In the fall of 1962, television audiences were surprised and delighted by the debut of The Beverly Hillbillies, the creation of Paul Henning, whose tenure as a writer for George Burns, Rudy Vallee, and Bob Cummings, among others, had placed him amidst the hottest names in TV comedy. After seeing the popular acceptance of, and high ratings for, The Beverly Hillbillies (which zoomed to #1 only one month after its debut, making it the fastest success in the history of American television at the time), CBS became hungry for more.
Ruth Henning, Paul's wife, offers her perspective: "Jim Aubrey, who was president of CBS kept calling Paul and saying, 'I want another Paul Henning show. Please give me another show,' and Paul said, 'I'm working myself to death now. How can I do another show?' And Jim said, 'Oh, you can. You don't have to do a pilot. I don't even need to see a pilot. I've already got the time reserved for you. It goes on the air...' such-and-such a night at such-and-such a time, 'no matter what it is.' And people in the trades were beginning to say Paul Henning could just write a page out of the telephone book and CBS would buy it."
The idea for Petticoat Junction came from within Paul Henning's own family - specifically from the childhood of his wife, as Ruth herself elaborates: "My grandparents, Willis and Martha Burris had this hotel in a little small town in the middle of Missouri. The town (population) was about 3000 - Eldon, Missouri. It didn't look anything like the Shady Rest Hotel, but it was right near the railroad station. Sometimes when I was a child, my mother would send me on the train out to visit my grandparents by myself, and she would pack me a lunch and pin the name onto my dress or something, and my grandpa would walk up to the station to meet me. My mother was the oldest of five sisters, and all of them had girls, and we all went there for our summer vacations, and we really looked forward to it. Some of us older girls, the minute we would get there, we couldn't wait to go uptown and go into the drugstore and have a Coke and give the local boys a chance to look us over. And when we got home, the telephone would start ringing, and the boys would be wanting a date with one of the 'city girls'.
"Of course, the Shady Rest was a much more beautiful place, all out in the country and everything. This was right in the little town and it wasn't so beautiful, but my grandmother was a wonderful cook, and they served meals at the big long table in the dining room with bowls that they'd pass. A lot of people came there just to eat, even if they weren't going to stay at the hotel. Now, when I go to Eldon - I still have some relatives there - they practically have a shrine to the Burris Hotel. I'm a celebrity when I go down there, because of Petticoat Junction. They say, 'This is the Petticoat Junction hotel.' The likeness was in the feeling of it. They were good country people, and everybody was very friendly."
Ruth wasn't aware that her husband had taken note of her childhood recollections to the degree that he had, until one fateful day, which she describes vividly: "Paul said, 'Well, Jim Aubrey is coming out to hear about my new program.' And I said, 'What are you going to do? You don't have a new program.' He said, 'I know. I'll think of something.' Well, he always was good at having ideas, and I suppose he'd been kicking around ideas that I didn't know about, but when Jim came out and came to his office, Paul ad-libbed this idea about the widow with three daughters living in the country hotel, who took in traveling salesmen and people like that. Of course, Jim was crazy about the idea. He says, 'Go ahead. Get it going,' and so, somehow or other, Paul got the pilot written, and I think he wrote about the first five shows, and then he hired some other writers."
Shortly before the show's debut, Paul held a press conference in his New York hotel suite. Ruth listened to Paul describe the show to the reporters and recalls his comments: "Fellas, this is about a way of life that is fast disappearing from the American scene. When people enjoy life, when they take time for each other, and when they're kind to their neighbors and they help each other out, it's a nicer, better kind of life than you see mostly today."
In 1963, a black-and-white Petticoat Junction (which originally was to have been calledWhistle Stop ) entered the CBS lineup on Tuesday evenings at 9:00; a great spot, set between The Red Skelton Hour and The Jack Benny Program. Of the premier episode, Variety wrote: "...(it) did have that bucolic, way-out setting and the people had the grace of turning upside down the unwise pace and values of today's zingy, wasted living."
Petticoat Junction was an instant hit - the first episode was the number five show of the week, and the show rated fourth in its first season with a 30.3 rating, behind Beverly Hillbillies, Bonanza, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Written by Bill Groves and Saryl T. Radwin
Based on interviews by Dave Stein
The Black & Whites
The first two seasons of Petticoat Junction were filmed in black & white, the standard of the day. They featured a slightly different cast with Jeannine Riley as Billie Jo and Pat Woodell as Bobbie Jo and have never been seen since their original airing. Only the color episodes, which ran from the fall of 1965 through 1970, have been syndicated - between 1970 and 1996, on local television stations around the country and, from 1996 to 2000, on TVLand. For special promotions, Nick at Nite/TVLand have aired two of the B&W episodes - Spur Line to Shady Rest (as part of their "First Episodes" event) and As Hooterville Goes (to coincide with political elections).
In 1997, Dave Stein was the driving force behind making 12 black & white episodes available for viewing to the general public. Paul Henning allowed Dave to select these episodes from his original 16mm films to donate to the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles and New York City.
Don't miss the chance to see these episodes. They are very special!