Monday, October 14, 2013
When I was growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the highlight of the year was the gathering for the annual family reunion. Relatives arrived from everywhere and we spent the weekend reminiscing, hugging, feasting, catching up on the news, getting acquainted with new babies that had been born or an in-law that had been added since we were all last together. There were tears for those we had loved and lost, and one of the uncles might have a bit too much of the "recipe" but in the end everybody went home, happy, proud and enriched for having shared a very special event.
The Walton Family recently celebrated such an occasion. At the invitation of the great show business magazine ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY the actors gathered at Warner Brothers Ranch in Burbank, California. Richard Thomas flew out from New York. Ralph Waite came over from his home in the desert, and the others in the cast assembled from various towns up and down the California coast. There at the replica of the house made so famous on the television series, our host filmed not only a photographic essay for the magazine, but also a television film of the gathering.
No, there was no "recipe" served. The intoxication came from just being together, still a close and loving family who worked together forty years ago and became a family with a family’s enduring ties.
Read the story in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY when it hits the newsstands this coming Friday, October 18th, and also on that same day, dial up ABC’S Morning Show "GOOD MORNING AMERICA" to visit one more time with our family.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
By Alice Urban
SCHUYLER, Va. - At the crossroads of Schuyler and Rockfish River roads there is a simple, white, two-story house.
A large tree in the front yard provides shade for the long porch that is furnished with a single white rocking chair.
During the Depression, the home was a gathering place for the children of Schuyler to meet, play ball and explore the countryside. It is the childhood home of Earl H. Hamner Jr., creator of the 1970s hit television show "The Waltons" and the inspiration for the TV family's iconic homestead.
Now, the home - and the small town surrounding the crossroads - is a different kind of gathering place. It's a location more than 15,000 tourists visit each year to experience a piece of Americana and to see the sites that provided the basis for the Emmy-winning show that ran for nine seasons from 1972 to 1981.
"It was a good place to grow up," Hamner said fondly in a telephone interview from his home near Los Angeles. "Many of the places mentioned on the series actually do exist in Schuyler."
While filmed on location in California, the fictional Walton family would have been at home in the tiny town of about 300 residents 40 minutes southwest of Charlottesville, Va., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The draw for most visitors to Schuyler is the Walton's Mountain Museum, a quaint, community-run, seven-room exhibition of Walton memorabilia, set recreations and town ephemera housed in Schuyler's former elementary and high school, which also serves as the town's community center.
"A lot of people like the kitchen" said museum director Leona B. Roberts of the highlights of the nonprofit museum, which opened in 1992. "People who visit always say they can connect the kitchen with going to their grandma's," Roberts said, adding that the kitchen was an important meeting place for the Walton family.
"The show is something that has a lot of family value to it, and it's something we don't have on television in this day and time," she said. She thinks the strong family values portrayed in the show and feelings of nostalgia for a simpler time are what continue to draw visitors to the museum.
Inside the museum, visitors can wander through replicas of protagonist John-Boy's room, the family living room and kitchen in addition to Ike Godsey's store, which is half exhibition and half museum gift shop.
A moonshine distillery is another highlight, although museum staff joke that the moonshine itself may taste a bit like water. Visitors can also see a script room along with various displays of show and town history.
Much of the museum's collection was donated by collectors of Walton's memorabilia or Depression-era keepsakes. Be sure to ask museum staff about Schuyler's soapstone mine that once employed more than 1,000 workers but downsized considerably during the Depression.
Retired soapstone plant employee Talmadge "Junior" W. Tyler works as a greeter at the museum on weekends. President of the class of 1953, Tyler graduated from Schuyler High School - now the site of the museum - with Hamner's younger brother, James, the inspiration for "The Waltons" character Jim-Bob.
Tyler recalls the Hamner family as similar to those in the rest of the town. "To me, they were just like we were. We all come up the hard way - if you didn't raise it, you didn't eat it. But we just didn't have nobody smart enough to write about it," Tyler joked.
While no Hamners still live in Schuyler, Earl Hamner, 90, continues to visit his beloved town when he can. He was back in Virginia to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year. In addition to "The Waltons," Hamner is also known for his work on "Falcon Crest," "The Twilight Zone," "Heidi" and "Charlotte's Web," among others. He is the author of several books.
"I'm rather in awe that such a thing could happen," said Hamner of his town remaining a tourist destination decades after the show ended. He said that visitors with whom he's talked have found Schuyler attractive, interesting and quaint. "They weren't disappointed," he said, "because I hope I have not romanticized it too much on television."
However, it may be just such a wholesomeness that made "The Waltons" beloved to so many fans. "We chronicled a decade of these people's lives who were growing up in a very challenging time in our society, who had to weather the trials of a deep depression," Hamner said. "This was a grim time that forced us to be resourceful, self-reliant and brave."
He believes such values are still relevant for television today. "I would like the industry that I have spent my life in to do more to good; I would like it to ennoble mankind instead of providing only grotesque images," he said. "I feel that we in television are obliged to present some kind of affirmative image of mankind."
Such affirming messages can still be watched through "The Waltons," currently in reruns on the Inspiration Network, and experienced by visiting the small town that inspired the show.
A visit to Schuyler makes a pleasant afternoon drive from other sites in the Charlottesville area including the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, James Madison's Montpelier and several Civil War sites.
Other stops in Schuyler include "Ike Godsey's" convenience store - the site of the general store that inspired that of the show, the Hamner family's Baptist church, the Hamner home (open to the public with entrance fee) and Walton's Mountain Country Store.
Walton's Mountain Museum is open daily from the first Saturday in March to the first Sunday in December from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults and children 6 and up; children under 5 are free. Admission includes a 30-minute video about the show produced for the museum.
Reprinted with permission of Alice Urban and James S. Gleason, Library Services Manager The Republican/masslive.com, 1860 Main Street, Springfield, MA 01102
Sunday, July 7, 2013
I was never to meet her face to face. I was never to hear her voice. She never knew if I lived or died, and only by a circuitous path did I even come to know her, but she was and remains the most important person in my career as a writer.
When I was a young man I was obsessed with the drive to write a novel. Where this ambition came from, why it was so compelling, I do not know. All I was sure of was the story I wanted to tell. I took notes, I wrote character descriptions, and I attempted to outline chapters but I wasn’t writing. The skills weren’t there. The novel was not taking shape. Something was lacking, something was holding me back and I was in despair.
I was making a living back in those days as a radio writer, and I was beginning to wonder if I might ever achieve my real ambition which was to become a novelist.
Following my return from overseas service in World War Two and graduation from the University of Cincinnati I had been fortunate enough to find a job as a radio writer at the legendary station WLWT. In its earliest years it had been so powerful that it could be heard all over the United States. Even after its range was reduced it had been the stepping off place for a good many talented people such as Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, and Red Skelton. My job was writing radio scripts. I wrote documentary portraits of noteworthy people in the area, an occasional dramatic show and even continuity for a country western singer named Ernie Lee.
From WLWT I moved to New York and went to work as a staff writer at NBC.
One of my first assignments was to dramatize a book titled "The Time of Man" by Elizabeth Madox Roberts for NBC RADIO THEATER.
I looked up Miss Roberts and learned that she was born in Perryville, Kentucky, on October 30, 1881. She attended high school in Covington, Kentucky and briefly enrolled at the University of Kentucky, but was forced to drop out after one semester due to poor health. After teaching school for several years she enrolled at the University of Chicago, studying literature and philosophy and fulfilling a lifetime dream of acquiring a college education. Her writing was first printed in 1922 - A group of poems for young people titled "Under the Tree." The success of the book led her to write her first novel "The Time of Man" (1926) about the daughter of a Kentucky tenant farmer which garnered her an international reputation. She went on to write several more critically acclaimed novels. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1936 she began spending her winters in Florida. She died in Orlando Florida in 194l and was returned home to Springfield for her burial.
In reading her biography one item that caught my attention was that at one point Roberts had moved to New York from Kentucky and had written that first novel in a basement apartment on East 96th Street. I, too, was a transplanted Southerner, living on 87th Street, practically in a basement, so I felt an immediate kinship with her.
When I began reading the novel, I discovered something wondrous and completely life changing. Roberts’ characters spoke in a way that was totally unique yet was exactly what I had heard as a boy in Virginia.
The book is told from the viewpoint of Ellen Chesser, the teenage daughter of an itinerant farmer. I was struck by Ellen’s marvelous imagination and sense of wonder. Ellen’s mother is a character of great strength and perseverance. "The Time of Man" simply delighted me. It embodied the nobility I had always perceived in so called "common" people and I was elated by the newfound style and connection with another Southern writer. Her characters spoke a language that was familiar to me. The sound of it was already in my ears. But it was language that had been elevated from the everyday spoken word to the level of literature.
After adapting "The Time of Man" as a radio play I began work again on my own novel. When I went to the typewriter the words came in a rush. It was as if they had been there all along and Elizabeth Madox Roberts had opened a floodgate. Not long after reading her book, I wrote and published my first novel.
If it had not been for Elizabeth Madox Roberts my novels, as well as the television series they inspired, might never have been written for she helped me portray Southern hill folk not as ignorant, thick-browed, shaggy haired, moonshine swilling rednecks, but as the courageous, self reliant, decent, honorable people I knew so well.
My association with this remarkable woman does not end there.
This past winter the Elizabeth Madox Roberts Society’s Honorary President, H. R. Stoneback proposed and the EMR Executive Committee approved the creation of The Elizabeth Madox Roberts Society Award for Southern and Appalachian Writing. The award carries with it Honorary Lifetime Membership in the Roberts Society and I am proud to say that I was the first recipient of that honor.
I hope that these notes will encourage you to read the works of this extraordinary writer. I would suggest that you start with her first novel that I love so well, "The Time of Man." If it is not in your local library you can request that they carry it. If there is no library in your area then you can obtain it from Amazon.com.
There is an excellent article about Roberts on a website called The University Bookman titled "The Time of Elizabeth Madox Roberts" by Katherine Dalton. There is also rich information on the Roberts Society website – www.emrsociety.com which I urge you to explore.
On the Society website you may click on "Buy EMR Books" and see what’s available, including studies of Roberts by H. R. Stoneback and others; also click on "Archives" and read the Roberts Society Newsletters, especially the 2012 edition where you will find many pieces on Roberts and other writers (including Earl Hamner!). You will also find information on the Roberts website about how to join the Roberts Society and support their good work.
And you may want to attend their annual April gatherings in Kentucky publicized on the website.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Happy New Year! 2013! Wow! What a fine feeling! All those sweet old Christmas songs packed away to mellow for another year. All the New Year’s bells have rung and that ball successfully made its traditional descent in Times Square. The tree ornaments are back on the shelf. The new Christmas corduroys have been tailored to fit. The fruit cake just a dream and the now empty champagne jug in the waste can. All the thank you notes are written, and we have almost visited the scales to see how much weight all that good food has added. Well, I won’t go that far, but we are giving it some thought.
I have special reason to be thankful to see 2013. In the first place it’s been quite a stretch from 1923 when I first came to this party. And secondly each year about this time I come down with the flu. This year was no exception and for three weeks my doctor was treating me with the elixirs and magic potions that traditionally got me well again.
This time it didn’t work so he ordered a cat scan and discovered that I had been walking around with raging pneumonia! The next thing I knew I was in Room 1408 in the North Tower at Cedars of Lebanon being stuffed with antibiotics and steroids, having blood drawn, my wheezing chest listened to just about every time I drifted off to sleep, my vitals taken every six hours, and round the clock attention by some of the most attentive and considerate nurses I could imagine.
I am home now, a little out of breath, dizzy in the head and weak in the knees and more flighty than usual in the brain, but I am definitely on the mend.
All this has brought me to a realization that is long overdue; one I suppose more rational folks already live with at this advanced age. All these years I have gone merrily along my way, whistling in the dark, living as if there were no tomorrow, always assured that I am young in spirit, destined to live forever, and not subject to the wear and tear that go with "the golden years."
There in Room 1408 in the North Tower of Cedars of Lebanon the awful realization dawned on me that I am mortal, that in spite of the lies I keep telling mysef, it’s December at the party, not April any more. The reminder came in a line from a poem that kept repeating itself over and over in my mind.
"Then child, don heavy armor
Against the heart’s wild pain;
Try as I may, I cannot bring
Fair April back again."
Listen to him! Carrying on like he is about to put on his funeral suit, order the casket and call Forest Lawn! Actually it was a good thing! Forced him to slow down. Smell the roses, and enjoy that extra glass of chardonnay even though you aren’t supposed to take it along with cumadin.
The refrain that kept repeating itself in my mind was a stanza from a poem written by my late friend the poet, Muriel Miller Dressler and she will be the subject of this blog if I ever get around to it.
In the meantime I introduce the following medical bulletin to your attention because it gives me an opportunity to boast.
As you know from my previous blogs, last year I received a very high honor from the Library of Virginia. This year their generosity has brought another very great honor. On the 17th of January I was scheduled to attend a meeting of the Virginia Legislature where a proclamation was to have been read saying that I was a proud Virginia boy and that my writing had brought pleasure and pride to my fellow Virginians. There was then to have been a lunch at the Governor’s mansion and a reception that evening!
Even though I was recovering from the pneumonia I was tempted to make the trip, but my doctor said it would be foolhardy to risk another respiratory event this early by getting on a plane and trying to attend all those fabulous functions that were planned in Richmond.
As close to tears as a tough old rooster should come, I let the folks at the Library know. What incredible people! Somehow they have been able to reschedule most of the events and my family and I are already anticipating a visit home to Virginia on April 3rd! Some of these April events will be open to the public so if any of you in the Richmond area would be interested I will let you know as soon as I have all the facts.
So finally we come to the end of this long winded introduction to my new blog. It tells of how I came to know a woman I still revere, the gifted West Virginia poet, Muriel Miller Dressler.
When I was growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge during the great Depression of the Twenties and Thirties, the possibility that I might someday meet a real poet seemed remote, if not impossible. We were people of the back woods, and our daily lives were taken up with the business of living through harsh and hostile times.
Yet, poetry was at hand. I recognized it first in the King James version of The Bible. Sometimes it was a passage I was obliged to memorize in Sunday school in order to receive a Gold
Star. Sometimes it was shouted at me by revival preachers set on persuading me to give up my sinful ways and to be saved. No matter how it was presented, I recognized the poetry in The Bible And I WAS saved.
Later, a dedicated teacher at our local school introduced me to Edgar Allen Poe, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant, Steven Vincent Benet, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. We were required to memorize great hunks of "Thanatopsis," "The First Snowfall," and "Song of Myself," and I still remember them today.
While their words became a part of my being, the poets themselves seemed remote. I fancied them to be God-like creatures, removed from the human race, quite possibly living in Grecian temples close by the Mediterranean where they wrote when inspiration moved them and subsisted on a little fruit and a lot of wine.
But the Great Depression passed, and my life changed. I won a scholarship to the University of Richmond, I went to Europe and fought in a war, I came home to Virginia and then to the University of Cincinnati and finally to make a career and a new life in New York City.
It was there I met my first "real" poet. I had written a book called "Fifty Roads to Town," and I desperately needed permission from a poet named Muriel Rukeyser to use two lines from a remarkable poem of hers called "Effort at Speech Between Two People." But how did one get in touch with a poet? I asked my editor at Random House, Belle Becker, and Belle replied, "Why don’t you look in the phone book?" I did and to my astonishment Miss Rukeyser lived only two blocks from my apartment, and most graciously consented to my using the lines I needed. I learned that poets were not only considerate, but that not all of them were off there by the Mediterranean sipping wine.
Miss Rukeyser’s gift prepared me for generosity and graciousness. What I had not been prepared for was the knowledge that a poet could spring from the same earth I knew. And on a visit to Morris Harvey College (Now The University of Charleston) I met Muriel Miller Dressler, a fellow citizen of Appalachia.
Muriel Dressler was born in Kanawha County, West Virginia on July 4th. 1918. Her family went back several generations in the area. She did not finish high school and her love of literature came, as she was fond of saying, "at the heels of my mother as we planted or hoed the garden."
I met her in 1975 and with her permission used one of her poems as the theme for an episode of my series "Morning Star, Evening Star."
William Plumley, the professor who introduced us, describes her as "Short, curvy, vain and hyperactive." Dressler remained a popular speaker on the college circuit until the mid-1980’s when she suffered a massive heart attack. She spent much of the rest of her life away from the public spotlight.
Using the same clay some of us have shaped into novels, Muriel made poems.
Muriel spoke with first hand knowledge of the land of our birth. She knew and articulated the sounds of whippoorwills at night, the thud of earth coming to rest on a miner’s coffin, the restless love that calls a widow from her bed for dialogue at Midnight with spirits that are less dead than they seem.
This is not to suggest that Muriel wrote of the macabre. On the contrary she could be witty and gay, raucous and gossipy, but always filled with the exaltation of living. Sometimes she would be wicked, as in her wry appraisal of "Old Iry Pleasants" who decided he was "jest retard" after "he’s been out of work his entire life."
Much of Muriel Dressler’s work is in dialect, a dangerous form of expression. In unskilled hands it could reach a comic strip level, but Muriel knew what she was doing, and the sounds of Appalachian speech fell on her ear with accuracy and recognition. She’d been there. She knew what she was doing.
Her signature work is a collection of poems titled "Appalachia." You can track it down on the Intenet and I recommend you look for it.
What it all boils down to, I think, is that Muriel Dressler had heard the same sounds we all hear, known the same pain we each feel, watched the same sun cross the sky and set beyond some hilly horizon, but out of her own genius she produced work that while regional in character, is universal in its appeal and meaning.
I know because one of her poems haunts me still.
ELEGY FOR JODY
O, wear a crimson shawl, my child
Put on a scarlet hood,
And make a point of being brave
When you explore the wood.
But when harsh winds denude the trees,
Fall leaves on cryptic ground
Will write your childhood’s prophecy
In syllables of brown.
When dark clouds scud against the sky
And greening trees are gone,
I’ll weave for you an ebon rug
For you to walk upon.
Then child, don heavy armor
Against the heart’s wild pain,
Try as I may, I cannot bring
Fair April back again.
Poem published with permission of Jacob Wither, Executor of the Estate of William Plumley.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
I had not thought of 44 West Twelfth Street in Greenwich Village in a very long time. It was an apartment we had lived in many years ago, and then last Sunday morning from the deck of our home in Laguna Beach, I was reading the Sunday Edition of The Los Angeles Times. The day was soft and the ocean was beautifully lit with that sunshine which illuminates the tip of every breaking wave. From the deck we can actually see Catalina, even on a not so clear day. The cerulean blue water stretched to the horizon, broken in the distance by a single sailing ship, while on the rocks below a seal was taking a sunbath. And then the item in the Calendar Section of The Los Angeles Times brought back a myriad of images of a long forgotten time and place.
The year was 1959. Jane and I had been married in 1954, parents now of a son and a daughter. We had lived in two other places, but there was an apartment we coveted. We knew the landlord and he had promised it was ours if it ever became available.
The apartment was located half way between Sixth Avenue and Fifth Avenue at 44 West 12th Street. The former occupant was a composer, a man named Harry Wood, and he told us that his song, “When the Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin Along” had been written in the apartment. It was a fact we mentioned to everyone who visited hoping they were as impressed as we were to be in touch with such greatness.
The apartment was on the ground floor. Once when one of Jane’s aunts from Davenport, Iowa, visited us, she said with ill-conceived pity, as she entered the vestibule, “Oh, you live in the basement!” Word probably went back to Davenport, Iowa that Jane had made an unfortunate marriage, but it didn’t matter to us. We loved the apartment and felt ourselves most fortunate.
Like most ground floor apartments the layout was typical. The bedroom faced West 12th Street. We assured ourselves that the racket that went on each morning when the garbage was collected was simply “The Manhattan Melody.” It was one of the many fibs we told ourselves in order to live there.
The bedroom was reached by a long hallway off the living room and past the bath and a closet. The living room was spacious, and boasted a fireplace. The first night we moved in we built an enormous fire only to find out that the flue was stopped up and that we had nearly asphyxiated all of our neighbors on the upper floors. The kitchen was miniscule but what made the apartment so unique was that beyond the living room was a room enclosed on all sides, top to bottom, by glass! In winter we would wake on mornings after a snowfall to find ourselves in a scene reminiscent of the dacha in Dr. Zhivago. And wonder of wonders, from that room you stepped out into a garden.
It was a rectangular space with raised flowerbeds, paved with flagstone, several shade trees, and a view of adjacent gardens. It was a safe place for the children to play. For the children we installed a jungle gym, a sand box and a swing. For the family we bought a charcold grill, and for me, ever the country boy, the opportunity to fill the flower beds with wild iris, trillium, ivy and impatiens, just a few of the trophies I found on hunting expeditions in upper Westchester County.
In his book “Here Is New York” E.B. White describes what it was like to live on the New York Island, in the same town with ”giants” and the excitation of the nearness of them. The giants he celebrates are the writers of his day such as Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Vincent Benet.
Many of my neighbors too were people of distinction. My editor at Random House, Belle Becker, lived right across the street with her husband, Abner Sideman, an editor at Look Magazine. The distinguished director Eve Legalienne and her companion, the legendary actress Margaret Webster, lived down the block. There was a plaque on the side of one of the brownstones marking where Edna St. Vincent Milay had lived. The actress Estelle Parsons and her twin daughters were just down the street, and it was not unusual to encounter humorist and writer S. J. Pearlman, on one of his strolls through the village. The cook and author, James Beard, was often seen hurrying along the street, trailed by his disciples, all wearing tall white chef’s hats and carrying trays of food or cooking utensils on their way to some event. I even spotted William Faulkner at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 12th Street and successfully managed to keep from engulfing him with the awe his very presence inspired in me. And only a few blocks away was The White Horse, the bar where writers such as Vance Bourjally, James Jones, Norman Mailer and Joe Heller congregated to drink and fight and boast.
I gradually became aware of another celebrity neighbor. Facing our garden from the next brownstone and on the third floor lived a man and a woman. From time to time they would engage in loud discussion which would eventually evolve into heated quarrels. In these encounters the woman would yell, “You may be America’s greatest living poet, but you are one vile son of a bitch!” He would respond with “Go ---- yourself, you stupid whore.”
Curious that “America’s greatest living poet” might be living in such close proximity, I stopped in the vestibule of the building and checked the register of the inhabitants. The occupant of that particular apartment was listed as a woman. There was no mention of a man, much less America’s Greatest Living Poet.
The closest I ever came to the contact with The Poet was one summer evening when I was grilling steaks in the garden. A sudden rainstorm came out of nowhere. The steaks were only half cooked so rather than serving them half done I decided to continue grilling. I ran inside, grabbed an umbrella and went back to my chore.
And that was when America’s Greatest Living Poet called to his lady friend and said, “Come see what this damn fool is doing now!”
I looked up at their widow, but they had withdrawn and had gone back to their quarrel. The steaks were delicious, but I carry grudges. How dare that son of a bitch call me a “damn fool” simply because I was keeping the rain off my steaks!
The relationship between the couple seemed to go from bad to worse. The name calling, the loud quarrels, the screams and sometimes the crashing of furniture or the breaking dishes would echo from their window down into our garden.
One morning soon thereafter I stepped out on 12th Street to walk our cocker spaniels, Clemmentine and Chloe. In front of the building next door was a stack of household effects: Furniture, notebooks, food containers, bookshelves, a desk, clothing on hangers, cardboard boxes marked photos, waste baskets. All evidence suggested that the owner of the stuff had been evicted. We learned later that it was The World’s Greatest Living Poet who had done the evicting. While his lady friend was out of town he had thrown her every possession into the street.
When I came back from walking the dogs, I spotted passersby stopping, examining the stuff, and almost every person picking up some item, an end table, some dishes, books, a drawer containing silver or clothing and taking off with it.
And by the time I left for work later that morning there was little left of the woman’s effects but scraps and a desk that must have been too heavy to steal. I can only imagine her dismay when she returned.
In time I encountered a neighbor we met while walking the dogs, we knew her as Miss Horty. She lived on the ground floor of the next door brownstone and I asked her if she knew either of her upstairs neighbors who had moved out.
“I never met the girl,” she said, “But the man who lived with her was Delmore Schwartz, the poet.” “She used to call him America’s Greatest Living Poet,” I said. “Oh, he was,” said Horty “He’s in all the anthologies.”
I always meant to look up Mr. Schwartz and read his work, but somehow I never got around to it. In time we moved away from New York to follow the television industry to Los Angeles. I had hardly ever thought of him until last Sunday when I was reading the Los Angeles Times down at the beach house.
The article was about a singer, and guitar player who had been a student at Syracuse University where he had been a disciple of Delmore Schwartz’. There was that name again after all those many years. I had never really read any of his work so I looked up the man and found that he was indeed a genius. He was the earliest recipient of the esteemed Bollengen Prize awarded by Yale University for excellence in poetry, and he was praised by such literary figures as T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound.
I learned too that as time went by drugs and alcohol took their toll and he died insane in a seedy Times Square hotel, but when I read his poems, in view of the violent rants that had spilled from his window down into my garden, I was surprised at the tenderness and depth of feeling he had celebrated in his work.
Still, even after all these years I can’t forgive him for calling me a damn fool just because I wanted my steak well done and wouldn’t let a little rain stop me.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
As you may already know, in September we will celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the premiere of "The Waltons." When I was a boy growing up in the backwoods of Virginia during The Great Depression I could never have dreamed that those days, those times, that little village and the events we experienced as a family, would become material for stories to be broadcast, over something we had never heard of called television, all over the world.
Not long ago I looked through some of the early reviews of the series when it first went on the air over CBS. I thought it might be interesting to see how we were first perceived 40 years ago.
In The New York Times, a writer named Anne Roiphe wrote the following:
"A bobwhite cry breaks the quiet of night among the firs and pines of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia "Goodnight Ma." "Goodnight John-Boy" "Goodnight Pa" and the lights of the Walton house on Walton’s Mountain somewhere in the early nineteen-thirties dim, and a million viewers turn away from their television sets, eyes wet, souls heavy with false memory and hopeless longing. C.B.S has filled another Thursday night with nostalgia, bathos, soap opera, formula plot, tear-jerking junk, and I and all those other viewers share a moment of tender shame at having been so painfully touched by such obvious commercial exploitation."
Commercial exploitation! Bathos! Tear-jerking junk! At this point I was so offended I was ready to cancel my subscription to The New York Times and write a scathing note to the lady. And then I read on:
"Since every Thursday night I am reduced to ridiculous tears, I had to ask these questions and explore the program’s skill at piercing touch hides, revealing sentimental ooze that can no more be than controlled than the shift of dreams that sill wake us screaming every now and then."
Sentimental ooze! Come on, Miz Roiphe?
You keep on this away I am liable to forget that I am a Virginia gentleman and say something I might regret!
A few lines later she continues, "The Waltons" may be romantic nonsense, may bear only superficial and misleading resemblance to real life, but it is very good magic. It is a good, workable dance to scare away the evil spirits of loneliness, isolations, divorce, alcoholism, troubled children, abandoned elders, - the real companions of American family life, the real demons of the living room."
Romantic nonsense, Miz Roiphe?
There was nothing the least romantic about the Great Depression of the 20’s and 30’s and we never portrayed it that way. It was a time when we were tested as a people, and we came through with courage, persistence, and faith in our country and our leaders. Poverty was just one of our challenges. It was a time when prejudice still stained many areas of the country, some racial and some religious, and we examined those issues too. The threat of Nazi Germany was becoming clear to many of us and one of our finest episodes dealt with that sport so beloved to the Nazis’ - book burning.
But more than that, we told stories about two people who loved each other and were dedicated to raising a family. We told stories that were dedicated to the strength of the American people that brought us back from the brink of ruin.
Romantic nonsense! Nonsense!
To make matters worse the writer illustrated her piece with photographs by Walker Evans showing emaciated children, haggard women, defeated men, people in rags, filthy shacks, which prompted my sister Marion Hawks (Mary Ellen Walton) to write an outraged letter to The Times" pointing out that the photographs only added to the inaccurate portrayal of our family. I think she was even a little threatening, but you know Mary Ellen.
After The New York Times piece it was a relief to find a review that I could relate to. It was written by critic Val Adams and his review goes as follows:
"Circumstances surrounding the Waltons provide one of the more interesting situations of this fall’s television series. It is different from any other show on the air which does not necessarily make it good. "The Waltons" has no excitement and no glamour. It is a story about simple people – a large family of three generations living at the foot of The Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia during the Depression of the 1930."
A little more favorable, but still it fell in the category of many other reviews which asked "Who will want to watch a series about poor people eating possum, swilling moonshine, and scratching out a living in the backwoods of Virginia during The Great Depression?"
The answer? Huge number of viewers. You – the audience. You found the series, liked it enough to come back the following week, liked it enough to tell your friends, liked it enough to write letters of support to CBS, and by the end of the season the series had risen to the Number One position in the ratings.
We went on the air in September. Most of the TV critics predicted a quick cancellation. Who, they continued to ask would watch a sprawling poverty-stricken backwoods family, swilling moonshine, feuding, and fighting, marrying each other and singing old Baptist hymns? Who would watch?
THE PEOPLE WATCHED!
And by December we were the Number One show in the ratings and we stayed there for several years.
Beginning in 1972 the series was seen on Thursday nights on CBS by an average of fifty million viewers in the United States. It was also seen in Canada and Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Fiji and in Ecuador, to mention only a few of the countries where it became popular.
The series was awarded six Emmy awards, six Christopher Awards, The Golden Globe Award from the Foreign Press Association, The People’s Choice Award, and the highest award given in broadcast journalism: The coveted Peabody Award from the University of Georgia. The series received commendations from the Council of Christians and Jews, The Society of Southern Baptists, The Religious Public Relations Council of the United Methodist Church, and the Church o0f Latter-Day Saints. One Sunday we went beyond my wildest expectations. In a magazine called "Twin Circle," which is the voice of the National Catholic Press, a picture of the cast of The Waltons was given equal space with a picture of the Pope. At that point I began to worry that we had gone too far
For each of us who were involved in the series it has changed our lives. The series became the building block for a brand new production company called Lorimar which went on to produce such memorable series as Dallas, The Blue Knight, and Eight is Enough and another of my long running series, Falcon Crest. For the actors, writers, directors and crew it meant more than ten years of steady employment, dependable income in an industry where such good fortune comes to few people. And even though the series caused some of the actors to be type cast, known only for their Walton roles, it did opoen doors, bring them to prominence in the industry and made their names and faces known wherever in the world there was a television set.
The show also provided a special kind of relationship to those of us involved. Because of kind of stories we told and because we were all portraying members of a family, we came together as "family" – a relationship that continues right down to today. We attend each other’s wedding, anniversaries, birthdays, funerals, christenings, bar mitzvahs. And so it was that we mourned as a family when we had to say goodbye to such special members of the cast, such beloved actors as Ellen Corby and Will Geer.
None of us had thought ahead to the effect the show would have on my family. Because the series was based on the character and structure of my own family it was important that I be true to the way my family members they were portrayed. This required my being in my office near the set all during the day attending casting sessions, network meetings, screenings, story meeting, and then at night writing or rewriting scripts to insure that they gave a honest representation of my family members. This became a burden on my own family when I realized that I was devoting more attention to a television family than my own and that I had not been home for dinner in months. It was a sober and shocking revelation. Believe me I was home for dinner from then on.
It was a bit of a family affair. Both my daughter, Caroline and my son, Scott were extras in "The Homecoming." And then my son, Scott, a writer, came aboard as a regular contributor to the series. His script, "The Reunion," became the last scheduled episode when we finished our first run.
To the audience The Waltons brought an hour of television each week that supplied a very personal and intimate experience to a vast number of people here at home and in every country of the world. Even today, forty years after the original first run, the series is being shown on three different cable channels, Hallmark, INSP, and GMA. I receive mountains of mail, sadly more than I can ever answer, and most of the letters say either "Your stories remind me of my own life." Or "This is how I wish my own life had been."
Change also came to my own family back in Virginia. Because the character were based on my mother and father, my brothers and sisters, they became known by their television names - my brother Cliff as Jason, my Sister Audrey as Erin, Brother Jim became Jim-Bob and so on.
And my hometown became a tourist destination! Fans from other countries and many other states came looking for the locations we had mentioned on the show such as Rockfish, The Dew Drop Inn, Drusilla’s Pond, the Baldwin residence and The Baptist Church and The Walton Museum.
The Hamner home is today listed on the Register of Historic Homes in Virginia and is owned by a local family. The house was a "company house" built in the 20’s and needed repair. Pam Rutherford, the present owner, renovated it and refurnished it and today there is a tour of it for a modest fee.
One of my favorite memories came one day after the series has become a hit. I often phoned my mother on Thursday nights right after the show to see how she felt about what she had seen, and her responses were always favorable. And then one day when I called, she spoke with me for a moment and then said, "I can’t talk long. There’s this nice young couple here. They’ve come all the way from Ireland and they just love the show!"
There’s even a Walton Mountain B and B directly in front of the old home place, an excellent home away from home if you are staying overnight in Schuyler. It is attractive and comfortably furnished, the food is great and an extensive collection of Walton memorabilia is available (including autographed copies of "Good Night John Boy"
There are two celebrations of the 40th Anniversary coming up in September. On Friday, September 28th there will be the traditional reunion of the Walton International Fan Club, hosted by President Carolyn Grinnell. As usual many cast members will be in attendance giving fan and actors an opportunity to mingle and Carolyn has promised a surprise or two. The party will be held at:
6:oo pm at The Holiday Inn
Burbank Media Center,
The South Pacific Ballroom
150 East Angeleno Avenue
Burbank, Ca. 91502
The dinner is sold out, but occasionally there are cancellations. To see if any spaces do become available call Carolyn at 336-993-2752 or her e-mail at
The following evening, Saturday September 29th there will be another celebration of our 40th Anniversary. Celebrating Family and Education, the proceeds will go to Kami Colter’s Environmental Charter School. Hosted by William Keck, Senior Editor at "TV Guide," the event will be held at The Wilshire Eubell Theater beginning at 6 o’clock.
For ticket or further information visit the event’s website
So come and join us at either or both of these celebrations. Some of you have already made arrangement to be with us. People are have already made plans to travel from Australia, Canada, Germany and England as well as many of our own states. Many cast members will appear at both parties. I will attend both of these events and look forward to seeing you.
Warm Walton Wishes
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
In 1939 an unlikely event came to our part of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Hollywood visited the Spencer’s Mountain area and for the first time we back country folks came face to face with the rich, the famous, with movie stars whose faces and names were known all over the world!
I was fifteen years old. Paramount Studios was making a film called "Virginia," a highly romantic and utterly unreal picture of rural life in our area in the late thirties. The location filming was being shot about six miles from my hometown in a village named Howardsville. I knew Howardsville pretty well. It was the meeting place of the James and the Rockfish River and the bridge at the edge of town led to Buckingham County where my father’s people, as tobacco planters, had settled originally and where cousins to the second and third degree still lived. We often spent our Sundays over there visiting relatives and always stopped in Howardsville to see a novelty – an albino squirrel which was kept in a big wire cage in the yard of a home along the main street.
Another family coincidence was that at the top of the mountain above the town was an area called Mount Alto. My Uncle Curtis Gianinni, my mother’s oldest brother, had a farm there which was destined to be immortalized in the film "Virginia."
Once news that the filming was underway, a whole pack of us youngsters hitchhiked down the Rockfish River Road to see what was going on. What was going on was HOLLYWOOD! And there were STARS!
An encampment had been set up consisting of private dressing rooms for the cast, limousines to deliver them from the Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville where they were housed, camera trucks, costume trucks, food trucks, make up trailers.
And - Oh the stars! In that part of the country we were just coming out of the tail end of The Great Depression. It had been a grim time and our day-to-day lives had seldom encountered such glamour and luster as the movies had celebrated. And suddenly right there in front of us were stars and they were giving off a glow. We country folks were in awe of such beautiful people. When they were not on camera they took it easy sitting in directors chairs, chatting among themselves, studying their scripts, giving autographs or going back and forth to their individual dressing rooms. There was an air about them. They moved with ease and grace. They were dressed in fashionable clothing. The ladies were gorgeous, the men were handsome. To those of us Blue Ridge folk they could have been gods and goddesses.
Madeleine Carol, a stunningly beautiful actress was being filmed supposedly arriving by train from New York.
Miss Carol was of British birth. In her time she was one of the highest paid female actors in the business. At one point, after the death of her sister during a German air raid, she gave up acting to entertain troops in the European Theater of Operations.
In the movie "Virginia" she was portraying a member of an aristocratic family returning to the old plantation to dispose of it. She had planned to make quick work of it until she fell in love with a local gentleman farmer, Fred MacMurray.
MacMurray in his career starred in over one hundred films, the most famous being "Double Indemnity" in which he starred with Barbara Stanwick. He is best known today as the father in the long running television series "My Three Sons."
In "Virginia" soon after falling for Fred MacMurray, Miss Carol meets a rich northerner, Sterling Hayden. She wavers between the two men, as one reviewer notes, "while the audience settles in for a good long nap."
In real life Madeleine Carol was to marry Sterling Hayden, according to studio publicist known as "The most beautiful man in the movies."
A man of action, he was always in love with the sea and ran away from home at seventeen to join the navy. He distinguished himself for his military service during World War Two.
Day after day we country folk flocked to Howardsville to watch the filming. At one point my Uncle Curtis and some of the local men were hired to work as extras, portraying farmer types sitting on a bench outside a county store. Curtis also made another extra couple of bucks by allowing the crew to film a sow in his pigpen that had just given birth to eighteen piglets.
When the film premiered in Charlottesville we all were there. Sadly the shot of Uncle Curtis had been edited out of the movie, but there was still occasion for elation. When the shot of Curtis’s pig came on screen, we rose in a body and shouted, "There’s Curtis’ pig!"
TWINKLE TWINKLE MOVIE STAR!
During my early years at NBC radio I worked with a good many stars, especially on the showcase NBC THEATER OF THE AIR where we adapted classic stage plays to a radio format. Most of the stars of our shows tended to be actors from the New York stage, often not well known except to the theater going public. But when I came to Hollywood I became exposed to a good many film stars.
Fred MacMurry, Sterling Hayden and Madeleine Carroll, the first movie stars I ever laid eyes on, were stars of the old school. It was a lifetime later before I came into meaningful, personal contact with Hollywood stars.
During the filming of "Spencer’s Mountain" I was introduced to Henry Fonda and Maureen O"Hara but I cannot say we actually worked together. I would run into Fonda at Delbert and Ann Mann’s Christmas Party each year. Later when we were casting "The Waltons" I offered him the role of John Walton, but he rightfully pointed out that the star of the series was John-Boy and in his words "I’m too old to play second fiddle to a fifteen year old boy."
One star I later came to know well was Patricia Neal. She was a joy to know and to work with, and there is a story about her in the archives of this blog that you might enjoy.
On "The Waltons" each and every actor was a star, but they were and are still young people and I am talking here about a special group of actors. Most of them tended to have some special quality that set them apart, a kind of luminous quality that the camera liked. Most of them were under contract to one of the major studios, their lives and reputations closely attended and guarded, their careers carefully crafted. The studios groomed them to be stars, paid them outrageous salaries, nurtured, and exploited them all the while their image was being carefully built by publicity agents. Bette Davis had that star quality, so did Barbara Stanwick, Katherine Hepburn, Lana Turner, Dame Judith Evans, Joan Crawford, Jane Wyman and Ingrid Bergman, to name just a few. John Wayne had it and so did Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Regan, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Lawrence Olivier.
It was when we cast Miss Jane Wyman as Angela Channing, the owner of Falcon Crest, a prosperous vineyard in the Napa Valley that I came to know a star from that special galaxy. And from her I learned a little bit about stardom, what it is like to be a star, what makes them shine and how they guard that luminous quality.
Miss Wyman was born Sarah Jane Mayfield in St. Joseph Missouri on January 5, 1917. Raised by foster parents she dropped out of high school at age 15 and came to Hollywood where she found work as a manicurist and switchboard operator before she started obtaining small parts in films. Small roles led to more important ones and her big break came in 1945 when she appeared in "The Lost Weekend" with Ray Milland. A year later she was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in "The Yearling." She was now able to choose her own films and was finally on her way to true stardom in such films as "Johnny Belinda", "The Glass Menagerie" "Magnificent Obsession" and "The Blue Veil" to mention only a few.
Miss Wyman married Ronald Regan in 1940 and they became the darlings of the press with every minute of their lives documented by the reigning queens of show biz gossip, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. They were divorced in 1949 due to what has been suggested as "political differences."
Miss Wyman was our first choice when it came to casting the matriarch, Angela Gioberti, owner of Falcon Crest Winery. I was already on location in the Napa Valley, but a day or so before we were to start filming, I went to the Sacramento Airport to met her and bring her to the valley.
To meet her in a manner commensurate with her stardom I had rented the longest, most impressive limo I could find. She smiled a greeting, stepped inside the limo, and after a few moments she launched into a discussion of her character that was right on target. Her remarks about the script were knowledgeable, informed and useful. Stars know what they’re doing! At one moment a gorgeous Napa Valley vineyard caught my eye and, I happened to look out of the window of the limo. She touched me on my arm and said, "Don’t look away when Mother’s talking. You might miss something!" From that moment on I knew she expected my undivided attention.
On the way to Napa I told her we had made arrangements for her to stay at the local country club. She said, "No, I want to stay where the crew stays." I rearranged her living accommodations so she lived at the Holiday Inn with the rest of us. It was a sound move. It put her in touch with the technicians, drivers, make-up people and costume people who would be looking after her. They liked her for being so democratic. That she was, but she in no time knew the name of every person on the crew and they adored her. It was a sincere gesture, but it was also a smart one.
Someone once asked why an actor of her standing, a woman who had once been married to Ronald Regan, someone who had no financial worries, would want to come out of retirement and take on the heavy burden of starring in a television series. For one thing Jane’s friends Barbara Stanwick and Loretta Young had already made such a move and it had not been professionally harmful. My own contention was that she was lonesome for the world she had known and probably bored with sitting alone in her luxurious apartment in Santa Monica gazing out to sea.
After the location filming was finished we returned to Los Angeles for the interior scenes, which we filmed at the CBS Studios in Studio City. Shortly I was to have a revelation about stardom.
I needed a private conversation with the lady so I called her and said that we needed to have a chat, and that I had made reservations at Jimmy’s, a restaurant in Beverly Hills.
"Good," she said, "They know me there."
I added, "And I asked for a table in the back so we could talk without interruption."
"Call them back and tell them to give us my usual table," she said. "I never sit in the back of the room." Star talk. Hollywood royalty.
At the dinner we were seated at the Number One table and managed not a word of the discussion we were supposed to have because of the friends and fans that stopped by to say hello or to ask for autographs. We discussed many things, but essentially Miss Wyman was a private person. Once when we were having dinner and I had more wine that then was wise, I asked "What was it like being married to a President of the United States." She answered, "I never discuss the gentleman."
"Falcon Crest" was fun and our cast was rich with great actors. Jane was without doubt THE star, but we also had such exceptional stars as Susan Sullivan and Robert Foxworth, David Selby, Ana-Alicia, and Lorenzo Lamas, Margaret Ladd, Abby Dalton and Chao-Le Chi. There was a feeling of camaraderie on the set, no professional jealousy over who gets the best lines, at least that I was aware of, and a sense of mutual respect for their fellow actors and members of the crew.
Excellent guest stars were attracted to the series. We were a hit, but big stars also came because Jane was our star and they knew certain standards would be set. Mel Ferrar became a running character, as did Caeser Romero. It became "the thing to do" for stars to take guest starring roles. Gina Lollobrigiga came over from Italy for a series of episodes. Kim Novak left her hide-away in Big Sur long enough to lend her enchanting presence.
One of the most controversial stars to join us was Lana Turner. Lana was a legendary actor in her time, first discovered at a soda fountain by the owner of The Hollywood Reporter. After his recommendation to a producer she soon became cast in a film. Known at first as "the sweater girl" she quickly became a major star playing opposite such male stars as Clark Gable and John Garfield. She was a skilled actress but she was equally known for her eight marriages and a messy affair in later life with a gangster name Johnny Stampano.
When Jane learned that I had cast Lana she said, "I wish you had mentioned you were casting her."
"Why?" I asked. "She’ll be good for the ratings. What’s wrong with casting her?"
"She’s not a lady," Jane replied.
Jane was polite, but distant when Lana came aboard. At one point the CBS photographer asked if he could take a shot of the two of them together.
Jane was in her chair on one side of the sound stage waiting for the next scene to be shot. Lana was seated clear across the stage some distance away. I explain to Jane what the photographer wanted and Jane said, "Sure, bring her over."
Trying a bit of hillbilly diplomacy, I next went to Lana and explained that the photographer wanted a shot of her with Jane.
"Sure," replied Lana obligingly, "Bring her over."
In the end the photographer got his picture. He took it just as the scene between the two of the ladies was ending and they were walking off the sound stage in chilly silence.
Although I enjoyed "The Waltons" it had been a demanding series. During its long run, in addition to Falcon Crest I had also created and produced two other series, "Boone" and "Apple’s Way" which had limited runs. I was tired and so I left "Falcon Crest" at the end of the fifth season.
Jane and I remained friends. I would stop and see her occasionally on the set, and we always visited at Harry and Pattie Harris’ Christmas party which was a tradition and which Jane always attended with her daughter, Maureen Regan. Toward the end of the series health problems made it necessary for her to miss some filming. It must have been painful for her because she had always been a "trooper," and dedicated to her work. When the series was over she moved to Rancho Mirage, and while we spoke occasionally by phone I was never to see her again. When I received the news that she had died I felt, not only that a star had fallen, but also that I had lost a friend.