The Paramount DVD release of Petticoat Junction: The Official First Season is a surprisingly excellent set, worth getting both for the show and for the TV-history value of the extras, which include an archival interview with creator Paul Henning and numerous interviews with two of the actresses from the show (Linda Henning, “Betty Jo,” and Pat Woodell, the first “Billie Jo”). Also, as I mentioned in a post on my other blog, Paramount paid for the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” in the famous “Ladybugs” episode, and all the score cues appear to be intact, so this is not one of their butcher jobs. The show itself is not as good as the other two shows in the Henning trilogy, The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, but then, those were two of the funniest sitcoms in the history of the medium. Paul Henning also was head writer for George Burns and Gracie Allen for many years, created the bawdiest prime-time sitcom of the ’50s, The Bob Cummings Show, co-wrote a script for the movie Bedtime Story that was so good that much of it was used verbatim in the remake Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and co-wrote the hilarious advertising satire Lover Come Back, an obvious influence on the milieu of Mad Men. Talented guy, is what I’m saying.
Whereas Beverly Hillbillies was about the bizarre culture clash that ensues when four people who haven’t adjusted to modern life are thrown into the modern world (and gave us the satisfaction of seeing them triumph over modernity every week), Petticoat is more of a wallow in nostalgia, based on the comforting idea that there could be an oasis of old-fashioned living in the middle of the crazy modern world. The first episode, which really should be studied as an example of good efficient pilot writing, establishes in the first few minutes that while the whole world is moving toward modern design, modern vehicles and modern business methods, Bea Benaderet’s hotel is a place where everything — the old-fashioned train, the disdain for money and lawsuits and protocol — is the way we would like to imagine things used to be. (The way Henning does this is very simple: after introducing the setting and characters, he dissolves from the old-fashioned train to the office of the railroad company, where the head of the company and the evil Charles Lane are showing off the new, modern, “progressive” trains. Not only does this set the plot in motion when they discover that there’s one old train that doesn’t connect to the main line, but it tells us right up front that Hooterville is a place where time has stood still.) But that means that the show is more warm and sweet and cute than funny, except in the one episode where the modern world completely takes over.
The thing this show is most famous for is the bewildering array of cast changes. Nothing could compare to the biggest misfortune it suffered: Bea Benaderet died midway through the show’s run, and the writers, having written around her absence while she was sick, never got around to mentioning her character’s absence — so she was replaced (by June Lockhart as “a lady M.D.”) without even a single line to mark her passing. (Smiley Burnette, one of several Gene Autry sidekicks who got cast in Paul Henning shows, also died during the run, but his death was actually acknowledged on the show.) That would be the Jump the Shark moment if the show hadn’t already begun sucking at least a year before that. (Of the Henning trilogy, it was the only one canceled due to bad ratings. Acres and Hillbillies were canceled despite high ratings, because CBS purged all rural and older-skewing shows.)
But the most famous cast change saga revolves around two of the three girls on the show. (CBS obviously knew their demographics: if anything can keep guys watching what is obviously a female-skewing show, it’s three hot girls in a water tower.) The youngest daughter never changed, because she was the producer’s daughter. But Pat Woodell left after the second season to pursue a singing career — and on the DVD features, shows refreshingly little regret about this — and was replaced by Lori Saunders for the rest of the run. But the role of Billie Jo, the oldest daughter (I think) may be the most-recast role in terms of frequency; characters like Dr. Who may have had more people playing them in longer runs, but this part went to four different actresses in seven years, though one of them never actually appeared on the show. It went thusly:
- Sharon Tate, a protégée of Filmways president Marty Ransohoff, was given the part and posed for some publicity photos with the other two girls. But because she has posed for nude photos, the producers worried that they would have trouble with their sponsor, Ivory Soap. So they re-cast before filming began. Tate got a recurring guest role on that season of The Beverly Hillbillies as compensation.
- Jeannine Riley played the part for the first two seasons. She left the show because she felt “There wasn’t enough for me to do. I just didn’t want to stay in a series without a starring role.” She discovered what many others have discovered: while being the Generic Hot Girl on a prime time sitcom doesn’t help your career, leaving the show doesn’t help much either. She wound up as the Generic Hot Girl on Hee Haw. She was replaced by…
- Gunilla Hutton, who played the role in the third (and last decently-written) season. When she left after one season, the rumour was that she had been dropped due to her relationship with Nat King Cole, but Cole had died before she was even on the show. She later explained that she left because she got an offer to do a musical in London’s West End, and, believing that her real future was in singing and dancing, asked to leave the show. By the time she decided she’d made a mistake, she had already been replaced. She wound up on, yes, Hee Haw, while the part of Billie Jo went to…
- The late Meredith MacRae, who played the part for the last four seasons.
So there are three or, if you count Tate, four Billie Jos floating around out there. I would ask what would happen if the three Billie Jos fought a team consisting of the two Bobbie Jos and one Betty Jo, but I don’t think that’s appropriate for a serious blog like this one.
By the way, Bea Benaderet was the voice of the two women in the Tweety cartoon I posted below (she voiced most female characters in Looney Tunes from 1944 through 1954), so that makes two straight Benaderet-related posts. And why not?