Editor’s note: Independence native Paul Henning created “The Beverly Hillbillies” and other hit TV shows. Ruth Henning tells their story in “The First Beverly Hillbilly,” published by the Mid-Continent Public Library and the Jackson County Historical Society. Those groups and others are presenting a program at 6 p.m. Friday, “Heartland to Hollywood: An Evening with the Henning Sisters.” Linda and Carol are Paul and Ruth’s daughters. The event is at Ophelia’s restaurant on the Square. Go to jchs.org for ticket information.
The following, serialized in The Examiner earlier this week, is a history of the Hennings and the Kansas City area.
By Brian Burnes
In 2013 William Chrisman High School drama students in Independence mounted a production of a show written by an obscure author with local ties.
It concerned a poor and barely-fed mountaineer family whose members remain unchanged by a sudden transformative economic windfall, despite their relocation to a new community whose comfortable residents so clearly covet their wealth.
The show was “The Beverly Hillbillies,” created by Paul Henning, a 1929 William Chrisman graduate.
Few of the students recognized “Hillbillies” when Kim Hayes, Chrisman theater advisor, announced it.
“So they just went to YouTube,” Hayes said.
The entertainment legacy of Henning, one of Jackson County’s less celebrated celebrities, remains stubbornly low profile, sometimes even in Jackson County.
That’s one reason why Ruth Henning – Paul Henning’s wife – wrote the memoir that now has been posthumously published by the Jackson County Historical Society with the Mid-Continent Public Library, “The First Beverly Hillbilly: The Untold Story of the Creator of Rural TV Comedy,”
Paul Henning died in 2005; Ruth Henning, who finished her manuscript in 1994, died in 2002.
“Our mother always felt Daddy didn’t get the appreciation he should have,” Linda Henning, a daughter of Paul and Ruth, said recently from southern California.
“But even though my father was a self-made man, he always kind of played down what he did. My father was introverted, very quiet and shy.”
Henning, born in 1911, grew up as the youngest of an Independence family of 10 children before finding a career path at a Kansas City radio station and then following it further, leaving for Chicago in about 1937, and then again for Los Angeles in 1939.
In the book, Ruth Henning tells how her husband became one of the most influential writers and producers in television history with the successful 1962 debut of “Hillbillies.” A second Henning program, “Petticoat Junction,” followed in 1963, with “Green Acres,” for which Henning served as executive producer, appearing in 1965.
Just as the book’s title suggests, Henning’s programs entertained millions with pastoral scenarios that were as gentle and comforting as the 1960s were raucous and disruptive.
Ruth Henning’s book touches – sometimes only briefly - on some of the several Jackson County institutions that influenced her husband’s life and career.
Among them are the Jackson County Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (today known as the Community of Christ), Harry Truman and Kansas City radio station KMBC.
Almost every account detailing the origins of “Hillbillies” cites Paul Henning’s vivid recollections of encountering rustic Ozarks residents while attending Boy Scout camps.
The story’s emphasis seems always to be more on the exotic “hillbillies” whom Henning encountered than the scouting summer camp experience he was discovering.
Organized scouting began in the United States in 1910, one year before Paul Henning’s birth.
That August Kansas City scouting officials formed their own council at the Young Men’s Christian Association building at Tenth and Oak streets.
The concept proved immediately popular. By that October there were 1,900 Boy Scouts across the Kansas City area, with 100 more in Independence. Troop 1 in Independence was organized by the Stone Church congregation of the RLDS, and its scoutmaster W. O. Hands was considered the first scoutmaster west of the Mississippi River to be issued credentials.
Before scouting there were few organized activities for Kansas City area boys, said Andrew Dubill, author of “In the Woods: 100 Years of Boy Scout Camping in the Heart of America Council.”.
“There were a lot more ways for a city boy from Kansas City or Independence to get into trouble than healthy, fun activities organized by them for adults,” Dubill said.
In 1911 the Kansas City Department of Public Welfare, a manifestation of the Progressive Movement, counted 194 pool and billiard halls across Kansas City, with an average weekly attendance of 153,387.
Two years later the same office counted 234 churches – and 616 saloons.
Scouting, with its organized summer camps, changed the equation for many boys and young men.
“Camp life means to live under canvas, away from the piles of brick and stone that we generally call our cities,” read a scouting booklet published in 1911. “A summer spent like this…fits (the scout) for the struggle of the school or shop that is going to test his endurance during the long winter months.”
In 1910 Kansas City area scouts marched from 39th and Genessee streets to a “camp” located on a Johnson County, Kansas farm.
The following year scout officials organized a summer camp near a district known as Dallas, which then was located near the current Kansas City intersection of 103rd
Street and State Line Road.
By 1913 area scout officials had grown more ambitious, organizing summer camps at Elk Springs, about four miles outside Noel, in the Missouri Ozarks, in the state’s extreme southwest corner.
During the 1920s both the Jackson County and Kansas City scouting councils organized summer sessions at Camp Dan Sayre, a separate facility also located a few miles outside of Noel.
The Jackson County Council brought their scouts to Camp Dan Sayre during the summers of 1923 through 1925, when Henning would have been 11 to 13 years old.
“In the early years of the scouting program in this area, boys were taken by train deep into the Ozarks for summer camp,” Dubill said.
“The train ride was a rare treat in itself as many of the scouts had never been far from their homes. Whey they arrived at camp, they headed right for the river to enjoy the fresh water and the giant slide (‘Shoot-the-Chute’) that the scout council built for them.
“Most of these boys had never been in a swimming pool.”
Henning always retained his regard for the southern Missouri Ozarks. In 1983 he and Ruth dedicated the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area, a 1,534-acre preserve - much of which was donated by the Hennings or purchased from them – near Branson.
In 1914 Frederick M. Smith, an amateur radio enthusiast, rode a train from Independence, Mo., to Lamoni, Iowa.
On the way he had pondered the plausibility of swift, efficient radio communication between the two locations, some 110 miles apart.
Upon arrival in Lamoni, he noticed a home with an elaborate radio antenna.
The home’s owner, after Smith knocked, confirmed that such a miracle was doable.
There were many amateur radio enthusiasts in the years before World War I. Smith, however, was a grandson of prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. and in 1915 he would become president of the RLDS, which had followers across the country.
Much of Smith’s early radio enthusiasm was driven by the still-evolving communication possibilities between two operators in distant locations as opposed to one-way “broadcasting.”
But his clear vision of how the young technology could spread his congregation’s message eventually led to the establishment of what Judd A. Case, associate professor of communication studies at Manchester University in Indiana, calls the first licensed, church-owned radio station. By 1927 that broadcasting ministry would lead to the establishment of KMBC, the station young Paul Henning would be singing over by 1935.
Case told the story in a 2016 article published in The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal.
As Case explained, Smith encouraged the building of radio facilities, funded by donations, at both Independence and Lamoni, home of Graceland College, established by the RLDS church in 1895.
During the years before World War I, both stations were offering programming for listeners.
In 1920 RLDS officials named Arthur B. Church, who had served as a U.S. Army radio instructor during World War I, head of their newly-formed Department of Communications. Church moved to Independence and began planning the construction of a radio studio in a small brick building in the rear of the Stone Church, then RLDS headquarters.
That studio was completed during the winter of 1921-1922, according to Case. The station then received a license to operate with the call letters WPE and listeners soon found broadcasts there of church services, sermons and music.
In 1923 Church persuaded RLDS officials to finance a 250-watt transmitter, and the Stone Church station received the call letters of KFIX. The following year Smith helped lead a fundraising drive to further upgrade the power of the station which then would be known as KLDS – as in “Latter Day Saints.”
Writing in a church publication, Smith wrote “…we shall because of generous contributions have the means of enlarging the station and then establishing relay stations, until we can eventually circle and encompass the globe with the glad sound of the gospel and with knowledge of the kingdom of God.”
KLDS debuted in 1925 with a 500-watt signal.
But growing federal government regulation, along with the pressures of the emerging national market for commercial radio networks, contributed to the end of KLDS as a predominantly religious station
“That end came much too soon; the challenges of professional broadcasting proved to be too much for the cash-strapped church…” Case wrote.
In 1927 the station became the property of the Midland Broadcasting Company, a Missouri corporation whose president was F. B. Blair, who had served as an RLDS bishop in Kansas City and before that as manager of the Lamoni power plant.
The company received the call letters KMBC – as in Midland Broadcasting Company.
In 1928 KMBC became part of the Columbia Broadcasting System, the radio network predecessor of the CBS television network.
Its operators moved the station’s studio to Kansas City, where it occupied space in the new Aladdin Hotel at 1215 Wyandotte St. In 1930 the operators moved the studio again, this time to the top floor of the new Pickwick Hotel at Ninth and McGee streets.
That’s where Paul Henning arrived sometime in the mid-1930s – wanting to sing.
At KMBC Henning joined a thriving community of young singers, musicians, actors and writers from all over Kansas City.
“KMBC was an exciting, innovative place to work,” said Chuck Haddix, curator of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Radio was still in its infancy, and they were making it up as they went along.”
One of Henning’s colleagues at KMBC was Ruth Barth, a 1930 graduate of Kansas City’s Central High School. She had attended junior college but the Depression had prevented her from obtaining a bachelor’s degree.
Barth had her own creative aspirations, however, and KMBC represented thrilling possibility. Although Barth’s official role was as a member of the station’s continuity department, she also joined her peers, writing and acting in the several daily serial programs KMBC distributed to stations across the Midwest.
“Creative young people swarmed the studios at KMBC and it was a three-ring circus,” she writes in her memoir.
“As far as I was concerned, it was the answer to everything.”
Barth won a role on the KMBC serial known as “Life on the Red Horse Ranch” (sponsored by Standard Oil of New York, or Socony, which featured a winged red horse as its trademark).
Both Barth and Henning, meanwhile, appeared as young lovers in a second show, known as “Happy Hollow.”
They were on the air and getting paid – Henning $50 and Barth $35 a week. Several times the “Red Horse Ranch” cast traveled to Chicago to record dialogue on the oversized electrical transcription discs used by stations to distribute and broadcast the shows.
“We did all 13 episodes in less than a week but I was never the same again,” Ruth Henning writes. “This was glamour time.”
Soon Barth left KMBC for Chicago, where she landed a role in a program called “Don Winslow of the Navy.”
She also circulated among those professionals who produced another popular show, “Fibber McGee and Molly.”
When the producers of that program said they needed material, Barth contacted Henning, who provided a sample script. The writers bought the script and soon Henning left for Chicago, where he and Barth worked together again.
In 1939 Henning resolved to leave to go to Los Angeles and try his luck in the radio industry there.
Barth and Henning married that same year in Yuma, Arizona, and continued on to southern California.
Over the ensuing 20 years, after rising in the radio – and then television – industries, Paul Henning began pondering a concept involving the Ozarks residents he encountered as a Boy Scout.
Henning ultimately pitched the concept in 1961 after television executives asked him to submit ideas for a new show.
It’s possible Harry Truman helped make that possible by not agreeing to two separate pitches made by Henning to the former president in 1959 and 1960.
In most accounts of Henning’s encounter with Truman, the future president plays a peripheral role.
A teenaged Henning, serving sodas at an Independence Square drug store, first encountered Truman when he and other county officials would cross the street to the drug store following night courthouse meetings.
Truman, elected eastern Jackson County judge in 1922, had begun attending night classes at the Kansas City School of Law in downtown Kansas City the following year. He later abandoned his studies but when Henning, scheduled to graduate from William Chrisman High in 1929, asked Truman’s career advice, Truman suggested law school.
“It opens the door to many possibilities, including politics,” Truman said, according to Ruth Henning.
Her husband signed up for night classes and took a day job at a law firm.
According to the Henning memoir, law students in Missouri who had yet to pass the state bar exam could take on clients on civil cases involving less than $500.
In one instance Henning represented a farmer in a feud with another farmer over a fence.
The opposing lawyer kept obtaining continuances until a frustrated Henning went by his office. The lawyer told Henning he expected the case never to come to court.
Henning asked him why not.
“Cause I can’t win, that’s why,” the lawyer said, before spitting toward the nearest cuspidor.
According to Ruth Henning, her future husband soon quit law school for radio.
But the Truman-Henning relationship would take a fateful turn some 25 years later.
In 1959 and 1960 Henning twice pitched the former president on two possible television projects.
In the first, Henning proposed a “Truman Reviews the News” concept, a program in which the former president would comment on the headlines of the week.
“After twenty-five years in radio and television, I don’t enthuse too easily, but this one really has me excited,” Henning wrote Truman in a January 1959 letter today archived at the Truman Library in Independence.
In his letter Henning submitted his Independence bona fides. Those included reminding the former president of their drug store encounters during the 1920s, how he had been born “on the old Whitthar Place on Blue Ridge,” how his older brother Harry “Cotton” Henning, a celebrated auto mechanic who would become associated with the Indianapolis 500, once had worked on Truman’s car; the several Independence addresses where his family had lived and how his mother Sophia, who lived at 725 South Main Street, would celebrate her 90th birthday on April 1.
Correspondence files at the Truman Library are silent as to whether Truman directly turned down this offer. They do, however, include a copy of the April 1 birthday greetings Truman sent to Sophia Henning, cc-ing a copy to Paul Henning in North Hollywood.
A second idea, which Henning proposed the following year, was a travelogue feature in which Truman would lead tours of historic sites such as Valley Forge and Ford’s Theater.
Truman declined the second pitch, with the handwritten note “We’ll talk about it” scratched out on Henning’s letter, followed by these words: “File. Did talk about it. Can’t do it.”
Truman’s reluctance might now be considered a lucky break for Paul Henning.
In her book Ruth Henning is specific about the chronology that led to “The Beverly Hillbillies,” often consulting her annual daybooks for significant dates.
Paul Henning had completed work on “The Bob Cummings Show” in 1959.
In the spring of 1960 he began co-writing a script for a film, “Lover Come Back.” That fall he and Ruth had sufficient spare time to take night German classes at North Hollywood High School.
In 1961 he helped write another movie, “Bedtime Story.”
Also in 1961, Henning received a call from a film executive who wanted more television programming.
Henning pitched his idea for “Hillbillies,” and a pilot episode was filmed in December, 1961. In January, 1962 the pilot was tested before a live audience in California.
That April Paul, Ruth and daughter Linda traveled to Independence where they visited Truman at his library.
If her husband and the former president discussed Henning’s two earlier proposals during their visit, Ruth Henning doesn’t say so in her book.
But at about the same time, Truman agreed to participate in a 26-part documentary called “Decision: The Conflicts of Harry S. Truman” which was syndicated to about 60 television stations in 1964.
If Truman instead had opted for either one of Henning’s projects, it’s unclear whether the “creator of rural TV comedy” would have had the time to ponder the possibilities of his program about hillbillies.
In September, 1962, about five months after Truman met the Hennings at the Truman Library, America met Jed, Granny, Jethro and Elly May.