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 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.
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.
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.
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.