The 1960s are often remembered as a time of marked political and social upheaval in America, and despite this -- or maybe, because of this -- the decade also produced a host of television programs with a distinctly cracker-barrel appeal. On CBS alone, there was “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Mayberry, R.F.D,” and of course, “Petticoat Junction,” whose first season comes out today on DVD (CBS and Paramount Home Entertainment, $42.99).
The show, which was created by Paul Henning (“Beverly Hillbillies”) and premiered on CBS in fall 1963, was set in the quaint fictional town of Hooterville and revolved around the Bradlee family -- widowed Kate (Bea Benaderet), her three nubile daughters Billie Joe (Jeannine Riley), Bobbie Jo (Pat Woodell) and Betty Jo (Linda Kaye Henning) and their rather slow-moving Uncle Joe (Edgar Buchanan) -- who owned and operated the Shady Rest Hotel.
The town’s only transportation was an old steam engine run by Charley Pratt (Smiley Burnette) and Floyd Smoot (Rufe Davis), who had his eye on Kate. The series attracted several old-time guest stars, including Charles Lane, as well as a pre-"Easy Rider” Dennis Hopper.
“I tell you the people who watched it really identified with it because they lived those lives,” said Linda Henning, now 63. “That was what they wanted to see. It meant a lot to them. So many people would talk to me about it telling me ‘That is so much like my town, but I wish your family was like my family.’ It was really nice.”
Though Henning is the daughter of the series’ creator, her father didn’t originally write Betty Jo for her. (But he did include his daughter’s love for animals in the role - today, Henning is a docent at the Los Angeles Zoo.)
“He wrote the series for Bea Benaderet,” she said. “He had worked with her for many years and Bea went with him to see me in a play I was doing at a neighborhood playhouse. She said, ‘Paul, why in the world won’t you let your daughter try out for Betty Jo?’ ”
But her father feared he would be accused of nepotism. So Henning went through screen tests and approvals from the rest of the cast and crew before she was hired.
Henning was the only constant among the actresses who played her older sisters. Riley and Woodell left after the second season. Lori Saunders played Bobbie Jo from 1965to 1970; Meredith MacRae was the third and last actress to play Billie Joe.
“They wanted to pursue other careers,” says Henning of her departed TV siblings. “It was tough. But we all got along and I tested with the [other] the girls and they asked me my opinion.”
Betty Jo also grew up in front of America, falling in love, marrying and having a baby. Henning was briefly married to the actor who played her TV spouse, Mike Minor.
Benaderet died of lung cancer in 1968. “It was terrible,” Henning recalled. “The last few shows we knew she was very ill. They recorded her voice, and there would be a stand in. She was not well enough to do the episode where I have the baby.”
Eventually, June Lockhart, from “Lost in Space” and “Lassie,” was brought on to play Dr. Janet Craig, who came to Hooterville to replace the town’s retired physician.
“She was absolutely perfect for replacing Bea,” Henning said. “She wasn’t trying to be our mother -- she was a doctor. We were just very lucky.”
By spring 1970, however, all of the rural homespun shows were put out to pasture. Henning recalled what Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on “Petticoat” spinoff “Green Acres,” said: “CBS canceled every show with a tree.”