By Joel Francis
A small boy stands in front of the congregation on a Sunday morning in Independence. A hush falls over the group as the boy opens his mouth to sing.
At the end of the solo, the normally restrained worshippers burst into applause. Somewhere in the assemblage the boy’s mother turns red. Applause is never appropriate in church, she thinks. The woman sitting next to her leans over and whispers into her ear, “Do you know who that boy is?” “Never seen him before,” the mother replies.
The youngest of 10 surviving children, Paul Henning drew on memories of his mother when he created irascible, lovable Granny on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
“A lot of her wasy of doing things were old-fashioned,” Henning said from a telephone his North Hollywood home. “Like Granny, mom made lye soap.”
To hear Flatt and Scruggs tell it, the Clampetts’ rags-to-riches story began with Jed “shootin’ at some food, an’ up thru the ground came a bubblin’ crude. Oil, that is ….” In Henning’s memory, however, it started at Scout camp.
“I had gone to Boy Scout camp when I lived in Independence and we went to summer camp in the Ozarks,” he said. “I fell in love with hillbilly characters. I thought they were independent and had always been a fan of hillbilly humor.”
Henning never forgot those days and drew on them years later when he was cajoled into writing a TV comedy pilot.
By then he had already built a successful career, first in radio, then in television. He wrote gags for George Burns and Gracie Allen and wrote scripts for “The Real McCoys,” “The Dennis Day Show” and “The Bob Cummings Show.”
When Henning was at an age where many start looking back on their careers, he and Jed struck black gold.
“I kept getting calls from (producer) Al Simon, who was at the studio we did ‘Burns and Allen,’” Henning says. “He told me, ‘I’m at a company called Filmways and we’d love to have you write a pilot.’”
Niece Mary Childers of Independence remembers when Henning brought a copy of the pilot back home to premier for the family.
“He had it on 16-millimeter film and we covered the windows and watched it,” she says.
“The Beverly Hillbillies” debuted Sept. 26, 1962, on CBS. Two weeks later it was the No. 1 show in the country.
“That first year was the funniest year,” Childers said. “God, those shows were so funny.”
The show met with the approval of everyone but Henning’s mother, Sophia.
“She never really understood, even when I worked in radio and lived at home,” Henning said. “She never understood what I did.”
When Henning was working at KMBC radio in Kansas City, he would often write the script for the next day’s show when he got home from work in the evening.
“I once had a program with a girl singer I would write every night,” Henning says. “Mother once says to me ‘You know that girl you work with on the program? She’s very good. No matter what you say, she always has a comeback.’
“I told her, mom, that’s what I do every night. I write the script.”
But in Sophia Henning’s mind, script-writing was not a “real job.”
“I don’t think she ever thought he’d make a living, although he did and he provided for her,” Childers said.
Even when Henning got a break in Hollywood writing for Burns and Allen, the Henning matriarch was less than impressed.
“When I got that job I wrote to mom and told her, ‘I’m not writing for Rudy Vallee anymore. I’m writing for George Burns,’” Henning says. “She wrote back, ‘That’s great, but who’s going to write for Gracie?’”
The Path to Hollywood
Henning was born in 1911 outside Independence near Blue Ridge. While he was still a baby, the family moved inside the city limits.
“I was raised in what we might laughingly call the city,” Henning says. “But it was a wonderful place.”
Henning attended the old Ott Elementary School and the old junior high school on the site of what is now the Palmer Building. In 1929, he graduated from William Chrisman High School, which was then on Maple Avenue.
“Independence was growing at that time and Chrisman was a wonderful school,” Henning says. “I enjoyed high school very much. I was editor of the Gleam (yearbook), and I remember belonging to the George S. Bryant literary society.”
An avid reader, Henning used to walk to the library after school. During summers he was a soda jerk at Pendleton’s drug store.
“I liked that job because I could eat all the ice cream,” Henning says with a laugh.
County judge Harry Truman often stopped in after work.
“He used to come in with a group of county employees and match coins on the soda fountain to see who would pay for 5-cent Cokes,” Henning said.
After graduation, Henning took a job working for Ted Malone on KMBC radio as a singer.
“I was there at KMBC for seven years, and I did about everything there was to do,” he says. “Sound effects, announcer – I did anything that needed to be done.”
The big money in radio was in finding sponsors for a program, and Henning successfully courted the Associated Grocers to sponsor “Al and George’s Musical Grocers.”
“We sang about food products,” Henning says. “They said they liked the concept and told me to get busy and write it. I told them I’m a singer, not a writer, and they said if you want to sing it, write it.”
One Sunday a young woman named Ruth Barth came to the station looking for a job from Ted Malone.
“When I went in I saw a boy and three girls clowning around,” Ruth Henning says. “I noticed Paul and was attracted to him right away.”
Malone told Ruth Henning there was no money to hire her, but if she would work for free he would try to hire her eventually. She got her big break when her show “Red Horse Ranch” was sold and the cast went to Chicago to tape the show.
“I saw that bit actors in Chicago were making more money than we were for a whole week’s work,” Ruth Henning says. “I wanted to go to Chicago, but couldn’t convince Paul to come with me.”
“They loaded up the truck”
Still very much in love, Ruth Henning moved to Chicago, but Paul was never far from her mind.
“I left and never came back,” Ruth Henning says. “I found out a writer for ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’ needed help, so I wrote Paul and he wrote a script.”
Paul Henning says writing the script wasn’t difficult.
“I listened to ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’ and got the idea of the show and wrote a whole script on speculation,” Paul Henning says. “I sent the script in and they liked it.”
Paul and Ruth Henning were reunited, but Paul had been seduced by the West Coast on a business trip to California and was dreaming of living there. He relocated once again and quickly found work in Hollywood.
“He got a job with Rudy Vallee and then his agent got him a job with Burns and Allen,” Ruth Henning recalls. After he got settled, Paul asked her to join him.
“I proposed to her on the phone,” he says. “I said this is paradise after the
rigors of Chicago.”
The Hennings celebrated their 62nd anniversary on Jan. 14.
“We were in love and we still are,” Paul Henning says. “We are more in love than we were the day we were married.”
Paul Henning says his stint with Burns was “the first really good job I got.”
“I joined George Burns in 1942 as a radio writer, and we made the transition from radio to TV in 1950,” he says. “In those days, if you wanted to get any press you had to originate the program in New York, so George and Gracie went to New York and I went with them.”
Henning left “Burns and Allen” in 1952 for “The RCA Victor Show” featuring Dennis Day, which paired him with Stan Shapiro and offered Henning the chance to work as producer.
“I always wanted to be a producer. It was an ideal step up from being a writer,” Paul Henning says. “After a while, Stan went to Universal and said I should get off the treadmill of TV and write movies.”
Shapiro and Henning turned out two successful movies together: 1961’s “Lover Come Back” with Rock Hudson and Doris Day; and 1964’s “Bedtime Story” with Marlon Brando and David Niven, which was remade in 1988 as “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”
“Universal was so close to the house I could walk to work,” Paul Henning says. “He (Shapiro) was right – the pace of movies was so relaxed we could take as much time as we needed. It was a pleasure to get out of the glass furnace of TV.”
But television wouldn’t let Henning defect, and a new company called Filmways was pestering Henning for a pilot. The submitted script was “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
“I was more interested in characters than gags,” Paul Henning says. “I stared with Buddy Ebsen in mind as the cornerstone. Once Buddy said he’d do it, I started casting the others.”
America couldn’t get enough of the Clampetts’ weekly adventures, and soon Filmways asked Henning for another show. Henning again drew on the past for inspiration, but this time he used Ruth’s childhood memories, not his own.
“Ruth had been telling me about her grandparents who had a hotel in Eldon, Mo.,” Paul Henning says. “I got the idea of the hotel beside the railroad track and used that for ‘Petticoat Junction.’”
Ruth Henning spent her summers at the hotel with her five cousins.
“We all grew up as sisters,” she says. “We couldn’t wait to get there.”
“Petticoat Junction” was also a success and Filmways asked for a third show, promising to air it without a pilot. Paul Henning gave them an adaptation of the radio show “Green Acres.”
Every week, folks back home caught the inside jokes and references to Henning’s native soil.
Independence pharmacist Petey Childers was married to Henning’s sister, Drusilla. Petey was often Granny’s unseen medical consultant.
“Granny would call dad to order medicine from back home,” Childers said. “Right after the show people would call dad with ‘Did Granny get her medicine?’ He’d play along.”
References to Sibley, Buckner and Blue Springs would often crop up when Jed or Granny called “back home.”
As popular as Henning’s shows were, they never received critical acclaim. In eight seasons, “The Beverly Hillbillies” never fell out of the Top 20 in the Nielsen ratings – and was No. 1 twice – but it never won an Emmy, and most critics despised it.
“That was hard to take. Some of them were pretty tough,” Paul Henning says. “My job was to entertain the public, and we succeeded in that. The ratings compensated for bad reviews.”
The ax fell in 1971. Under a new presidency, CBS canceled all three of Henning’s shows, despite the fact that the “Hillbillies” was still in the Top 20. Also cancelled were “Mayberry RFD” and all other rural shows. As one critic put it, CBS “canceled every show with a tree in it.”
“It was a letdown, but I’ve had a lot of years of work and it was wonderful to be able to spend time with the family,” Paul Henning says. “I wanted the shows to last for a decade. Having been with Burns and Allen for 10 years, that was the magic number.”
Ruth Henning remembers when the shows were canceled.
“Paul felt bad. He had hope it to go on another year or two,” she says. “Demographics had become very popular. I think CBS made a mistake thinking a lot of the people who lived in the city didn’t like the shows. I don’t think that was true.”
Henning retired, invested himself in his family and friends and help Ruth build her dream house.
“I made a few attempts, but I didn’t want to work that hard again,” Paul Henning says. “I didn’t want to go back to the grind. I had developed high blood pressure and the doctor advised me to slack off if I didn’t want to have a stroke.”
Henning, who never lost his mother’s sense of modesty, doesn’t overplay his shows’ successes. But he can’t ignore the laughter they brought into living rooms all over the world.
“The fact that I transported a rural people to a sophisticated environment seemed to be a universal thing,” he says of the “Hillbillies.”
“It’s been seen in most of the countries of the world. I remember seeing my first episode in Japanese.
“I laughed myself silly.”