Classic Video Showplace

CLASSIC VIDEO SHOWPLACE: “Junction’s” Tragic Fates

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 For over a hundred years some of the greatest video treasures of all time have been produced. Some have been lost in the sands of time and others, soon to be rediscovered, will become fan favorites for a whole new generation.

 Each week we will feature just one of the many hidden gems that you can see on RCN TV with insights and commentaries on classic television shows and legendary cinematic performances.

Last week here at the Showplace, we talked about the origins of Petticoat Junction, from its beginnings as the popular spin-off from The Beverly Hillbillies through a great amount of success in the ratings through the mid-1960s.

Despite numerous cast changes throughout the show’s run, Junction was a perennial ratings hit and posted big overall numbers right up until its final years.

But real life issues slowly started to creep in and affected life in even this most rural, fictional town of Hooterville.

Smiley Burnette, the former singing cowboy, western film star and longtime sidekick to Gene Autry had become arguably the most popular figure on the show. Around the middle of season four his health started to decline and his appearances became less frequent.  Shortly after season four wrapped, Burnette succumbed to leukemia just after celebrating his 56th birthday.

Burnett’s cohort operating the show’s popular train, The Cannonball, was Rufe Davis, who also started to have health issues.  He left the regular cast after season five, although he did return for a few guest appearances in season seven.

Davis was replaced by Byron Foulger, for two years before he too became too ill to finish out the show’s final season. (He passed away the same day the final episode of Petticoat Junction aired.)

But the show’s biggest loss was yet to come.  

Series star and veteran radio/television character actress Bea Benaderet, who portrayed the show’s matriarch Kate Bradley, was diagnosed with lung cancer during the show’s third season.

Initially, she tried to hide her condition from the crew and even her castmates. But slowly her weight loss became more apparent and she began making less frequent appearances on the show during season five — all due to her treatment for the cancer.  After initially looking much more frail when she returned to the show after a long hiatus, she appeared to begin to make a recovery by the end of season five. 

However, in the time between the end of season five and the beginning of shooting season six, the cancer returned…and it was spreading rapidly.

Show Creator and Executive Producer Paul Henning moved up the decision that one of Kate’s daughters would have a baby early in the sixth season so Benaderet could be part of that program.  However, because of the cancer’s advancement, she only appeared in that particular episode through a voice over.  Her character was either written out of the next several shows or a stand-in, who’s back would face the camera, would be on the set for a limited time with no lines.  

Benaderet never returned to the set again.  She passed away a short time after recording her last audio appearance–13 days prior to her final episode’s air date.

Following her real life death (and a time slot change from their familiar Tuesday evenings to the dreaded Saturday night lineup), the show fell out of the Nielsen Top 30 ratings for the first time.  Announcing a main character’s death on a show was non-existent for 1960’s television and so the surviving characters initially mentioned her briefly in plot lines but CBS insisted the scriptwriters say that Kate was simply “out of town.”

Ironically, the ratings later improved during the show’s final year.  June Lockhart took over as the program’s new female lead and other new cast members began connecting to and bringing back audience members to Hooterville once again.  However, after the seventh season (and despite solid ratings), the CBS Network canceled the show due to the now infamous “Rural Purge.”

There’s also great stories about the Bradley’s family dog, the hotel used as the show’s main setting, an interesting history of the train used on the program and how the Bradley daughters made history with ties to the Beatles … but we’ll save those stories for another Showplace entry in the future.

You can return to visit the Shady Rest and all the people of Hooterville by tuning in to Petticoat Junction on RCN TV as the show airs Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m.

To view the complete rundown of classic programming on RCN TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website.