Wednesday, July 25, 2012
As you may already know, in September we will celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the premiere of "The Waltons." When I was a boy growing up in the backwoods of Virginia during The Great Depression I could never have dreamed that those days, those times, that little village and the events we experienced as a family, would become material for stories to be broadcast, over something we had never heard of called television, all over the world.
Not long ago I looked through some of the early reviews of the series when it first went on the air over CBS. I thought it might be interesting to see how we were first perceived 40 years ago.
In The New York Times, a writer named Anne Roiphe wrote the following:
"A bobwhite cry breaks the quiet of night among the firs and pines of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia "Goodnight Ma." "Goodnight John-Boy" "Goodnight Pa" and the lights of the Walton house on Walton’s Mountain somewhere in the early nineteen-thirties dim, and a million viewers turn away from their television sets, eyes wet, souls heavy with false memory and hopeless longing. C.B.S has filled another Thursday night with nostalgia, bathos, soap opera, formula plot, tear-jerking junk, and I and all those other viewers share a moment of tender shame at having been so painfully touched by such obvious commercial exploitation."
Commercial exploitation! Bathos! Tear-jerking junk! At this point I was so offended I was ready to cancel my subscription to The New York Times and write a scathing note to the lady. And then I read on:
"Since every Thursday night I am reduced to ridiculous tears, I had to ask these questions and explore the program’s skill at piercing touch hides, revealing sentimental ooze that can no more be than controlled than the shift of dreams that sill wake us screaming every now and then."
Sentimental ooze! Come on, Miz Roiphe?
You keep on this away I am liable to forget that I am a Virginia gentleman and say something I might regret!
A few lines later she continues, "The Waltons" may be romantic nonsense, may bear only superficial and misleading resemblance to real life, but it is very good magic. It is a good, workable dance to scare away the evil spirits of loneliness, isolations, divorce, alcoholism, troubled children, abandoned elders, - the real companions of American family life, the real demons of the living room."
Romantic nonsense, Miz Roiphe?
There was nothing the least romantic about the Great Depression of the 20’s and 30’s and we never portrayed it that way. It was a time when we were tested as a people, and we came through with courage, persistence, and faith in our country and our leaders. Poverty was just one of our challenges. It was a time when prejudice still stained many areas of the country, some racial and some religious, and we examined those issues too. The threat of Nazi Germany was becoming clear to many of us and one of our finest episodes dealt with that sport so beloved to the Nazis’ - book burning.
But more than that, we told stories about two people who loved each other and were dedicated to raising a family. We told stories that were dedicated to the strength of the American people that brought us back from the brink of ruin.
Romantic nonsense! Nonsense!
To make matters worse the writer illustrated her piece with photographs by Walker Evans showing emaciated children, haggard women, defeated men, people in rags, filthy shacks, which prompted my sister Marion Hawks (Mary Ellen Walton) to write an outraged letter to The Times" pointing out that the photographs only added to the inaccurate portrayal of our family. I think she was even a little threatening, but you know Mary Ellen.
After The New York Times piece it was a relief to find a review that I could relate to. It was written by critic Val Adams and his review goes as follows:
"Circumstances surrounding the Waltons provide one of the more interesting situations of this fall’s television series. It is different from any other show on the air which does not necessarily make it good. "The Waltons" has no excitement and no glamour. It is a story about simple people – a large family of three generations living at the foot of The Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia during the Depression of the 1930."
A little more favorable, but still it fell in the category of many other reviews which asked "Who will want to watch a series about poor people eating possum, swilling moonshine, and scratching out a living in the backwoods of Virginia during The Great Depression?"
The answer? Huge number of viewers. You – the audience. You found the series, liked it enough to come back the following week, liked it enough to tell your friends, liked it enough to write letters of support to CBS, and by the end of the season the series had risen to the Number One position in the ratings.
We went on the air in September. Most of the TV critics predicted a quick cancellation. Who, they continued to ask would watch a sprawling poverty-stricken backwoods family, swilling moonshine, feuding, and fighting, marrying each other and singing old Baptist hymns? Who would watch?
THE PEOPLE WATCHED!
And by December we were the Number One show in the ratings and we stayed there for several years.
Beginning in 1972 the series was seen on Thursday nights on CBS by an average of fifty million viewers in the United States. It was also seen in Canada and Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Fiji and in Ecuador, to mention only a few of the countries where it became popular.
The series was awarded six Emmy awards, six Christopher Awards, The Golden Globe Award from the Foreign Press Association, The People’s Choice Award, and the highest award given in broadcast journalism: The coveted Peabody Award from the University of Georgia. The series received commendations from the Council of Christians and Jews, The Society of Southern Baptists, The Religious Public Relations Council of the United Methodist Church, and the Church o0f Latter-Day Saints. One Sunday we went beyond my wildest expectations. In a magazine called "Twin Circle," which is the voice of the National Catholic Press, a picture of the cast of The Waltons was given equal space with a picture of the Pope. At that point I began to worry that we had gone too far
For each of us who were involved in the series it has changed our lives. The series became the building block for a brand new production company called Lorimar which went on to produce such memorable series as Dallas, The Blue Knight, and Eight is Enough and another of my long running series, Falcon Crest. For the actors, writers, directors and crew it meant more than ten years of steady employment, dependable income in an industry where such good fortune comes to few people. And even though the series caused some of the actors to be type cast, known only for their Walton roles, it did opoen doors, bring them to prominence in the industry and made their names and faces known wherever in the world there was a television set.
The show also provided a special kind of relationship to those of us involved. Because of kind of stories we told and because we were all portraying members of a family, we came together as "family" – a relationship that continues right down to today. We attend each other’s wedding, anniversaries, birthdays, funerals, christenings, bar mitzvahs. And so it was that we mourned as a family when we had to say goodbye to such special members of the cast, such beloved actors as Ellen Corby and Will Geer.
None of us had thought ahead to the effect the show would have on my family. Because the series was based on the character and structure of my own family it was important that I be true to the way my family members they were portrayed. This required my being in my office near the set all during the day attending casting sessions, network meetings, screenings, story meeting, and then at night writing or rewriting scripts to insure that they gave a honest representation of my family members. This became a burden on my own family when I realized that I was devoting more attention to a television family than my own and that I had not been home for dinner in months. It was a sober and shocking revelation. Believe me I was home for dinner from then on.
It was a bit of a family affair. Both my daughter, Caroline and my son, Scott were extras in "The Homecoming." And then my son, Scott, a writer, came aboard as a regular contributor to the series. His script, "The Reunion," became the last scheduled episode when we finished our first run.
To the audience The Waltons brought an hour of television each week that supplied a very personal and intimate experience to a vast number of people here at home and in every country of the world. Even today, forty years after the original first run, the series is being shown on three different cable channels, Hallmark, INSP, and GMA. I receive mountains of mail, sadly more than I can ever answer, and most of the letters say either "Your stories remind me of my own life." Or "This is how I wish my own life had been."
Change also came to my own family back in Virginia. Because the character were based on my mother and father, my brothers and sisters, they became known by their television names - my brother Cliff as Jason, my Sister Audrey as Erin, Brother Jim became Jim-Bob and so on.
And my hometown became a tourist destination! Fans from other countries and many other states came looking for the locations we had mentioned on the show such as Rockfish, The Dew Drop Inn, Drusilla’s Pond, the Baldwin residence and The Baptist Church and The Walton Museum.
The Hamner home is today listed on the Register of Historic Homes in Virginia and is owned by a local family. The house was a "company house" built in the 20’s and needed repair. Pam Rutherford, the present owner, renovated it and refurnished it and today there is a tour of it for a modest fee.
One of my favorite memories came one day after the series has become a hit. I often phoned my mother on Thursday nights right after the show to see how she felt about what she had seen, and her responses were always favorable. And then one day when I called, she spoke with me for a moment and then said, "I can’t talk long. There’s this nice young couple here. They’ve come all the way from Ireland and they just love the show!"
There’s even a Walton Mountain B and B directly in front of the old home place, an excellent home away from home if you are staying overnight in Schuyler. It is attractive and comfortably furnished, the food is great and an extensive collection of Walton memorabilia is available (including autographed copies of "Good Night John Boy"
There are two celebrations of the 40th Anniversary coming up in September. On Friday, September 28th there will be the traditional reunion of the Walton International Fan Club, hosted by President Carolyn Grinnell. As usual many cast members will be in attendance giving fan and actors an opportunity to mingle and Carolyn has promised a surprise or two. The party will be held at:
6:oo pm at The Holiday Inn
Burbank Media Center,
The South Pacific Ballroom
150 East Angeleno Avenue
Burbank, Ca. 91502
The dinner is sold out, but occasionally there are cancellations. To see if any spaces do become available call Carolyn at 336-993-2752 or her e-mail at
The following evening, Saturday September 29th there will be another celebration of our 40th Anniversary. Celebrating Family and Education, the proceeds will go to Kami Colter’s Environmental Charter School. Hosted by William Keck, Senior Editor at "TV Guide," the event will be held at The Wilshire Eubell Theater beginning at 6 o’clock.
For ticket or further information visit the event’s website
So come and join us at either or both of these celebrations. Some of you have already made arrangement to be with us. People are have already made plans to travel from Australia, Canada, Germany and England as well as many of our own states. Many cast members will appear at both parties. I will attend both of these events and look forward to seeing you.
Warm Walton Wishes