Stream On: From the ridiculous to the sublime, part 2, with ‘Petticoat Junction.’

By on March 16, 2023

Before Dick Wolf created the “Law & Order” TV universe, Paul Henning created the Beverly Hills to Hooterville corridor. In 1963 he produced the low-key sequel to The Beverly Hillbillies (last week’s column), Petticoat Junction, placed in the same fictional universe with it, and later, Green Acres (about which I wrote in 2022).


/Amazon /Streaming /Pilot episode /⭐4.5/5 /1963-1970 /TVG

“Forget about your cares, it is time to relax at the junction.”

“We’re so far out of touch we don’t even have a zip code.” (Uncle Joe Carson)

With the success of The Beverly Hillbillies, CBS prevailed on Henning for another show, and his wife Ruth gave him the subject. He based the setting of Petticoat Junction, the Shady Rest Hotel and the Hooterville Cannonball train, on a hotel in Eldon, Missouri run by Ruth’s grandmother. Everything—the train and the setting details—came from her reminiscences.

In contrast to the anarchy of The Beverly Hillbillies and the post-modernism of Green Acres, Petticoat Junction was as innocent as a newborn kitten. The title conceit—that the three beautiful sisters who lived in the Shady Rest Hotel hung their petticoats on the railroad water tower in which they habitually swam—was as risqué as it ever got. There were never even any double entendres, just wholesome family comedy, nearly as funny as the stories of the Master, P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote “musical comedies without the music” (and who, I like to believe, enjoyed Petticoat Junction, too, while he lived on Long Island).

Kate Bradshaw (Radio and TV veteran Bea Benederet, The Jack Benny Show, Burns and Allen—she played Jethro Bodine’s mother in the earliest Beverly Hillbillies episodes and was the voice of The Flintstones’ Betty Rubble. She also had been the star, on radio, of Granby’s Green Acres, on which Henning’s Green Acres was partially based) ran the Shady Rest hotel with her three teen-aged daughters and her uncle, Joe Carson (Edgar Buchanan, The Andy Griffith Show et al.). The Shady Rest lay near the center of a C&FW railroad branch line that had become disconnected from the main line after a flood destroyed a trestle twenty years before the start of the series: on one end was the farming town of Hooterville and on the other the small city of Pixley. The “Hooterville Cannonball” was a tiny train consisting of an 1890’s steam locomotive (Sierra No. 3, Gunsmoke et al.) and a single combination baggage/passenger car and was operated more like a taxi service by engineer Charley Pratt (Smiley Burnette) and fireman/conductor Floyd Smoot (Rufe Davis).

In 1964 Henning recalled his youth in Independence, Missouri: “Every morning, the little old wood-burning train chugged into town. Every afternoon, it chugged out. Where did it go? We weren’t quite sure, but we dreamed about climbing aboard some day, in search of adventure. Its low, mournful whistle was a siren song.”

Perhaps the most famous star of the show appeared in the second season: “Dog,” played by Higgins, another protégé of master animal trainer Frank Inn—Higgins went on to star as “Benji” in a series of movies that took the world by storm in the ‘70’s.

For the first three seasons, Petticoat Junction centered on homespun humor and Hooterville’s archaic mindset. Frank Cady played grocer Sam Drucker on Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, and the three shows had some crossover episodes.

And no show that featured a train as a character could do without a villain. The great veteran character actor Charles Lane (I Love Lucy plus a long list) lovingly played curmudgeonly C&FW executive Homer Bedloe, whose mission in life was to destroy the rogue Cannonball. Everyone who watched TV in the ‘50’s knew his face from similar characters all over the dial. Lane, who began acting in the movies in the 1930’s and lived to be 102, gave a TV interview for his 100th birthday in which he said he was still available for casting.

In 1967, Smiley Burnette died of leukemia. Bea Benederet died the next year of lung cancer, and the show soldiered on with some cast changes until 1970 when it gave up the ghost amidst declining ratings. The next year it was replaced by The Mary Tyler Moore show. Network executives began paying attention to demographics, and the “rural purge” began on TV, taking Henning’s remaining shows off the air, along with The Andy Griffith Show spinoff Mayberry R.F.D., Hee-Haw, and in the words of Green Acres actor Pat Buttram, “anything with a tree,” in favor of up-to-the-minute urban shows like Mary Tyler Moore’s. I think characters like Homer Bedloe at the networks were responsible.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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