Petticoat Junction: History and Review of the 1960s TV Series

Petticoat Junction: History and Review

Photo: CBS Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The American rural-based sitcom known as Petticoat Junction aired for the first time on the CBS Network on September 24, 1963. From 1963 until 1965, the series was shot and viewed in black and white. Eventually, the series switched to color from 1965 until 1970. The core storyline focuses on the widowed mother, Kate Bradley (played by Bea Benaderet), and her three daughters, who together run an out-of-town establishment called Shady Rest Hotel. The oldest daughter, Billie Jo, was originally played by Jeannine Riley for the first two seasons then replaced by Gunilla Hutton for the third season until finally Meredith MacRae from the show’s fourth season until its end at the seventh season.

The second daughter, Bobbie Jo, was first played by Pat Woodell for the first two seasons, then by Lori Saunders from the third to seventh season. Finally, the youngest daughter, Betty Jo, was played by Linda Kaye Henning, who kept the role from the start of the series to its end. Helping the ladies run their hotel is Uncle Joe Carson, who was played by Edgar Buchanan.

The Series Junction of Petticoat Junction

After the run of his previously successful The Beverly Hillbillies, producer Paul Henning creates a new series, Petticoat Junction, plus its roster of characters, in a sitcom series that mixes urban with rural environments. Although the credits show Paul Henning, he actually credits his wife, Ruth, whose grandmother ran a similar hotel out of Eldon, Missouri. The series begins with Kate Bradley becoming the proprietor of the Shady Rest Hotel, which is located at a water stop along the C. & F.W. Railroad’s isolated branch line. that has since been disconnected by demolition.

The train on this line only travels between the farming community of Hooterville and its small neighboring town, Pixley. Smack in the middle between the two locations is Petticoat Junction, which is where Bradley’s hotel is located. A journey of twenty-five miles in either direction takes you to the town of choice. When asked why the Shady Rest Hotel is built where it is, Bradley explains her grandfather stubbornly built the hotel there because that’s where the lumber to build it fell off the train it was on. Despite being called a junction, the location of the hotel was really at a water stop and not an actual crossing. And this is made evident when the opening credits would suggest the Bradley sisters are skinny dipping in the railway’s water tower as their petticoats are draped over the side.

Built as an old-fashioned, Victorian-style hotel, The Shady Rest can only be reached by train or by a semi-maintained fire road. Guests staying at the hotel share the bathroom facilities, as well as the family’s large dining table where the widowed Kate Bradley serves meals from her woodburning stove, especially the family’s favorite chicken n’ dumplings. Petticoat Junction was a series written for Bea Benadret by Henning, who was inspired by his wife’s own stories about her time at her grandmother’s Burris Hotel, which was located at a derelict set of tracks in Eldon. Henning wanted the veteran actress to star in a series he wanted to be sure would win the network and the audience.

From Beginning to End

Throughout the first three seasons of Petticoat Junction, the series focused on the localized humor between the homestead and the village. Due to cast changes which ultimately lead to Meredith MacRae honing the role of Billy Jo Bradley from the fourth season until the seventh, as well as Lori Saunders taking over the role of Bobbi Jo Bradley from the third season until the end, the tone of the series changed. Becoming more of a domestic comedy that now included musical performances, some episodes would feature as many as three songs. The addition of MacRae’s version of Billie Jo, plus Mike Minor cast as Steve Elliott, a love interest for Bobbi Jo, are credited to the show’s shift in storytelling.

The original Billie Jo Bradley started off as a ditsy blonde who was too boy crazy until MacRae took over the role. The character then became a strong, independent woman. The character of Bobbi Jo Bradley changed from her walking encyclopedia persona to flighty comic relief when Saunders took over the role.

The character of Kate Bradley also underwent noticeable changes after the first two seasons of Bea Bernadet sporting a rather plain countrywoman from the farm. When the series began to film in color, the previously dowdy Kate Bradley now featured a more sophisticated style where she even wore high heels. However, come the fifth season of the show, Benaderet was unable to maintain a full-time schedule as the show’s character as she underwent lung cancer treatment.

As temporary replacements to serve as mother figures, actress Rosemary DeCamp was cast as Kate’s sister, Helen, and actress Shirley Mitchell as Cousin Mae. When it was announced in 1968 Benaderet survived her cancer treatment, she returned to reprise her role as Kate Bradley as the fifth season’s finale episode. In the series, it was mentioned Kate was simply out of town to justify her disappearance, but there was never anything brought up as to where or why.

Upon the start of the show’s sixth season, it was learned Benaderet’s cancer had returned. After only the third episode, the actress no longer personally appeared on the show. Her voice was heard on the fourth episode when the characters of Betty Jo and Steve Elliott have their first baby. Benaderet’s stand-in, Edna Laird, would appear as Kate Bradley, but only be seen from the backside. There were a few flashback scenes that briefly showed Benaderet as Kate Bradley, but that was it. On October 13. 1968, Bea Bernadet died due to complications of cancer that had returned.

Beginning Of the End

Bea Benaderet had many fans. When it was made public she was ill, she received even more fan mail than before as well-wishers poured in their support. It was clear right from the beginning Petticoat Junction’s main star was Benaderet, so when she fell ill and was unable to appear on the show full-time, the matter had to be handled carefully. During an era where it’s unheard of for the main character to die off, instead of having the character of Kate Bradley deceased, the storyline had it she was out of town. It was also decided the role of Kate Bradley would not be recast, nor to keep Rosemary DeCamp as the lead character’s sister full-time. Instead, a new character was introduced to the series, Doctor Janet Craig (played by June Lockhart), who takes up a medical practice at the hotel, as well as serves as a confidant to the Bradley sisters.

Petticoat Junction without its main star just isn’t the same and it’s made obvious when the show’s ratings take a nosedive through the run of the sixth season. Already season five saw the series suffer due to a lack of screentime from Benaderet due to her illness that claimed her life, so when there was a failure to rev up the series back to its former glory, it was uncertain if there would be the seventh season. At the last minute, however, the network decided to give the show another run as they wanted to achieve the five-year mark for filming a series for five consecutive years. They saw the profit potential and kept the show going until its final air date of September 12, 1970. It was replaced by the Mary Tyler Moore Show exactly one week later.

Spinning off from the series of Petticoat Junction was Green Acres, which uses the exact same Hooterville that was used in its predecessor. Between Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres, these shows serve as a trilogy series of crossover network hits that shared the same fictional universe.

 

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