard Thomas), Jason (Jon Walmsley), Mary Ellen (Judy Norton Taylor), Erin (Mary Elizabeth McDonough), Ben (Eric Scott), Jim Bob (David W. Harper), and Elizabeth (Kami Cotler).

The story was set in Virginia in Walton’s Mountain, a fictional town based on Spencer’s hometown of Schuyler. During the years that the show was on television, it covered 1933 to 1946. John runs a lumber mill, and the family does some farming. Halfway through the series, Grandma Walton has a stroke and Grandpa Walton passes away; in real life Corby did have a stroke and Geer died that year.

The Baldwin Sister Photo: thewaltons.com

During the run of the show, we get to know a lot of the community members including The Baldwin sisters, Emily and Mamie (Mary Jackson, Helen Kleeb), who sell Papa’s recipe, otherwise known as moonshine; Ike Godsey (Joe Conley) who runs the general store; Flossie Brimmer (Nora Marlow), a widow who owns a boarding house and communicates the town gossip; Yancy Tucker (Robert Donner), a local handyman; Sheriff Ep Bridges (John Crawford), and Reverend Fordwick (John Ritter).

Although the Depression is hard for the family to navigate, WWII caused even more hardship in their community. All four Walton boys serve in the military as does Mary Ellen’s husband. John Boy’s plane is shot down, and Curtis (Tom Bower), Mary Ellen’s husband, a physician, was sent to Pearl Harbor and believed to have died. However, years later Mary Ellen learns he has been alive the entire time, and she finds him living under an assumed name, depressed from his wounds. They divorce, and she later finds love and marries a second time. In later seasons, Olivia volunteers at the VA hospital and is not an active member of the series. She later is said to develop TB and moves to a sanitarium in Arizona. Her cousin Rose (Peggy Rea) moves into the house to help take care of the family, and a couple of years later, John moves to Arizona as well. The sequel movies took place in 1947, 1963, 1964, and 1969.

John Boy grows up to be a journalist and a novelist; he narrates the opening and closing of each episode, and the voice of the adult John Boy is Earl Hamner, the author. He is able to attend Boatwright University in a nearby town before moving to New York to begin his writing career. Jason is interested in music, and Mary Ellen becomes a nurse.

Walton’s Mountain was part of the Hollywood Hills range near the Warner studios in Burbank, and the town was built at the studio as well. Because the original set was destroyed when the show was canceled, later sequels had to recreate the home. That building is still being used and became the Dragonfly Inn on Gilmore Girls.

Photo: entertainment weekly.com

Although the network did not think the show would last, the show was very popular with both the viewers and critics. The networks had just done the “rural purge” where they canceled all shows with rural themes even those like Green Acres that were receiving high ratings. However, congressional hearings were held to discuss the moral compass of programming on television, and President Bush wanted more family shows, so the network gave it a go. I’m guessing they did not want the show to do well considering it was definitely a rural show, and they put it up against The Flip Wilson Show and Mod Squad. Ralph Waite did not want to be tied to a series long term but his agent told him not to worry about it, the show would never sell.

When Thomas was asked about the show’s popularity, he said, “It was kind of a miracle and a mystery. Certainly, the last thing any of us expected was that it would be embraced the way it was. I think our competition on Thursday night was Flip Wilson and Mod Squad, which were hugely popular and terrific shows for people. I think we premiered in 34th place and finished the season in first. It was just this steady climb. The critical community certainly came and went to bat for us.”

In 1973 the series won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. That same year Richard Thomas won the Emmy for Lead Actor. Michael Learned received the Emmy in 1973, 1974, and 1976. Will Geer and Ellen Corby also were presented with awards: Corby won for Supporting Actress in 1973, 1975, and 1976 while Geer received the honor in 1975 as well.

The show’s ratings began declining in the late seventies. I’m not sure why Learned left the show; I do know she admits she suffered from alcoholism during those years. Waite was let go to save money for the series. The network wanted the show to concentrate on the younger viewers, but apparently, it was too late, or the show had come to the natural end of its life.

In the finale episode, the Walton family members and the Godseys attend a party at the Baldwin sisters’ mansion. If you look closely, you will see several unknown guests in the group–they included Hamner and other cast and crew members.

If you want to experience the life of this show, I have two suggestions for you. You can watch several seasons of the show on DVD, or you can check out John & Olivia’s Bed & Breakfast Inn which is located just behind the boyhood home of Hamner. It’s a five-bedroom, five-bathroom home inspired by the depression-era home of the Waltons.

Photo: amazon.com

It’s hard to explain the popularity that The Waltons had in the 1970s. I’m trying to come up with a show that was as critically acclaimed and was watched by the entire family for almost ten years. The only shows I can compare it to are Bonanza which aired for fourteen years and Little House on the Prairie which was on the air for nine years. Viewers embraced the characters and the values of the Walton’s Mountain community. We all felt we knew the family intimately and cared about what happened to them. It left a legacy, and I’m sure it influenced many people currently in the television industry. If you have never seen the show, you definitely want to watch a couple of seasons and if you grew up with it, you might want to revisit your old friends.

The Gilmore Girls: Everyone Feels at Home in Stars Hollow

As we continue our “Girls, Girls, Girls” series, we turn to a much-beloved show about two women and their life in a picture-perfect New England town: Gilmore Girls.

Like Designing Women, this show was on the air for seven years debuting in 2000 on the WB; it produced 154 episodes which are often shown in syndication.

Photo: fanpop.com

When the series begins, Lorelai (Lauren Graham), age 32, lives with her intellectual teenage daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) in Stars Hollow, Connecticut. Lorelai has a difficult relationship with her parents Richard and Emily (Edward Herrman and Kelly Bishop) who enjoy a high-society type of life. One of the running gags on the show is that most of the times Rory and Lorelai visit Richard and Emily, they have a new maid. The series can be summarized as a mother and daughter going through both joy and heartache who meet a lot of quirky characters along the way.

Photo: losangelestimes.com
Emily and Richard

Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the show was filled with fast-paced dialogue and tons of pop culture references; e.g., their dog is named Paul Anka. Sherman-Palladino says after several of her pitches were rejected, she proposed a show where the mother and daughter were more friends and it was accepted. She now had to devise the show. After staying at the Mayflower Inn in Washington Depot, Connecticut, she decided that was the perfect setting for the series. She said she felt the “warmth and small-town camaraderie.” As she put it, she wanted to create a “family show that doesn’t make parents want to stick something sharp in their eyes while they’re watching it and doesn’t talk down to kids.”

Photo: zimbio.com

Sherman-Palladino chose her writing philosophy to “make the small big, make the big small.” She said the drama is low-key because “sometimes the average everyday things are more impactful.” As journalist Constance Grady reflected, “On Gilmore Girls, the explosion is never what matters: It’s the fallout.”  The show had a small writing staff that changed throughout the series. Amy and her husband Daniel wrote many of the scripts.

As we learn the backstory of the main characters, we realize Lorelai became pregnant at 16. Rory’s father, Christopher, is still a friend and in the picture. Lorelai could not adjust to the wealthy lifestyle of her parents and moved to Stars Hollow a year after Rory’s birth. She worked as a maid at a local inn, eventually becoming the executive manager.

Lorelai loves being independent, but she loves her daughter more so she is forced to ask her parents if they would provide tuition for Rory for a private school. They agree, with the condition that the two women join them for dinner every Friday night. Sherman-Palladino summed up this conflict: “I think the theme was always family and connection. I always felt like the underlying thing about Gilmore was that, if you happened to be born into a family that doesn’t really understand you, go out and make your own. That’s what Lorelai did. She went out and she made her own family. The ironic twist in her life is that then this daughter that she created this half family for, likes the family that she left. It was a cycle of crazy family.”

Photo: hookedonhouses.com

The show also follows the path they took to attain their dreams: Rory to attend an Ivy League college and become a journalist and Lorelai to open an inn with her best friend Sookie (Melissa McCarthy). At the end of season three, Rory decides to attend Yale, and Sookie and Lorelai are able to buy the Dragonfly Inn after a fire. (If you look closely, you’ll notice the exterior of the Dragonfly is the home of the Waltons.)

Photo: people.com
Rory’s boyfriends

Of course, romance also has a big part in the series. Rory has three very different boyfriends during the course of the show: likable new kid Dean Forrester (Jared Padalecki), somewhat bad boy Jess Mariano (Milo Ventimiglia), and wealthy playboy Logan Huntzberger (Matt Czuchry). In real life, Bledel and Ventimiglia had a three-and-a-half-year relationship. While Lorelai dated other people on the show, her primary relationships are her unresolved feelings for Christopher and her love affair with Luke Danes (Scott Patterson), who owns the local diner.

Photo:gilmoregirls.wiki.com
Luke

Patterson was originally hired to be in the pilot only, but there was so much chemistry between him and Lorelai that he became a regular. Ironically, his nephew (bad boy Jess) was also only scheduled for a couple appearances, but he also became a regular for a couple of years.

Luke’s Diner is a key setting on the show. Characters often stop in there for coffee. Rory and Lorelai are there for many major discussions. Ironically, Bledel hated coffee but since Rory “loved” it, Bledel put Coca-Cola in her coffee mug.

Photo: newyorktimes.com

The pilot was shot in Unionville outside Toronto while the rest of the series was filmed in Burbank, California, far away from New England. Because there was so much dialogue in the scripts, it took eight days to shoot one episode and days were often 14-20 hours long. The actors commented on the complicated filming often. Czuchry said “The pace of the dialogue was what made that show incredibly unique, and also incredibly difficult as an actor. To be able to maintain that speed, tone, and at the same time, try to make layered choices was a great experience to have early in my career. It really challenged me.” Graham commented a few years ago that “never before or since have I done as many takes of anything. . . that show—as fun and breezy and light as it is—is technically really challenging.”

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Many actors got their start on the show, and many famous actors made guest appearances. This was Bledel’s first acting job. Sherman-Palladino mentioned her shyness and innocence which were essential for the character of Rory. Liza Weil tested for the role of Rory; she didn’t get the part but she was offered the role of Paris Geller, Rory’s classmate.

Lauren Graham was asked to audition, but she was committed to an NBC show. When that show was cancelled, she was able to accept the role on Gilmore Girls. Herrman was always in mind for Lorelai’s father Richard. Bishop received an offer immediately following her audition for the mother. Alex Borstein was cast as Sookie in the pilot, but was replaced by McCarthy when she could not get out of her Mad TV contract.

Some of the famous cameos include Carole King who appeared as a music shop proprietor in season 6;

Photo: entertainmentweekly.com
Carole King

Christiane Amanpour, Rory’s idol who she met at the Dragonfly Inn; Jane Lynch as a nurse when Richard has a heart attack; Madeleine Albright; Norman Mailer who was the first person to learn Sookie was pregnant,

Photo: blogspot.com
Christiane Amanpour

Jon Hamm, pre-Mad Men days; and Seth MacFarlane, Family Guy creator, appeared as a boyfriend of a classmate at graduation; Sherman-Palladino’s husband Daniel was a producer on Family Guy.

With a show like Gilmore Girls and all its allusions to pop culture, literature, and movies, the music was an important part of the show. Sam Phillips composed the music score for the entire run of the series. Phillips relied primarily on acoustic guitar and voice for his composition with an occasional piano, violin, or drums. The theme song is Carole King’s “Where You Lead.” King recorded a version with her daughter Louise Goffin just for this show. Many musical groups were featured performing on the show including The Bangles, Sonic Youth, the Sparks, and The Shins. In 2002, a CD soundtrack for the show was released as “Our Little Corner of the World: Music from Gilmore Girls.”

Critics adored the show. John Carman, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, declared “It’s cross-generational, warm-the-cockles viewing, and it’s a terrific show.” The New York Times called it “a witty, charming show” that “is redefining family in a realistic, entertaining way for today’s audience, all the while avoiding the sappiness that makes sophisticated viewers run from anything labeled a ‘family show.’” The Hollywood Reporter’s Ray Richmond said “it was a genuine gem in the making, a family-friendly hour unburdened by trite cliché or precocious pablum.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Storm described it as “a touching, funny lively show that really does appeal to all ages” and David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun said “Gilmore Girls is one of the most pleasant surprises of the new season.”

Photo: hellogiggles.com

For a small network, the ratings were good, and the show became one of the mainstays of the new network. It debuted on Thursday nights up against Friends on NBC and Survivor on CBS.

For season two, the show was moved to Tuesday nights. It became the third-highest rated show on WB. The critics continued to praise the show. Hal Boedeker of the Orlando Sentinel said it “was one of television’s great, unsung pleasures .  . . Amy Sherman-Palladino writes clever dialogue and ingratiating comedy, but she also knows hot to do bittersweet drama.” The Washington Post’s Emily Yahr said the second season was “pretty much a perfect season of television.”

Photo: entertainmentweekly.com

Seasons 4-7 pitted the Gilmores against the US’s top-rated show of the time, American Idol. Although there was a decline in viewership, season five finished with Gilmore Girls the second-most-watched prime time show on WB.

For the final two seasons, most critics jumped ship. Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, said it was “uneven at best” because “the protracted fight between Lorelai and Rory Gilmore left the writers scrambling to cram the show with filler plots that stretched many fans’ patience to the limit.”

There was already speculation that the seventh season would be the last one because both Graham and Bledel had contracts ending. To make matters worse, in 2006 the WB merged with UPN to form a new network, The CW. Gilmore Girls was put on the new schedule but the new network could not come to an agreement with Amy Sherman-Palladino so she was leaving the show. After having Amy as a controlling voice in all the scripts, ensuring consistency in the writing, this was a death knoll for the show. A finale was planned that could serve as an ending for the show or a new beginning for an eighth season. CW considered bringing the show back for a shorter 13-episode season but nixed the idea. Part of the issue for the two main actresses was the amount of time each episode required to film.

It was not the end of the story for Lorelai and Rory though. Nine years later, Netflix had a miniseries. Spoiler Alert Coming: Rory was well into her journalism career. While she had a boyfriend, she was having an affair with Logan who was engaged to another woman. Lorelai and Luke live together but still have arguments often. Richard had died of a heart attack. Emily and Lorelai try joint therapy to heal their relationship. Lorelai decides to take a trip to clear her mind and reflect on her life. She comes back, tells her mother a moving story about her father; her mother sells the house and moves to Nantucket to work for a museum. Lorelai proposes to Luke and they marry. Bad-boy Jess, still around, encourages Rory to write a memoir called, what else, Gilmore Girls. In an ending with a twist, Rory reveals that she is pregnant without sharing who the father is.

Photo: enews.com

I must admit I did not watch the show when it originally aired, despite my niece Joylyn telling me how wonderful the show was. When I did begin to catch episodes in syndication, I also fell in love with the writing and characters. Part of the reason fans related to the show was because they were able to watch both Rory and Lorelai grow up and mature. The show has been in syndication since 2004 and has continued to find new generations of fans. Gilmore Girls is the perfect show to binge watch during a winter snowstorm, so buy the DVDs and keep some popcorn and hot chocolate on hand for the first blizzard of the season.

Photo: milledavis.com