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The Waltons: Down-Home Rural Drama Of That Un-'70s Show

Entertainment | December 19, 2020

Mary Elizabeth McDonough and Will Geer appear in a scene from an episode of the television family drama series 'The Waltons.' (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

The Waltons, a TV drama about a family in rural Virginia during the Great Depression, was remarkably out of step with the '70s -- so why was it so popular? At the time America was deep in the throes of the counter culture, and this sincere, hokey series ran against the grain from the tune in, turn on, drop out generation. But somehow it became one of the most beloved shows of the era, spawning six made for TV movie sequels, and even making its way into a speech by President Bush in 1992. What was it about The Waltons that America loved?

On December 19, 1971, CBS aired The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, a slice of life drama about The Waltons. This made for TV Christmas movie became an immediate classic, and was so popular that it was developed into The Waltons, a series that ran for nine seasons.

A Homespun Look At The Great Depression

source: Warner Bros.

Set in Jefferson County, Virginia, between 1933 and 1946, the Walton family lives on Walton Mountain, a placed based on community called Schuyler in Nelson County, Virginia. Setting the series during the Great Depression might be the least '70s thing that a show could do.

It's not just that the series took place in the '30s, but it gave an accurate account of the way in which people across the country were financially floundering. During the Depression, Virginians of all stripes were hit hard, and like the Waltons, they supplemented their meager incomes from farming or lumber work with hunting and odd jobs.

The series didn't shy away from showing just how poor the Walton family was, and how they had to struggle to make ends meet on a day to day basis. 

Earl Hamner Based The Series On His Upbringing

source: The Hollywood Reporter

The main reason that The Waltons was such a historically accurate show was due to creator Earl Hamner. The homespun stories of a Virginia family were based on his life growing up in Virginia. Hamner's father worked at a DuPont factory in Waynesboro, Virginia, where he stayed in a boarding house during the week before walking home to be with his family at their rural home on the weekends.

The elder Hamner's snowy walk on Christmas Eve in 1933 served as the catalyst for the story "The Homecoming," which became the pilot for The Waltons. Hamner mined his own life to make the series as realistic as possible, including the way that his family said goodnight from their separate beds - something that became a trademark for the series. Further tying Hamner's real life experiences to the series was his job as narrator. Initially he wasn't going to narrate the show, but after every other voice over artists turfed out he took the job. He explained:

When we were producing The Homecoming, we auditioned just about every professional narrator in town. Finally, Fielder Cook, the director, said, ‘We need somebody who sounds as homespun as Earl.’ He thrust a microphone in front of my face and told me to read the copy. It was a particularly moving segment about my feelings for my family, and I felt very deeply about what I was reading. When I looked over at Fielder, I could see that he was moved and that I had the job.

The Series Was A Ratings And Merchandising Smash

source: fanpop

In its second season, The Waltons placed second in the Nielson ratings and it received 39 Emmy nominations, winning 13. Looking back at the context in which The Waltons existed, it's strange that such a home spun, quiet show was such a primetime juggernaut. At the same time that the series was trouncing its prime time adversaries, it was also raking in cash through merchandising. There were toys, lunch boxes, and even sheet music for the theme song. The Waltons was an industry in the same way that Scooby Doo and Kiss became their own enterprises in the same decade.

The Waltons Were A Real American Family

source: Warner Bros.

The most popular television show in 1971 was All in the Family, a look at American society in the wake of the tumultuous '60s. Like The Waltons, it's a beloved series, but how did a quiet series about a Great Depression era family succeed when loudmouthed, bigoted Archie Bunker was the biggest star of the era?

The fact that The Waltons was out of step with entertainment in the '70s is one of the things that made it so popular. In the early '70s, television viewers were confronted with images from the Vietnam war, the Kent State massacre, and troubles brewing in Ireland. It makes perfect sense that people tuned in to The Waltons to live in a world that was much slower, where families weren't confronted with the wretched state of the world on a nightly basis.

More importantly than giving audiences a break from their daily routine, creator Earl Hamner says that the cast of the Waltons became like a real family, which may have gave home sick viewers a taste of what they were missing. It was a family united against the world, not divided against each other. He explained:

I think that, because they portrayed a family, the actors developed family-type feelings for each other. They were more like brothers and sisters than like actors going to a set. I think a lot of that had to do with a quality that Ralph Waite and Michael Learned had. These children practically grew up together. Kami Cotler, who was six when we started the series and 16 when we finished it, had grown up on that show, as the other kids did.

Audiences Were Able To Watch The Waltons Grow

source: Warner Bros.

The 1970s was a tumultuous decade, and not unlike the 1930s, the decade in which The Waltons begins. While the Walton family may have been able to help viewers get in touch with their small town beginnings, the series also served as a reminder that life goes on, that things get better with time.

Each of the Walton children grows up, they fall in love, the go to school and they change into someone better and wiser. It may not be comforting to think about the passage of time on a constant basis, but this close-knit family from Virginia showed viewers that there was always something to look forward to. Richard Thomas, who played John Boy on the series, explained:

[John-Boy is] at home in the bosom of his family, in the culture in which he’s growing up and fully a part of it, but also apart from it. He’s not only in it, he’s observing it.

The same could be said for many people who were growing up with the Walton family; they were experiencing the '70s while observing it as if from a distance. It's no wonder that The Waltons touched so many lives, it was like watching your own family, just better.

Tags: The Waltons

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.