Billie Jo, Betty Jo and Bobbie Jo ~ By Allen Kopp
I always wanted to watch Petticoat Junction on TV and couldn’t. We only had one TV and I never got to choose what was watched, except on the rare occasions when I happened to be at home by myself. Our TV was almost always tuned to westerns, war or police dramas, or, of course, the news. Comedies were unacceptable. Anybody who wanted to watch a situation comedy had severe mental problems, or worse (especially if it had the word “petticoat” in the title). If you were a “normal” person you didn’t want to see a show that you could laugh at and talk about at school the next day. Life was just too serious for that. If you weren’t seeing men on horses shooting guns or men fighting battles with other men, you just weren’t entertained. That’s the way the cards were stacked at our house.
Anyway, Petticoat Junction was so cheery and so far removed from reality that it made you forget your problems for a while. It was set in the country (as opposed to a city or town), presumably somewhere in the United States, but what state or what part of the country it was in was never specified. (The nearest town was called Hooterville, if that helps at all.)
In this country setting was a hotel called the Shady Rest, run by an old woman named Kate. The actress Bea Benadaret played Kate. She also played the part of cousin Pearl Bodine in The Beverly Hillbillies and did the voice for Wilma Flintstone. No matter which side of the fence you are on regarding Miss Benadaret, you have to admit that is quite an impressive track record for any thespian!
So, Kate the country hotel owner didn’t have a husband but had a trio of perky daughters, named, appropriately, Billie Jo, Betty Jo and Bobbie Jo. They were the reason we watched the show in the first place. They were apparently in their teens but, unlike teens in the real world, they were perfectly groomed—never a hair out of place—and were never sullen, angry or angst-ridden. They never seemed to go to school or do much of anything, but they did, however, swim in the water tank beside the train tracks, as evidenced in the show’s opening every week, slinging their petticoats over the side—hence the title Petticoat Junction.
Also part of the Shady Rest family was irascible Uncle Joe. He had a big belly and wore a bow tie and a funny hat; took a lot of naps in the rocking chair on the porch and could be counted on to say funny and inappropriate things, stimulating the laugh track more than anybody else. He was played by the gravelly voiced character actor Edgar Buchanan, who, during his movie career, was in a lot of westerns and played the helpful friend, Applejack, of Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in the tearjerking movie Penny Serenade in 1941.
When Kate needed food for her guests at the hotel, she bought it from Sam Drucker, a skinny, baldheaded man who wore a garter on his sleeve and a long apron. His general store, right out of the nineteenth century, had a potbellied stove, a phone with a crank (just turn the crank and you’ll get Sarah, the telephone operator), a display of brooms for sale, and shelves of canned goods behind the counter. Sam Drucker might have been a love interest for Kate as there seemed so few eligible men around, but, on second thought, he probably wasn’t.
And then there was the train, the Cannonball, which we usually saw or heard about when the action moved outside the hotel. More often than not, the Cannonball brought interesting guests to the hotel, such as a sick child and her overly protective mother, an old beau of Kate’s from her youth, or the mean old miser who wanted to buy the Shady Rest and tear it down. The engineer and the conductor of the train were two old country gents who, like Uncle Joe, could be counted on to elicit laughter. Their names were Smiley Burnett and Rufe Davis. They weren’t very smart but we didn’t care because nobody else was smart, either.
As the sixties wore on, Petticoat Junction changed, and not for the better, either. It went from black and white to color, as did every other show on television. The actresses who played the three gals weren’t always the same. When there was a different Billy Jo, Betty Jo, or Bobbie Jo from what we were used to, I think we weren’t supposed to notice, but we did, and it was disturbing. (One of the gals, we heard later, was the girlfriend of Nat King Cole.) When Bea Benadaret became ill and died, the show tried to continue without her, but her absence was felt too much to retain the feeling it once had.
Given the popularity of Petticoat Junction, it was inevitable that there would be an offshoot. It was called Green Acres and it had the same pastoral setting and even some of the same characters as Petticoat Junction, including Sam Drucker. It was about a sophisticated New York couple who moved to the country and set themselves up on a farm. The best thing about Green Acres was Eva Gabor, the Hungarian-accented Park Avenue socialite who had to adapt herself to being a farm wife. (“Darling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue!”)
Eventually the kind of gentle, unsophisticated rural humor of Petticoat Junction fell out of favor with audiences and was replaced by more caustic, politically conscious offerings like All in the Family. The simple sixties passed away and became something else entirely. Would I want to go back and live the sixties over again? Not if it means I have to repeat the hellish ninth grade.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp