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 Dating Game: I’ll Take Bachelor Number 4

This month we are taking a look back at some of the game shows on television in the fifties and sixties. If you grew up in that era you will definitely remember The Dating Game. Airing in December of 1965, it was created by Chuck Barris who would create many game shows and might be known best for The Gong Show.

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The original host was Jim Lange. The show was revived several times, a trend we continue to see with Match Game and the 100,000 Pyramid among other shows that have appeared in different decades. The original series was on the air until 1973. Jim Lange continued to host for the syndicated version in 1973 which only lasted a year and again in 1978 without the participation of Barris. Johnny Jacobs was the announcer with Lange. In 1986 the show was rebooted with Elaine Joyce as host, followed by Jeff MacGregor for 1987 and 1988. The show popped up again in 1996 with Brad Sherwood hosting, again followed by Chuck Woolery for two years.

The Newlywed Game, which we’ll discuss next week, was often packaged with The Dating Game for an hour of programming beginning in 1966.

9 Actors Who Appeared On 'The Dating Game' Before They Were Famous
Photo: throwback.com

If you are not familiar with the show, three bachelors would sit on stools behind a wall and a bachelorette on the other side asked the three men questions. Every once in a while, things would reverse with the man asking questions to three women. She referred to them as Bachelor No. 1, 2, and 3. At the end of the question-and-answer period, the bachelorette would choose one of the three and the pair would go on a date with the show paying the expenses. The dates began as expensive dinners, but when the show went to primetime in 1966 exotic locations like Paris or Hawaii were the destinations, and the couples were chaperoned.

That chaperone would have been very important in the case of Rodney Alcala, one of the bachelors chosen for a date in 1978. Jim Lange introduced him as a successful photographer. At that time, there was no technology available to conduct background checks which would have already flagged him as potentially dangerous. Cheryl Bradshaw, the bachelorette, found him creepy and refused to go on the date. It was later learned that by the time he made his appearance on the show, he had killed at least two women in California and two in New York. After the episode aired, he continued his serial killing career and killed between 8-120 women in a nine-year time span. He was on death row at San Quentin Prison and is currently serving his time at the Corcoran State Prison with his execution postponed due to a moratorium on the death penalty in the state.

Bradshaw was not the only contestant who refused to go on the date. Many contestants chose to skip that once they met in person.

How to Make a Decision. - Thin. Rich. Happy.
Photo: thewisdomdaily.com

Barris had a problem with the show in that so many of the responses were not appropriate to put on the air. Often, they were crude or had sexual connotations. Finally, he came up with a creative solution. He hired an actor to dress like an enforcement official. He appeared in the dressing room before the bachelors were sent to the set. He told them any profanity or sexual references would be a violation of the FCC policy which was a federal offense, and it could lead to jail time. This was not true, but the bachelors did not know that, and Barris said the threat took care of his problem.

Suzanne Somers Photo: groovyhistory.com

While I do remember seeing Mel Harris as a contestant on Pyramid reruns, and I’m sure that happens sometimes on game shows, this show really hit the jackpot with contestants who later became celebrities including Yvonne Craig, Farrah Fawcett, Leif Garrett, Phil Hartman, Don Johnson, Andy Kaufman, Steve Martin, Lee Majors, Burt Reynolds, Michael Richards, John Ritter, Tom Selleck, Suzanne Somers, and Lindsay Wagner.

Photo: pinterest.com

The set screamed 1960s with colorful daisy-like shapes on the wall designed by Art Director George Smith. The flowers were vivid sixties colors. The show ended with the winning contestants and Lange blowing kisses to the audience.

The music was also easily identifiable with the show. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass songs were used in the three different parts of the show. “Spanish Flea” before introducing the bachelor, “Whipped Cream” when introducing the bachelorette, and “Lollipops and Roses” when the couple first meets.

The show was a hit from the beginning. Airing during the day in 1965, in 1966 it switched to primetime.

If watching the show was not enough excitement, you could play at home. Hasbro released three different games based on the show. In 1968, an album was recorded called The Dating Game Party Pak. Jim Lange narrated the album and packaged with it were invitations, name tags, and scorecards.

As for “happy ever afters,” I could only find two mentions of potential marriage from the show, and I could not verify either one of them. Barris said the network told him he needed to have at least one couple end up together; one couple discussed marriage and the network was involved with it but they called it off right beforehand; the other was a reporter who Barris knew would not give the show favorable publicity, so he apparently had three call girls as contestants and asked the reporter to be on the show. The reporter and one of the prostitutes went on their date, hit it off, and apparently, married. Happy ever after?  Who knows?

Like Laugh In, this was a show that could only have come out of the late sixties and early seventies. While I do remember watching the show often, I think it was probably because my parents were watching it. I’ll take Jeopardy, Concentration, or Sale of the Century any day.

Bob Newhart: Laughing Through Life

This month I wanted to honor one of our most beloved television comedians: Bob Newhart. Next week we’ll spend some time learning more about The Bob Newhart Show.

Photo: spotify.com

Newhart was born George Robert Newhart in 1929 in Oak Park, IL. He grew up in a typical midwestern family where his father was part owner of a plumbing and heating supply company, and his mom was a housewife. As a young boy, he always wanted to be called Bob. He had a Catholic education and went on to Loyola University of Chicago in 1947. Graduating in 1952 with a business degree, he was soon drafted into the US Army in the Korean war where he stayed until 1954. He considered getting a law degree and went back to Loyola. He decided not to pursue that; some sources site that he was asked to behave unethically during an internship which led him down a different career path.

He worked as an accountant and as an unemployment office clerk. In 1958 he was hired as a copywriter for Fred Niles who was a television producer in Chicago. It was while working here that Newhart and a colleague began entertaining each other by making telephone calls about absurd scenarios. They sent these to radio stations as audition tapes. A radio station disc jockey Dan Sorkin introduced Newhart to a Warner Brothers Records executive who signed him in 1959 based on those recordings. Bob then began creating stand-up routines which he performed at nightclubs.

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He released an album in 1960 which changed his life. Titled, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, the comedy album made number one on the Billboard charts, and he won a Grammy for best new artist. A follow-up album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back was released soon thereafter. He would continue releasing comedy albums in 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1971, and 1973.

During a 2005 interview for American Masters on public television, Bob stated that his favorite routine was Abe Lincoln vs Madison Avenue which was on his first album. A promoter for Abraham Lincoln has to deal with his reluctance to boost his image. A tv director named Bill Daily suggested the routine to him. Daily would be known later as Howard Borden on The Bob Newhart Show (as well as Roger Healey on I Dream of Jeannie).

The success of that first album led to a variety show titled The Bob Newhart Show. It only lasted a year, but it did receive both an Emmy nomination and a Peabody award. Apparently, he didn’t enjoy his time during the show so much. Halfway through the season he wanted to quit, but his agent explained that being under contract meant that was not possible. At a later date, he referred to his first show, saying “It won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and a pink slip from NBC. All in the same year.”

He began making the rounds on television shows, appearing on The Dean Martin Show 24 times and The Ed Sullivan Show 8 times. He guest hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 87 times. When discussing his appearances on Johnny’s show, he stated “I remember once when I emceed The Tonight Show in New York, I arrived with my manager’s son. After a while, they asked, ‘When are the rest of your people coming?’ I had to say, ‘This is it.’”

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In 1962 Newhart accepted his first movie role, Hell is for Heroes, starring Steve McQueen. He would continue to do movie roles throughout his career including the Christmas classic Elf, but the small screen would make him famous.

In 1963 Buddy Hackett introduced Bob to Virginia Quinn, whose father was character actor Bill Quinn. They wed in January of 1963 and 57 years later are still happily married.

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For the next decade, he continued to accept movie and television roles. In 1972, television history was made when The Bob Newhart Show debuted. Until 1978, Newhart played Bob Hartley, psychologist, and we got to know his unusual patients, quirky co-workers, and eccentric friends, including neighbor Howard Borden. Bob chose a psychologist based partly on his old telephone routines. As he said, “Much of my humor comes out of reaction to what other people are saying. A psychologist is a man who listens, who is sympathetic.”

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In 1982, Bob gave television another go for another eight years. Simply titled Newhart, the show featured Bob as Dick Loudon, an innkeeper and author from Vermont. He still had quirky co-workers and eccentric friends.

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On cue a decade later in 1992, Bob showed up in a new show even more simply titled, Bob as Bob McKay a comic book writer and artist who had retired long ago and was trying to get back into the workplace. Unfortunately, after 33 episodes the show was canceled due to low ratings.

Photo: imdb.com

In 1997, Newhart starred in his last sitcom, George and Leo. As George Stoody, a bookstore owner, Newhart offers a temporary home to a full-time magician and part-time criminal who recently robbed a Mafia-owned casino. The series failed to catch on with viewers, and it was canceled after a season as well.

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Though he never took on another sitcom, Newhart has made appearances with recurring characters in several shows. In 2003, he showed up on ER as Ben Hollander. In 2005, he was Morty on Desperate Housewives. As Judson, he guest starred on The Librarians.

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Perhaps, younger audiences know him best as Arthur Jeffries or Professor Proton on The Big Bang Theory. He had been Sheldon’s boyhood hero who played the professor on television. Sheldon idolized the professor while the professor tolerated Sheldon.

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It’s hard to believe with all of his years being a successful television comedian, but Newhart won his first Emmy in 2013 for his role of Professor Proton. I can’t argue with the nominees for most of the 1970s during the airing of The Bob Newhart Show–names like Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Alan Alda, and Hal Linden. Even with my bias of Norman Lear shows, I get nominating Carroll O’Connor every single one of those years. I understand the tough competition. What I don’t understand is the fact that he was never nominated during that eight-year period. When Jack Albertson wins, and Bob Newhart is not even nominated that is wrong. During the Newhart years, he was at least nominated three times. But I don’t understand it when John Ritter wins for Three’s Company or Richard Mulligan for Soap and no nomination for Bob Newhart. What especially appalls me is the fact that The Bob Newhart Show was only nominated one year; I can accept the fact that it got beat out by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I cannot accept is that during this same time, Three’s Company, Mork and Mindy, and Welcome Back Kotter received nominations, and The Bob Newhart Show did not. Anyway, this blog is not about the television academy and its procedures, so let’s move on.

Photo: flickr.com

Even though he was never awarded with an Emmy for his time as Bob Hartley, TV Land placed a life-sized statue of Newhart in front of Navy Pier, complete with an empty couch. He was best friends with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from the show, and spoke at her funeral. He remembered their time together, “Her laugh. Her laugh. We just laughed. We just had a great time. We all loved each other and respected each other and we got paid for it.” Bob also remains close friends with Marcia Wallace who played his receptionist Carol on the show.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

While Bob has appeared as different characters throughout his career, he has also remained the same character. With his deadpan delivery and slight stammer, he perfected the straight-man role, surrounding himself with wacky castmates. He has often cited George Gobel and Bob and Ray as influences in his comedy career. When discussing his career choice, he explained “I like the humor to come out of character. When you’re going for a joke, you’re stuck out there if it doesn’t work. There’s nowhere to go. You’ve done the drum role and the cymbal clash and you’re out on the end of the plank.”

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In 2006, he released a book I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This. It’s a memoir with some of his classic comedy routines. Actor David Hyde Pierce reported that “the only difference between Bob Newhart on stage and Bob Newhart offstage is that there is no stage.”

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I am so appreciative of those stars who agree to entertain us for our entire life, such as Betty White, Carol Burnett, and Bob Newhart. They are classic comedians who can make us laugh no matter what. Bob’s view on comedy was that “laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.” What an amazing career and what an amazing man. With all its negatives and sometimes destructive tendencies, television can be a harmful place, but a comedian like Bob Newhart demonstrates what a positive and uplifting experience television can be when done right. Thanks for doing it right for sixty years.