Paul Henning was one of the most successful television creators in the 1960s. He was able to master bringing rural life to the small screen and created TV comedies that remained influential for generations. The year after his successful series The Beverly Hillbillies aired, Henning created the CBS sitcom Petticoat Junction.
Paul Henning's wife Ruth had a grandmother who operated a hotel in Eldon, Missouri. Many of the stories in the show came from the experiences of her mother. Henning knew that character actress Bea Benaderet would be perfect for the show. Her voice had been used in cartoons, including as Betty Rubble on The Flintstones, and she had appeared in The Beverly Hillbillies as Cousin Pearl Bodine. She was ready to star in her own show.
Set in the fictional town of Hooterville, Petticoat Junction follows Kate Bradley, the owner of The Shady Rest Hotel, which she runs with daughters Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo, and Betty Jo as well as her uncle Joe Carson. Betty Jo was played by the creator's daughter, Linda Henning. Kate Bradley was played by Bea Benaderet, who became the heart and soul of the show during its run. Petticoat Junction was immediately a hit.
"There wasn't any violence, swearing, and nothing risqué," Lori Saunders, who portrayed brunette Bobbie Jo in the show, told Closer Weekly. "It was a healthy show you could watch with your children."
The show's theme song, "Petticoat Junction," was later recorded by Flatt & Scruggs, who famously recorded "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" for The Beverly Hillbillies.
The show also focused on the Hooterville Cannonball, a fictional steam train in Hooterville. The real train was known as Sierra No. 3 and had appeared in numerous westerns before the show, including The Virginian and High Noon. The Hooterville Cannonball is run by its engineer Charley Pratt, played by Smiley Burnette, and its conductor, Floyd Smoot, played by Rufe Davis. The Shady Rest Hotel is located on the Cannonball's water stop, so you get to see all the goings-on in this small town throughout the series. The railroad's nemesis, Homer Bedloe (played by Charles Lane), repeatedly tries to shut down the Hooterville Cannonball.
Sharon Tate was attached to play Betty Jo, but producers felt she wasn't ready to play a lead. She was replaced by Jeannine Riley for the first two seasons. This was a role that ended up having a lot of turnover throughout the show's run. Gunilla Hutton replaced Riley in season 3 before Meredith MacRae entirely took over until the end of the series. Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo and Betty Jo were all skilled singers and had their own Beatles tribute band, The Ladybugs. They even appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Outside of some casting changes, the overall feel of Petticoat Junction changed throughout its run. What first started as a quirky situation comedy about the town, shifted to focus on Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo and Betty Jo and Betty Jo's romance with Steve. After Bea Benaderet passed away from lung cancer at the beginning of filming season 6, the show even became one of the few on broadcast television to have a female doctor appear as a lead. June Lockhart was fresh off Lost in Space and jumped in to play Shady Rest Hotel guest, Dr. Janet Craig, a new mother figure for the three Bradley sisters for the last two seasons of the show. Petticoat Junction started focusing on more progressive themes and female empowerment -- all in its comedic setting.
The show was so successful after the first couple of seasons, the Hooterville universe expanded with a spin-off series, Green Acres. Characters from Green Acres, including Fred and Doris Ziffel, Arnold the Pig, Newt Kiley and Ben Miller, even made appearances on Petticoat Junction. While there were more cross-overs with Green Acres, Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies also comes to town and helps with Betty Jo and Steve's baby. "Dog," who would later go on to star in his own show as Benji, also crossed over between Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.
After seven seasons, Petticoat Junction ended its run in 1970. The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres wrapped the following year. All three will forever be remembered as some of the most beloved sitcoms in television history that gave viewers a wholesome view of rural life and plenty of laughs.
This article was originally published in May of 2020.