Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Beverly Hillbillies at Fifty

by Pa Rock
Social Historian

Question:   What’s the first thing you know?
Answer:  Old Jed’s a millionaire.

Fifty years ago today I was an eighth-grader attending school in the little Ozark town of Noel, Missouri.    John F. Kennedy was President of the United States.  JFK was worried about Cuba (the “missile crisis” was less than a month from unfolding), and I was worried about acne.  It sounds a bit trite to refer to the fall of 1962 as being a different time in America, but it was, in truth, much less complicated than the world in which our children and grandchildren must navigate today.

Television, although a relatively young medium, had already established itself as part of our lives by the fall of 1962.   Everybody in America knew Lucy and Ricky – and Fred and Ethel – and Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty.  They were weekly visitors in our homes, and we thought of them as members of the family, or at least good friends.

The list of our intimate television friends expanded significantly on the evening of September 26th, 1962,  with the appearance of a fictional family of hillbillies from the Ozarks who discovered oil (black gold, Texas tea) on their land, sold it for $25 million, and then inexplicably moved off to Beverly Hills, California.    

Yes, this very evening fifty years ago, America was introduced to the Clampett family:  Jed (Buddy Ebsen) (an old mountaineer who barely kept his family fed), his critter-loving daughter, Elly May (Donna Douglas), his mother-in-law, Daisy “Granny” (Irene Ryan) , and his nephew (Pearl’s boy), Jethro Bodine (Max Baer, Jr).  

The Clampett’s remained a familiar part of the American television landscape for the nine years that the show aired  its nearly three hundred episodes.   During that time we never grew tired of Granny’s insistence that the South had won the War Between the States, the family shame that Elly May was getting too old to ever expect to catch a husband, or the notion Jethro would somehow be able to parlay his fifth-grade education into becoming a brain surgeon.    We even developed a fondness for the greedy banker, Milburn Drysdale (Raymond Bailey), and his harried secretary, Miss Jane (Nancy Kulp), who never gave up hope of capturing the heart of Jethro.

They were our eccentric television relatives.

As with many significant events, I can remember where I was when the first episode of The Beverly Hillbillies aired.   My sister and I were at home and parked in front of the television.   Two old friends from Goodman, Bill and “Tooter” Williams were at the house visiting my parents, and all four of those adults were also watching the new show.  It was very funny, and we all seemed to know that The Beverly Hillbillies was a program that was destined to be successful.

Part of the show’s mythology was that the Clampett family was from the Ozarks.  Sometime during the 1969 or 1970 season the show’s creator, Paul Henning, brought the cast to Branson, Missouri, where they filmed four episodes at Sliver Dollar City.  My friend, Carla Turnbough, was on the plane that brought the television stars from St. Louis to Springfield.  She said they circulated through the plane’s cabin and visited with the other passengers.

The Clampett's were more than just transitory characters in American television history, they were, like the Ricardo's and the Mertz's, destined to become a permanent part of our nation's cultural landscape.  Fifty years have slipped away, but the iconic images of Jed and his kin have etched themselves on our national psyche as permanently as if they had been carved into Mount Rushmore.    They have become an important component of the American experience, and we are better for having known them.

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