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Walton's in the Media.

The Saturday Evening Post
November / December 1973

 





Papa is the strongest man you ever saw ... and the gentlest.

We haven't much money, but once you've seen Mama smile, you'll know we're rich.

Love's old sweet song is very young.

Have you ever listened to the sound time makes?

Here's part of the Walton gang down at the general store.

Elizabeth loves to plant things and watch them grow. Grandpa taught her how.

 

MEET THE WALTONS

A visit on location with the TV family which has won the hearts of the nation.

 

By Frederic A. Birmingham


To make an electronically forgiveable pun, TV has become The Great Transformer. It is now full circle in its destiny.

We are familiar with the TV doctor who is accosted on the street for medical advice. The daughter of a well-known TV villian had to change schools because of persecution by her classmates, directed at her despicable old man. The editor of the Post was asked by an old gentleman of sound mind and body if John-Boy Walton has submitted any manuscripts as yet to this magazine.

 

But now, even the Waltons, the eleven actors who play the parts of this endearing family, have fallen prey to the magic of their roles. This is the magic which has made this very uncomplicated TV series such a phenomenal success. The public, the critics, and even the cast have come under its spell. Come with me and visit the Waltons. Come see how imagination has become reality. And how TV, if its practitioners will ever learn, may well have found it's finest destiny - as a creative art.

 

We are in the Walton homestead, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. A passage from "Walton's Mountain," one of the TV series, sets the stage. It is a quote from John-Boy's " yet-to-be published novel."

"At night across the mountain, when darkness falls and the winds sweep down out of the hollows, the wild things with their shiny eyes come to the edge of the clearing. At such an hour, the house seems safe and warm, an island of light and love in a sea of darkness. At such an hour, the word home must have come into being, dreamed up by some creature that never knew a home. In his yearning there must have come to mind a vision of a mother's face, a father's deep voice, the aroma of fresh baked bread, sunshine in a window, the muted sounds of rain on a roof, the sigh of death, the cry of a newborn babe, and voices calling goodnight. Home-an island, a refuge, a haven-of love."

The Walton family is dressed for a holiday dinner in the faintly comical yet stylish comeback garb of the 1930's. The flames flicker in the living room. Elizabeth, the youngest of the three girls, has been plinking out "chopsticks" on the old battered upright piano. Mary Ellen, the plain-pretty-beautiful oldest girl, sits in the big armchair in a teenage fantasy. Her mood is proud and withdrawn: her face reflects, in turn, a princess responding to the cheers of her subjects, Joan of Arc suffering at the stake, a tomboy hitting a home run against a boys' team, a woman of sorrow breaking her heart to save a loved one. John-Boy, athletic and brimming with vitality in knickers and a "collegiate" sweater, horses around with the rest of the kids in the family, making them laugh, making them behave, making them enjoy life. The father, strong and gentle, shares a private joke with Mama. She is shiningly beautiful, spiritually and physically, but is unaware of it. Grandpa, a leatherly mountain of a man, has just been restrained from too boisterous laughter by Grandma, a pincushion of a little old lady, compounded of violets, persimmons, sassafras tea, and ancient wisdom.

 

They sit at a table in the familiar kitchen of the Walton home. Grandpa tells a few stories to quiet the little ones. Grandma brings on the turkey. John-Boy acts as cheerleader for a chorus of wisecracks. The father and mother smile at each other across the table and converse in low tones. Elizabeth, the littlest girl, sits very close to the mother. Erin, the in-between daughter, sits by her father, and flings a hand up over his shoulder, one pal to another.

 

 

But now hear this:

In the above scene, we are onstage in the huge TV studio set where "The Waltons" is shot in Burbank, California. In spite of that fire in the living room, it is 107 degrees outside in the summer shade. The turkey is plastic, a weathered veteran, it would appear , of many a game of touch football among the stagehands on the Walton set. The eleven people, young and old, are actors gathered around this table, carefully set by stagehands, before 8 a.m. in the morning; they have a long day's work ahead of them on this friendishly hot morning. Yet now they must give over at least an hour to posing for Robert Charles Howe and an assisting photographer, Marvin Newton, in the discovery of glints of personality and perspectives of physiognomy which will ultimately find a way into the painting which is the cover of this issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

 

Their good manners and their coutesy are in themselves quite an accomplishment, under such circumstances. But the absolutely astonishing thing is that these actors are not acting. The truth of the matter is that grandparents Will Geer and Ellen Corby; parents Ralph Waite and Michael Learned; the key character of the play, Richard Thomas as the young poet and writer; and the rest of the family-all of these people are still the Waltons, even offstage. Imagination has come full circle into reality. They have established, through acting like a family, a true family relationship.

 

Now, lest this strike the reader as a somewhat overblown bit of romanticism, let us go back, a year or so, to when "The Waltons" had just started on TV.

 

I had heard that only a hard-eyed wretch, one who sneered at the laughter of children at play, set fire to old folks' homes, fed poisened crumbs to sparrows, and preferred the squeaking of bats in a dank cave to the strains of mozart, could resist a new TV show based on a large family struggling to survive during the Depression of the Thirties in the Viginia Mountains. Since this was a fair description of myself, it was only when a group of Walton diehards trussed me up like a capon, thrust toothpicks under my eyelids ro keep them open, and flung me into a chair in front of the TV set one Thursday night, that I sportingly consented to endure exposure to this family caper.

 

I came, I saw, and was conquered-like just about everyone else who had seen "The Waltons."

 

It is not too suprising that people of an age to have remembered the Depression and the Thirties, might take a nostalgic interest in "The Waltons." There are the old cars of those years, the clothes, the picture of FDR on the wall of the general store, the hard-to-come by cash,and the traditions and integrity which always seem to belong to "the good old days" but never to the moment, even if it is Socrates deploring the disrespectful habits of Greek children. One would expect, also, that TV viewers who have lived through the vicissitudes of family life, and seen the young people go on to maturity and a family of their own, might find a tear or smile reminiscent of their own past years in the weekly tribulations of the Walton family. An extended soap opera, you might say. A natural for the old folks at home.

 

But you might jolly well be wrong, too. Because the show is a winner with young people as well. Will Geer, the grandpa called by Helen Hayes (offstage) the oldest living hippie, is, of course, having the time of his life in "The Waltons."

 

This Will Geer, this sage, makes no bones about the show. "I've always loved Earl Hamner's books. This show of his has a sweetness about it. Not saccharine sentimentality, but the kind of sweetness which to my mind is associated with good sweet corn, fresh and tasty."

 

Sweet corn. Well, whatever it is, the Waltons have got something the TV public has been obviously missing and waiting for. Critic John O'Connor said when it made its shaky start: "While chockful of sentiment, the series has been unusually consistent in keeping within intelligent and honest bounds. "The Waltons" is the nicest thing to happen to TV series this season."

 

It hadn't looked that good to everyone. Novelist Earl Hamner, Jr., had written a book, The Homecoming, based upon his childhood as a poor kid in Schuyler, Virginia, and in 1971 CBS produced it as a two-hour Christmas special. Then, to quote John O'Connor: "In what the rest of the industry and many critics saw as inevitable strangulation, the series was scheduled on Thursday nights against NBC's 'Flip Wilson Show' and ABC's 'Mod Squad.' "

 

What happened was astonishing. "The Waltons" drew three times as many adolescent viewers as either of its competitors, got out ahead of Flip and demolished Mod completely. Thirteen million families catch it every Thursday night. More than 1,500 letters a week poured into CBS for the Waltons, more than even that blockbuster "All In The Family."

Eventually, even the TV moguls themselves saw the light. And when it came time to give out the much coveted Emmys, which many think are far more meaningfully awarded than the motion picture Oscars, "The Waltons" ran off with all the boddle.

 

A Peabody Award. Six Emmys:
Outstanding Continuing Dramatic Series
Best Actor in a Dramatic Series - Richard Thomas
Best Actress in a Dramatic Series - Michael Learned
Best Supporting Actress in a Dramatic Series - Ellen Corby
Outstanding Lighting Achievement for a Single Dramatic Program
- ("The Scholar" Feb. 22, 1973) - John McGreevy
Achievement in Film Editing for a Single Dramatic Program
- ("The Literary Man" Nov. 30, 1972) - Gene Fowler Jr., Marjorie Fowler, Anthony Wollner

 

The men behind the show were not really suprised at all at the success of their "sleeper." Somehow or other, they sensed the values they were handling, and had faith that the great odds against making it on the air would overcome.

 

Jack Shea, driector, like practically everyone connected with the show, sincerly turns the credit over to the author, Earl Hamner Jr. "In my very first experience on the show last year when it was first starting on the air, I sensed the something different and exciting here. What is different and exciting is that there is absolute honesty in the scripts. Earl Hamner wants it authentic, he goes to tremendous trouble, and this was imbedded in me in the first moment I was here. I remenber saying last fall I'm working on 'The Waltons' and people didn't know what 'The Waltons' was. But now it seems as if the show has the potential for staying on forever. I have to give credit to Hamner because he's the person who devised all of this."

 

The members of the cast are unanimous in praise of Hamner. Richard Thomas, John-Boy, cannot say enough about the author. Earl is in his office right here every day and he is always available. He comes down to the set all the time to talk to us. Without him I think we'd be lost. We contribute and yet he's the one that keeps it all together. He's always there and it's never like 'I know and you don't so don't bother me.' And that's the way it's been for us."

 

Earl Hamner, whose novels gave birth to the people who populate "The Walton's" is a rangy, red-haired, befreckled man gifted with total recall, an abiding affinity for anecdotes, and an adorned writing style which seems particularly well-suited to the stories he tells.

 

The stories Hamner tells, in turn, derive from his boyhood recollections of his own family's life in his Blue Ridge birthplace (1923), Schuyler, Virginia, hard by Charlottesville, seat of the University of Virginia. The family consisted of Hamner's parents, three younger sisters, four younger brothers, and the grandparents.

 

Hamner is unique in that he is the only man to see his life unfold each week on a television series. He also participates in the program in another way. Each episode opens and closes with John-Boy as an adult, doing off-screen narration. The voice viewers hear doing the narration is Hamner's, still Virginia flavored.

"The Walton's" reflects Hamner's own life to a degree which is startling. He too scribbled away like John-Boy after the chores were done on the Virginia farm.

The young author studied at the University of Richmond and Northwestern, and ultimately wound up writing at WLW, Cincinnati, a well known training ground for creative people in radio. Then to New York as a staff writer for the NBC Radio Network. He wrote scads of good stuff for radio and television, amd in the meantime had published two successful novels, Fifty Roads to Town (1953) and Spenser's Mountain (1960). Hollywood seemed about right for the next step. But it was, as it is for everyone, a tough nut to crack. He coudn't get a job writing for the movies until he deluged Rod Serling with a flood of story ideas and managed to convince the maestro to try a few Hamner screen treatments. Since then Hamner has written for virtually every major television series, film or otherwise. His dramatic success with "The Waltons" has set him apart, happily, and at the summit.

 

Earl Hamner Jr., would appeal to central casting as the ideal figure of the great author. He is ruggedly handsome, articulate (as many authors are not), friendly (as many authors are not), remarkably modest (as few authors are), and immediately likable. He is not ashamed that he is concerned with the matters of the human heart. He states that his writing for "The Waltons" concerns the nobility of ordinary people. That in itself is a rather noble thing to say -but there's your answer to what makes "The Waltons" the winner it is.

 

Hamner struck it rich in Hollywood -that is, Lee Rich, his producer. Lee Rich is presently president of Lorimar Productions, which handles "The Waltons." He came to this via Ohio University, a long stint as an advertising executive in various agencies, and at length Benton & Bowles, at the time TV's leading agency in volume dollar. There Rich handled the purchase of TV properties for such clients as Proctor & Gamble, General Foods and other such giants. In the end, being that close to the entertainment business, he succumbed to the lure of producing it himself. The result was a long list of awards, and end result of all, his triumph with "The Waltons."

 

According to Rich, "Story lines are not a great problem. You must remember it's Earl Hamner's own life. Our major problem was that we had a permanent cast of eleven people and a semi-permanent cast of thirteen people and how to use all these people and how to focus in on them and let the public know what kind of family they were.

"I think that 'The Waltons' is first a look at the past. Second, I think many people imagine their family like the Waltons, imagine the life that the Waltons have in their family, or pray that they were like that. Young college students and high school students say, 'Gee, that's the way my family is,' or 'I hope that's the way my family can be,' or 'l hope that when I get married that my family will be that way.' 'The Waltons' is universal."

Quite obviously, what we have in "The Waltons" is a rare combination of the right talents in the right place at the right time.. Perhaps at no other precise time in recent TV could the show have created such an effect-its time had come.

 

The casting in itself was a masterpiece. Patricia Neal had been the star of "The Homecoming," but she could not handle an extended TV series because of her health, so Michael Learned got the part of the mother, Olivia. Her acting background had been chiefly Shakespearean, perhaps because much of her life had been spent in England. She had even auditioned for the Sadler Wells ballet when she was twelve, and was rejected, incidentally, because they said she had flat feet, a ruling which she still spiritedly challenges. It is difficult to imagine her as a Noel Coward heroine, brittle and worldly, but Private Lives was one of her successes prior to the grueling tests for the Olivia Walton part. The TV camera does funny things to people. On the several days I watched Michael Learned on the set she was always wearing the motherly poor, Thirties wardrobe of Olivia, but she could hardly hide the fact that her slender, tall figure is beautifully svelte and striking. She wore no padding that was discernible while they were shooting an apparently final take for a fall show to be called "The Odyssey," yet when I saw her recently on the TV screen, she appeared to be lumpified in all sorts of unlikely spots into more motherliness than she could physically provide in person. Encountered in her on-the-lot dressing room, she is curled up reading Maxim Gorky, and looking fifteen years younger than her TV role. She wears very little makeup on stage, nor does she need it. Her face, neck, and shoulders are cameo-like and she needs no cosmetics to be an extraordinarily beautiful woman. Even as Michael Learned, she is calm and low- voiced. That remote, clinging sadness about her as the mother would appear to be part of her real character, a touch of muted poetry. Everyone in the cast is crazy about her.

 

The father, Ralph Waite, is equally interesting offstage. Like Michael Learned he is pleasingly younger offstage, although no one would want them more youthful in the show. Waite is also unflattered by the TV camera. On your screen he is a solid, good-looking, middle-aged man of strength, durable good humor, and Christian character. He wears makeup to age him, but the camera really thickens his muscular, but trimly athletic, build. He dresses fashionably, with a mod touch, and altogether gives the impression of "acting" his role while most of the others seem to be fitting their own personalities into their parts without conscious effort. His ease in the role is a tribute to his professional competence. Yet something valuable of his own is also added, a father's strength of character, perhaps because Waite was once a preacher before he turned to acting.

 

The rest are settled in their parts like old shoes. Will Geer and Ellen Corby as the grandparents positively rejoice in the perfection of their characterizations. As old troupers both, they know every minute inflection of voice or slightest body English to add a touch of emphasis to the script. You have seen Ellen Corby in a thousand parts. She is one of those remarkable bit actresses who is as familiar to you as a close relative. She is a steadying influence all along the line. When a scene is being reshot over and over again because something isn't quite coming off all along the line, it is a joy to see Grandma and Grandpa both, the old pros, run off their parts as immaculately the same on each retake as before. Unless they are asked to alter the action, they reform it as delicately as a master sculptor revising a surface on an almost finished work.

 

The kids are, well ... the kids. They bounce around and play their parts and act themselves most of the time. But you must also realize that they are called upon frequently to cry or get angry or be sad or sick or wistful or overjoyed, and this they have to produce as well as the adult actors. They are all very popular with the grown-ups on the set, and there is no sign that any of them are spoiled-yet-by their great success as part of the team. Not one of them is much like the other, yet they are so beautifully cast that they make up a splendid and believable family. Jon Walmsley, who plays Jason, for instance, was born in England-he's the musical one, plays guitar, mandolin, flute, drums, cello, harmonica, sings, and is a gifted composer. On one Walton show, Jason wrote "Ironing Board Blues" and played it on his harmonica and guitar in the rhythm of Ellen Corby's ironing. Judy Norton plays Mary Ellen, and although she was born in Santa Monica, her mother was an English music hall performer. She, too, plays guitar and sings. She and all the other youngsters go to school right there on the set, averaging out their twenty hours a week in order to keep their world from being all acting. It is nice, they admit, to reverse the usual and have school come to you.

 

Richard Thomas, now known as John-Boy to practically everyone in the U.S., is the star of the show if it has one. He blends his own personality and acting skills to make his part really stand out. As the personification of Earl Hamner Jr., who has the pleasure of involving his own life as a boy for these millions of viewers, John-Boy keeps his little journal-he is both its author, in a man's voice, and its hero, as he plays his part-his sensitive evocation of young manhood is one of the beauties of the show. Actually, he is a veteran on the stage, which explains how a thinking and articulate young man of twenty two can handle the role of an unsophisticated teen-ager so smoothly.

 

He made his acting debut at the age of six, playing young John Roosevelt in the Broadway hit, Sunrise at Campobello. He's been on "Marcus Welby," "Hallmark Hall of Fame," and in quite a few motion pictures.

Richard Thomas is loaded with talent. He's a native New Yorker whose parents, Richard Thomas and Barbara Fallis, operate The New York School of Ballet. Richard himself is no mean dancer, but what he uses it for chiefly is as an important discipline of his acting-movement. If you watch him closely on your next -Thursday night with the Waltons, you'll catch his splendid physical conditioning and control. He plays it down, but it's there.

 

In person Richard has a lot of John-Boy in him. He is very much the leader of the young Waltons offstage, very thoughtful in his manner towards others, very ebullient and fun-loving. He laughs easily and often, But he knows what show biz is all about. He was the first person to be cast in "The Homecoming," and he says he just knew it would become a series. He was not so sure it would succeed, however, because "it is a quality show" and they have had in the past a limited audience appeal.

"I like to think that we give the public an hour when the entire family can sit around and the parents don't have to endure the children watching a children's show and the children don't have to be bored watching an adult show and everyone can get something out of this by sharing the experience."

 

Does he react personally to the others?

"The funny thing is that when I play a scene with Ralph Waite, it's like being with my father; it's not pretend, there's nothing pretend about it. Same with Michael and the brothers and sisters and Will and Ellen. "I love the show because we have grown even in the course of one year. On watching the repeats I have noticed an incredible change in the characters in that at the beginning of the year John-Boy had certain anxieties and problems that he seems to have almost outgrown by the end of the year. Now the second son Jason is taking over some of those problems. 'Daddy, when am I going to be involved?' At the beginning of the year it was John-Boy who was constantly thinking and dreaming about the outside world and asking questions and now it's the young girl, Mary Ellen, who is going through that phase."

Does Richard Thomas, a New Yorker, enjoy playing a farm boy?

"It's very satisfying. Oddly, my father was born and raised during the Depression in a mining town in eastern Kentucky which is a hop, skip, and jump away from Walton's Mountain. My grandparents still live in Kentucky and I spend a lot of time in the country. Then my father became a ballet dancer. Maybe it's something of the same kind of fact that he should leave Muddy Branch, Kentucky, to become a ballet dancer as that Earl Hamner should leave Virginia and become a writer."

There's so much about "The Waltons," seen as they make the show, which indicates the love that goes into this production. It starts with the big picture, and goes right down into details which no one possibly could notice on TV. But the Walton people want to make it right. Ed Grace, the art director of the show, used to be a painter and a fellow student with Norman Rockwell at the Art Students League in New York. "I don't paint scenes anymore-I build them." He designed the Walton farmhouse interiors, plunked down as they are in the maw of the Burbank studio, vast as an echoing cathedral. From a practical standpoint, this must include some knowledge of how to use the medium effectively. For instance, the Walton kitchen has been built bigger than life-size. The TV camera will squeeze it down, and also there must be plenty of room for the actors to move about without bumping into each other. But then we come down to the details of the house. Real arrows and arrowheads on the walls of John-Boy's room upstairs. Three Raggedy Ann dolls on the girls' beds. Grandma's crocheting is first-rate. On the parlor upright piano, believe it or not,,there is the sheet music of "Mississippi Mud," "My Sweeter Than Sweet," "That's All There Is, There Ain't No More Blues," and one incredible touch-the music for "Our Al," a song written to celebrate the election of Al Smith as President of the United States. Al never made it, but there he is on the cover of the music, and there's the White House behind his picture. it was close, Al.

 

In the kitchen there's the ice cream freezer you turn by hand, a beer making crock, iron stove and iron hardware. On the wall is a calendar of the Thirties which must gladden Will Geer's heart-issued by a grain feed ' fertilizer, and coal outfit in New Lisbon, Indiana. There's an antique sewing machine. The wooden Zenith radio you see being triumphantly carried into the house as the first scene, their signature, of every "Waltons" show. On the living room wall, a real honest-to-goodness sampler, created by Anne Elizabeth Cooper, aged nine years, in 1845:

"On Jordan's stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan's fair and happy land
Where my possessions lie."

In another part of the huge studio is the general store, a monument to the crew's passion for detail. On the wall, a Flexible Flyer sled, a great wheeled coffee grinder. A rolltop desk, with FDR's picture on the wall behind it. Barber shop, with mugs and brushes. Cracker barrel filled with crackers. (I ate one, and while it probably didn't date from the Thirties, it was dated, all right.) "Hairnets-3 for 18õ. Beef for Stew 16õ a pound." A real post office, with decks of little boxes. An FBI wanted poster, also genuine: Willie MacDonald, for kidnapping, December 8, 1936. (Did they ever catch him?)

 

Walk out of the studio and onto the nearby outdoor lot, and you are in the little Virginia mountain village of Rock Ridge. Walk into the Thirties on a dirt road. There is the jail and the Rock Ridge Cattlemen's Association. A tiny hotel, its eaves, porch and lattices covered with gingerbread woodwork. The Walton's Mountain School, Jefferson County. Here is an "A" Ford roadster parked on the dirt street. A Chevy touring car. A snazzy Chrysler convertible with a rumble seat. The Walton truck even has a Thirties license plate-from Illinois, though. On the town green is a charming little gazebo, made to order for a firemen's band and a Fourth of July orator. The outdoor scenes, incidentally, are shot at the Angelus National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains. The terrain and the trees and paths there are oddly un-California-like-very much like Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountain country. A dream comes over you as you stroll down the middle of the town. You are in the Thirties. You are in Virginia. You are a Walton.

 

Is it any wonder that Earl Hamner's widowed mother reports that she has carloads of visitors every day, in Schuyler, Virginia, some from the Midwest, asking where the rest of the Walton family is? That's where we started out in this article, as fantasy suddenly became reality. "Has the Post ever received any manuscripts from John-Boy yet?" Well, nothing is impossible, as we all discover, and John-Boy, Richard Thomas, becomes a published author in this issue of the Post.

 

Where will the Waltons go from here? Producer Rich and author Earl Hamner plan to have the plot grow up along with them, and take them where life would send them, rather than freeze them forever at one moment in time. John-Boy will go to college, the others, wherever. But the Walton homestead will be the focal place always, and the theme, unchanging. One of my favorites in the series was the story of "The Literary Man," the "author" Who came to stay at the Waltons' and turned John- Boy's head with quotations from Moby Dick and the famous writers he had known in Chicago. Until it is revealed at length that he is just another of those talking authors who never got any stories into print. The man has a flawed nobility: in the end it is his sacrifice which saves the life of one of the Walton children. Like all of the outsiders who stray into the Walton circle, to first delight and then trouble the Waltons-in the form of actresses, ex-war heroes, and jazz-bo city slickers - he has brought with him his small problem, his temptation, his excitement, and usually his unsung downfall. But they have learned from him some irreplaceable thing in this touchingly human exchange. As John-Boy writes in his diary, to close the sequence of "The Literary Man," perhaps we learn Earl Hamner's secret of the success of this rare show:

 

Often when I face the silent challenge of a blank piece of paper I remember the Literary Man and the advice he gave me. I struggle to keep faith with him and set down the small things, the love and sacrifice and joy that sustained one family who lived out the Depression at the foot of Walton's Mountain.

 

That's it. Earl Hamner has gone and given us back something of ourselves, small but important things we may have thought until now we had lost. They constitute, I suspect, the better side of us all. If that is his gift, we owe him , and the Walton family, a vote of thanks.

 

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