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Dec. 8, 2022

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‘Waltons’ still stirs fans nostalgia

At 50, drama traced close-knit family’s struggles, joys

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3 Photos
From left, David Harper, as Jim-Bob Walton; Eric Scott, as Ben Walton; Michael Learned, as Olivia Walton; Kami Cotler, as Elizabeth Walton; Richard Thomas, as John Boy Walton; Mary McDonough, as Erin Walton; Judy Norton, as Mary Ellen Walton; Ralph Waite, as John Walton; Ellen Corby, as Ester "Grandma" Walton; Will Geer, as Zeb "Grandpa" Walton; Jon Walmsley, as Jason Walton, in the 1970's TV show The Waltons.
From left, David Harper, as Jim-Bob Walton; Eric Scott, as Ben Walton; Michael Learned, as Olivia Walton; Kami Cotler, as Elizabeth Walton; Richard Thomas, as John Boy Walton; Mary McDonough, as Erin Walton; Judy Norton, as Mary Ellen Walton; Ralph Waite, as John Walton; Ellen Corby, as Ester "Grandma" Walton; Will Geer, as Zeb "Grandpa" Walton; Jon Walmsley, as Jason Walton, in the 1970's TV show The Waltons. (CBS Photo Archive) Photo Gallery

The Rev. Matt Curry’s parents were children of the Great Depression, just like “The Waltons” — the beloved TV family whose prime-time series premiered 50 years ago.

When Curry was growing up on a farm in northern Texas, his carpenter father and teacher mother often argued playfully over who had a poorer childhood.

“The Depression was the seminal time of their lives — the time that was about family and survival and making it through,” said Curry, now a 59-year-old Presbyterian pastor in Owensboro, Ky. “My dad used to talk about how his dad would go work out of town and send $5 a week to feed and clothe the family.”

So when “The Waltons,” set in 1932 and running through World War II, debuted on CBS on Sept. 14, 1972, the Currys identified closely with the storylines. Millions of others felt the same, and the Thursday night drama about a Depression-era family in rural Virginia became one of TV’s most popular and enduring programs.

“The Waltons” ran for nine seasons and 221 episodes, ranking as high as No. 2 in the Nielsen ratings. A half-century later it still stirs nostalgia among loyal fans who can’t resist taking in cable TV reruns, binging episodes via streaming apps and keeping up with former stars through social media.

Based on the life of its creator, the late Earl Hamner Jr., the show followed a large extended family living in a white, two-story farmhouse and running a sawmill in the fictional Blue Ridge foothills town of Walton’s Mountain. The parents, grandparents and seven children — John Jr., Jason, Mary Ellen, Erin, Ben, Jim-Bob and Elizabeth — were depicted wearing overalls and dresses, praying at meals and overcoming adversity through hard work and grace.

“The Waltons” focused on John Jr., known as John-Boy, played by Richard Thomas and modeled on Hamner. The oldest sibling, he aspired to be a writer and experience the world beyond his humble upbringing.

Now 71 and starring as lawyer Atticus Finch in a touring production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Thomas said he still hears fans call “Good night, John-Boy!” after each performance. The familiar catchphrase pays homage to the Emmy-winning role that made him famous.

“It’s kind of astonishing that we’re still talking about a show 50 years later,” said Thomas, who narrates “A Waltons Thanksgiving,” a made-for-TV movie airing this fall on the CW network.

“To have that kind of longevity and then have it mean enough for people to want to do a new version of it — I’m not sure exactly why,” he added. “I know it affected a lot of people’s lives. But I think primarily Earl Hamner’s writing was just so great and the cast loved each other so much and we were so committed.”

John-Boy had a lot to do with the show’s popularity — and inspired many a crush back then among fans like Jerri Harrington, now 67, of Centreville, V.

Harrington still watches an episode every night with her husband of 47 years. During the frightening early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, its characters — particularly grandma Esther, played by the late Ellen Corby — brought a sense of comfort and return to childhood.

“It just feels familiar,” said Harrington, a grandmother herself.

Another lifelong fan, Carol Jackson, like Curry the daughter of Depression-era parents, sees her own family’s story reflected.

She became a fan as a kindergartner and as an adult placed “Waltons” DVDs in the resort cabins that her family operated in the Ozarks of northern Arkansas. The homespun stories still connect with the 55-year-old mother of three.

“I just told my kids, ‘One day when I’m old and in my wheelchair … just wheel me in front of ‘The Waltons’ on a continual loop, and I’ll be happy,’” Jackson said.

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