The TV series The Waltons inspires by a movie released in 1963 called Spencer’s Mountain. This was based on a book that Earl Hamner Jr had written with that name. There were some name changes and other adjustments to bring the story to a TV audience but the basic idea was the same.
The Waltons’ adventures begin in 1933, just as the eldest third-generation Walton – John-Boy – had reached the age of 16. The 1930s and 1940s were difficult times in America and the storylines in the series reflect how families coped with the period’s rapid changes and financial insecurity. Every episode contained life lessons and there is nothing in any of them that would lead to parental disapproval.
In fact, the show was one of the most popular on US television during the 1970s. Viewers tuned in each week to follow the daily lives of the three generations of the Walton family. Grandpa and Grandma Walton headed the family, although most of the authority rested with their son, John Sr. His wife Olivia and seven children made up the rest of the household.
Although the storylines cover mostly wholesome issues and can’t object to on moral grounds, there are some surprises for the viewing public along the way.
In this video, we at Facts Verse will try to jog your memory by showing some of those moments, re-introducing some of the characters, and reminding you of some of the stories.
In the Beginning
There were misgivings among TV executives when the proposal for The Waltons was first made. The series would feature no violence and would deal with family issues in a calm and loving way. This would be a new approach to family-based drama and many were skeptical that it would succeed.
The big advantage that The Waltons would have is that the stories featured were based on true life events that occurred in the life of Earl Hamner Jr. He had lived through the Great Depression. He had lived in The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia just like his fictional family. Like him, John-Boy yearned to be a writer.
Although The Waltons proved to be a slow burn at the start, it soon picked up a faithful audience as the weeks passed and critics and commentators praised it. By the end of the first series, it had become so popular that it won six Emmys and the Peabody Award. The series also had an educational value in that youngsters could learn about life during the Great Depression.
The Waltons proved to be so successful that it ran to nine series comprising a total of 221 episodes, plus a further six made-for-TV movies that took the family’s story up to 1969. These are broadcast between 1982 and 1997.
Who were the characters?
The Walton family comprised:
- Grandpa Walton, properly Zebulon Walton
- Grandma Walton, properly Esther Walton
- John Walton
- Olivia Walton
Then the children who were:
- John Boy
- Mary Ellen
And this brings us to the first shocking moment that you may have forgotten from The Waltons. There was an eighth child. He was Jim-Bob’s twin brother who did not survive beyond his birth. John Sr and Olivia named him Joseph Zebulon and he is only mentioned in Episode 16 of Season 4.
Other characters connected to the family included:
- Curtis Willard, who appeared in seasons 5 to 7 and once in season 9. He was Mary Ellen’s first husband. He is at the heart of another surprise you may have forgotten. Curtis is a doctor who sends to Pearl Harbor just before the Japanese attack and dies. Many years after Mary-Ellen discovers that he did not die and had been living under an assumed name. They divorce as a result.
- Cindy Walton, who married Ben and appears from series 7 onwards.
- Rose Burton who is Olivia’s cousin and comes to Walton’s Mountain to look after the family when Olivia is suffering from tuberculosis. She appears in the last two series.
Characters also living in the community of Walton’s Mountain
- The Baldwin sisters. Reasonably wealthy sisters who are both spinsters who distill ‘Papa’s recipe’. In fact, the recipe is one for moonshine, the illicit alcoholic drink popular during the period of Prohibition. Shocking in itself that two such genteel ladies could stoop so low.
- Ike Godsey is the owner of the general store and is also the postmaster.
- Corabeth Godsey is Ike’s wife, and also a cousin of the Waltons. She is a bit of a snob and tries to influence the way her husband behaves so she won’t lose face.
- Verdie and Harley Foster are an African-American couple.
- Maude Gormley is an elderly woman who is an artist and a bit of a character in the community. She specializes in painting on wood.
- Flossie Brimmer runs the local boarding house and has a reputation as a gossip and a bit of a busy-body. She is a widow by the time the storylines begin.
- Yancy Tucker is the local handyman who is willing to help anyone out, as long as they will listen to his grandiose plans for the future.
- Ep Bridges is the local sheriff – Walton’s Mountain is in Jefferson County and Ep is based at the county seat. He and John Sr are great friends as they served together in the First World War.
Regular features of the show.
Unlike many similar shows, each episode of The Waltons begins with a narrator setting the scene and furnishing some background to events. In all of the episodes, the narration creates by Earl Hamner Jr as John-Boy. The narration takes the form of John-Boy reminiscing about his youth on Walton’s Mountain.
Every episode of the series featured a similar ending in which the house is shown in darkness with just two or three windows lit. Voices from each of the lit rooms make comments about the events of the day and end with everyone wishing each other ‘good night’. The lights then go out.
Each of the 221 episodes of The Waltons center around a particular incident or problem faced by the family. The story arc is based on the family home at Walton’s Mountain in Virginia. At the start – in 1933 – times are tough and the family are just about managing by farming and running their lumber mill. The mill runs by John Sr with some help from his sons as they grow up. The early episodes see the children often barefoot, running and walking everywhere. Their clothes are largely home-made and their life seems almost idyllic. Harsh realities are not ignored, though, and there are problems to face and solve and issues that require guidance and wisdom from the adult members of the family.
As the spectre of war approaches and times are even harder, so the children are forced to approach life in an adult way, and contribute to the family’s income. John-Boy wants to become a writer and he is able to become a journalist and later, a novelist. As a journalist, he is able to observe events going on around him and write about them. Some historical events feature in the series. One that is quite a shocking moment is when he travels to Lakehurst in New Jersey in 1937 to witness the arrival of the airship Hindenburg from Germany. Unfortunately, the airship collides with its mooring pylon and bursts into flames. John-Boy is quite affected by the accident and realizes that he is lucky to be able to see such things and report them in the press.
The more shocking events do tend to take place in the later seasons. Often they reflect the events in the lives of the actors. When Will Geer dies, the producers decide that Grandpa Walton should die too. It seems that re-casting was not considered to be appropriate. Just before Will Geer passes, Ellen Corby the actress playing Grandma Walton suffered a stroke. The producers reflected this, too, by causing Esther Walton to suffer a stroke.
Her return to Walton’s Mountain leads to some touching scenes with various members of the family, but the death of Grandpa Walton soon afterwards gives those episodes real pathos.
America’s entry into the Second World War leads to all of the Walton sons joining the military. The next shock for the family is when John-Boy’s plane is shot down. He survives, but there are some worrying times for the family.
Olivia decides she needs to use her skills as a nurse to help injured veterans and volunteers at a local VA hospital. This means she is seen much less regularly around the family home, and then not at all. This is because she contracts tuberculosis and is sent to a sanatorium in Arizona. John Sr then visits her regularly and eventually moves permanently to Arizona to be with her. This is when Rose Burton, who is Olivia’s cousin, moves into the house to take care of the family.
Another shocking event that the family find very affecting is the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963. This features in the fourth made-for-TV film A Walton Thanksgiving. World events do certainly play a part in both the series and the TV films. Like many American families the Waltons live their lives against the backdrop of national and international events.
One shocking event that shows just how the news from overseas can affect a community comes in Season 5 Episode 5. John-Boy, now a journalist, makes the decision to publish some excerpts from Adolf Hitler’s writings in his newspaper. The community are alarmed and upset by this, and decide to stage a book-burning in response. John-Boy has to persuade them that they are taking the wrong approach. He wants to show what they will be fighting against.
The war affects the family in a much more personal way in Episode 2 of Season 8. John Sr helps out at the draft board but one of the men he signs up is killed and his father vows revenge. The family again have to pull together to put things straight.
The revelation that Jim-Bob’s twin had died at the time of his birth came as a shock to audiences in Episode 16 of Season 4. The infant mortality rate was high in rural communities in the US before and during the Great Depression, but it was still something of a stigma for a family when an infant death occurred. It would not have been unusual for the Walton family to have kept the death a secret.
In Season 4 Episode 18 the family home is almost destroyed by fire. John-Boy believes he is partly responsible as he was smoking a pipe while Grandpa leaves a heater burning. Whichever of them caused the fire, the result was quite shocking. Apart from the destruction of the house, John-Boy has to abandon his completed novel to the flames in order to save Erin.
The Waltons was a magnificent success during the 1970s and early 1980s and the fans continued to follow the lives of the family in six TV movies. For many devoted fans, Walton’s Mountain was like a second home and the family members were part of their own families. Fans identified with the characters and related to the problems they faced. Although set 40 years in the past the issues were just as relevant in the 1970s.
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