I meant to post this earlier in the season, but better late than never! The following is an interview I had with Earl Hamner, the creator of “The Waltons” (and writer of some of the old “Twilight Zone” episodes) when I lived in L.A. At the time, I was working various jobs, including writing for a now-defunct local newspaper. I hope you enjoy reading it. He’s a great person, wonderful writer, and I’m proud to call this fellow Virginian a friend…
Earl Hamner’s Christmas Memories — Growing Up in Virginia
L.A. Family Life — December 2005
Mention “Walton’s Mountain and most people smile with fond recollection. It isn’t just the television series they remember, it’s what each episode implied — that possessing and showing a sense of respect and dignity in the middle of difficult circumstances was honorable. The show, set during the Great Depression, gave millions of viewers a bit of hope — hope that they, too, could get through anything with faith, family and friends.
A lot of today’s shows are missing those universal elements. But from 1972 to 1981, America was reminded every Thursday evening of the power of togetherness. And, through cable and DVDs, more generations, in the United States and around the world, can now enjoy “The Waltons.”
Earl Hamner, the creator, producer and narrator of the show, based the Walton family on members of his own family in Schuyler, Virginia.
“The series won every major film award from the Emmy to the Golden Globes, as well as the George Foster Peabody Award,” Hamner says. It also won many hearts. And Hamner and the cast still receive mail from both old and new fans. “I can always tell what part of the world is watching the series because I start receiving fan mail from there. Recently, mail has been arriving from Calcutta!”
But what was it really like growing up as the oldest child during the 1930s? “Sometimes I resented my siblings,” he says with a smile. “How would you feel if you finally got to walk a girl home from school, which was our version of courtship, and having several younger brothers and sisters tagging along behind!”
But on Christmas Eve, the mood changed. Life in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia became magical. The scent of pine was heavy, the moon illuminated the snow, and the sounds of carols rang out from the churches. The Hamners attended Schuyler Baptist Church, and during the holidays, a garland of running cedar collected from the mountains adorned the railings, a Christmas tree stood beautifully decorated, and the children from the congregation performed the Christmas story, complete with costumes. At the end of this special service, everyone was given an orange. “As oranges were not easy to come by in Nelson County, an orange was very special,” Hamner says, “a luxury in those days, but more important, an orange stood for warmth and something exotic grown in some tropical place far from snow-covered Virginia.”
Christmas Day at the Hamners was joyful. The children rose out of bed as soon as it was light and gathered with expectation around their Christmas tree, decorated with bulbs, lights, homemade projects, and a star on top. Each child was given two gifts: one, something special, and the other, something fun. “One gift might have been something my mother had knitted,” said Earl, “such as a sweater or scarf, and the other might have strained the budget since it had to be store-bought, such as a fishing rod or a baseball bat for the boys and dolls of course for the girls.”
The whole house was filled with the wonderful aroma of apple cider, watermelon pickle relish, and Mrs. Hamner’s traditional three-layer yellow cake baking in the oven. Later, she’d ice it with chocolate, and each child got a taste from the icing bowl. Along with a wild turkey shot by Earl’s father while out hunting, Earl’s mother made her annual oyster stew from oysters bought in Charlottesville, along with store-bought oyster crackers. The family also feasted on the “put-up,” or canned, goods from their summer garden. Earl remembers coming home from school and finding his mother’s kitchen “filled with the aroma of baking Parker’s house rolls and spices used in her applesauce cake.”
As for Hamner’s favorite Christmas memory, it’s depicted in “The Homecoming,” a CBS Christmas special, starring Patricia Neal, Richard Thomas and Edgar Bergan. It’s the movie that helped launch “The Waltons.” “There was a thing my father did each year as Christmas approached,” said Earl. “He would pretend that he heard some kind of noise on the roof and would go out into the yard to investigate.
We would then hear sounds of struggle and finally my father would come back in the house with a fantastic story about finding some funny-looking old man with a pot belly in a sleigh out there. My father would then produce candy, which he claimed he wrestled away from the old man, who then escaped in a sleigh powered by some funny-looking little animals with antlers. My father was a dramatist, and I think it was from him that I inherited my talent for writing.”
Interestingly, December 1, 2005, marked opening night of the Earl Hamner Jr. Theatre in Nelson County. The stage version of “The Homecoming” was its first show. In the program, Hamner wrote:
“Of all the books or film scripts I have written, my novella ‘The Homecoming’ has been the closest to my heart. It is based on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1933, when my father was late arriving home, and the characters are reminiscent of actual members of the family. Others were equally real such as Ike Godsey, Hawthorne Dooly and the Baldwin Ladies, although I took some liberties with the ladies. In real life, they served ‘the recipe’ not in silver goblets but in a tin dipper! Everything I’ve written had its wellspring in Nelson County. If I ever needed inspiration, I had only to think back to the family, our neighbors and the friends I grew up with. Even a walk in my mind’s eye along one of those beautiful Nelson County roads could refresh my spirit and renew my energy. A filmed version of ‘The Homecoming” has been seen in many countries around the world and a stage version has been presented widely here in our country. But it has been a dream to have the story enjoyed in the area that inspired it, and told to the audience who will view it with special appreciation. Thank you for bringing ‘The Homecoming’ home and making this dream come true. Merry Christmas, Earl Hamner.”
Many Christmases have passed since Hamner’s childhood. He’s spent the holidays in Paris while in the Army, and in New York City while working at Rockefeller Center. And, of course, in Los Angeles, where he and his wife, Jane, raised their two children. “We had extravagant Christmases,” he says. “We would promise to only buy each other one gift, but when Christmas morning came around, well … there would always be more than one for all four of us…
Hamner’s life is very full these days. He is also working on another Christmas CD of old Baptist hymns with Jon Walmsley, who played “Jason” on “The Walton’s.” Walmsley will supply musical accompaniment to Earl’s reading, and has previously produced “A Walton’s Christmas, Together Again” CD. Hamner’s book “Generous Women” has a spring 2006 publication date, and he has several other projects underway. Just recently, he participated in a book-signing event at Book Soup in Hollywood with James E. Person, who wrote his just-published biography, “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow,” which has already gone into its second printing — a testimony to the influence and strength this man and his work have had, and continue to have, on American culture.