Writing in this blog is making me rethink a lot of the mythology I have about myself. As I look at what I’ve written here during the past few months I see post after post about the pop culture foundation of my childhood followed by an endless attempt to distance myself from it. I blather on about the movies, TV shows, musicals, plays, and celebrities that have had an impact on my development and then I scurry into embarrassed denial: “Oh, wait, these things are not really important to me, it was just a passing thought—silly, isn’t it?” Who am I kidding? Maybe it’s time to accept the fact that my identity was largely shaped by the steady stream of media flowing into my brain from the moment I was capable of sentient thought; time to begrudgingly acknowledge that my childhood mentors were not Marcel Proust and Henry David Thoreau but more likely Jed Clampett and Carol Burnett.
If anything, instead of denying my cultural ancestors, I should be grateful to them for helping me through the more difficult parts of growing up. When my family started breaking apart in the early 1970s, I honestly think that I owe my emotional survival to a certain family from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. “The Waltons” appeared on the scene just at the time my parents were slogging through a monumentally hideous divorce. No matter how ugly it got—screaming matches, doors being broken down, suicide attempts, being lied to about where my mother was for months at a time—I knew I could count on one thing on Thursday nights as I shut my door and upped the volume to real-life-blocking decibels. As soon as I heard that familiar theme music and saw the old jalopy pulling up with John-Boy, Grandpa, and little Elizabeth, I could relax—for at least an hour, anyway. I credit Richard Thomas’s John-Boy Walton for making me want to write. How many young people did he inspire sitting up in his room writing in his journal night after night? My first connection with an obsessive blogger!
My identification with the Waltons was so important to me that I started writing letters to the cast members. This morning I opened up a box that had been taped shut during my last two moves and, to my shock, found a manila envelope stuffed with letters from members of my surrogate family. As soon as I saw the faded envelopes I remembered how these missives gave me such strength as I read them again and again. I think I was most excited when I received the letter at left from Michael Learned. Or Miss Michael Learned, I should say, since that’s how her name appeared in the credits each week (as if we might worry that a cross-dresser was assuming the role of the Walton matriarch). I have no memory of what I wrote to her or how I happened to give her the “Danny Miller Award” which she so sweetly accepts in her reply. I guess I wasn’t completely lacking in self-esteem back then if I had the chutzpah to name an award after myself and bestow it with great fanfare the celebrities of the day. Seeing this letter now I am filled with admiration for this lovely actress. She could have so easily have ignored the hand-printed ravings of that little thirteen-year-old boy from Chicago. The letter became a kind of talisman for me, proof that somehow things would work out in my own family. “Hang on to your spark,” she urged. “I will, Olivia, I will!” I met Michael Learned a few years ago when she appeared in a play with a friend of ours, but I couldn’t bring myself to mention my childhood obsession or how much her letter meant to me.
I love the letters I found from some of the Walton children. Judy Norton, who played oldest daughter Mary Ellen Walton, sent me the above letter written on a ripped piece of her notebook paper. I remember the moment I opened that letter in 1973 and how it felt like I was reading a note from my sibling, complete with typical childlike mistakes (“Your right about the mags.”) I must have been trashing the fan magazines of the day, looking for some way to bond with my TV sister. As the first “women’s libber” in Depression era Virginia, Mary Ellen reminded me of my real-life sister. Mary Ellen was forever brushing up against the status quo and demanding that she be given equal opportunities. The same year Mary Ellen insisted that she be allowed to play sports with the boys, my sister Sue waged a single-handed campaign to allow girls to wear pants to our elementary school. Mary Ellen and Sue both won! Judy Norton tried to shed her Mary Ellen image by being the only Walton to appear nude in Playboy but I won't make any further comment since Olivia, John, and I have worked hard to put this unpleasant episode behind us.
I was especially excited when I received a letter from Eric Scott, who played third oldest son Ben Walton, because he wrote the letter on the back of a page of the script from that week’s show. I felt like I was part of the “in crowd” when the episode aired later that season and I could read along with MY copy of the script! The episode was another anachronistic “women’s lib” story, with Olivia Walton going on strike because she felt her family wasn’t helping around the house enough. Olivia Walton was the perfect 1930s icon for the early 70s—dripping with homespun values while also reflecting the quest for sexual equality. You go, girl! Reading Eric’s letter, I see that I was again looking to bond with my Walton kin, this time by dissing their saccharine TV competitors. “I personally don’t like the Brady Bunch,” he wrote in response. “It is very fake.”
While many kids my age were experimenting with drugs during the 1970s, my drug of choice was the Walton family of Virginia. I could deal with almost anything during the course of the week as long as I could make it to Thursday night. But by the time the series ended in 1982 I was out of college and ready to let it go. To be honest, the show had overstayed its welcome. Will Geer’s Grandpa died in 1978 and Ellen Corby’s Grandma had a severe stroke shortly thereafter that limited her ability to speak. The ultimate betrayal occurred in 1979 when Michael Learned’s Olivia left the show with some trumped-up storyline about moving to Arizona to recover from tuberculosis. As if the real Olivia Walton would have ever left her family. I felt abandoned yet again. Michael Learned popped up on another network as a modern-day nurse but I refused to watch. She did reappear, mysteriously cured, in the Waltons TV movies that were aired throughout the 1980s and 90s but these sequels infuriated me with their reckless handling of my beloved characters. In an effort to place the family against the backdrop of important events in American history such as the Kennedy assassination and the moon landing, they fast forwarded through the decades without aging the characters at all. To us fanatics who knew the exact ages of the seven Walton children when the show began in the year 1933, we were appalled to find Elizabeth still in college when she should have been in her late 40s, John-Boy a young newlywed when in the proper timeline he’d be 55, and John and Olivia Walton celebrating their 40th anniversary in 1969 when we all knew they celebrated their 25th anniversary on the show in the mid-1930s.
Once I moved to Los Angeles, I started collecting Walton encounters. I saw Mary McDonough, who played beautiful Erin Walton, one afternoon at the Bel Air Hotel where she was lunching with a friend. Grabbing my red-haired six-month-old daughter as bait (yes, it’s amazing how low I’ll sink for a Walton), I stood a few inches from Mary’s table until she was forced to say something. “Your daughter has beautiful hair,” she commented. “What?” I said as I reeled around in feigned surprise. “Oh yes, you know people always say she looks like a Walton!” Well, of course, no one had ever made this observation, but Leah did have the exact same shade of hair as Erin Walton so it was a good ice breaker! I later found out that Mary works for the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families and is a a tireless advocate against silicone breast implants because of her own horrible experience. I ran into Kami Cotler, youngest daughter Elizabeth Walton, at a film screening at the University of Southern California and recently in a local deli. She hasn’t changed much—even Leah recognized her from her TV Land viewings of “The Waltons.” I’ve also had several chats with Jon Walmsley, second oldest son Jason Walton, who married Lisa Harrison’s Toni (the only Jew ever seen on Walton’s Mountain) both on the show and in real-life. Did you know that Jon Walmsley was the voice of Christopher Robin in the original “Winnie-the-Pooh” movie and also used to play guitar for Richard Marx in the late 1980s? A few years ago Jon produced and wrote much of the music for an excellent CD called “Together Again” that reunited all of the living cast members from the show. Leah and I listen to it all the time and cry whenever we hear Michael Learned’s Olivia reciting a poem to Ralph Waite’s John Walton in which she tells him “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” After 70 years of marriage, they still have it!
Kendall’s mom is friends with Ronnie Claire Edwards, who played Corabeth Walton Godsey on the show, and she also knows Earl Hamner, Jr., the real-life John-Boy and the calming voice heard at the beginning and end of every episode. Out of sheer embarrassment I do my best to keep my Walton fawning to a minimum when I see them at Betsy's house. But here, on my blog, I will try once and for all to cast off my shame at my TV-saturated past and embrace the joys and challenges of that cathode ray tube that passes for my brain.