Ruth Henning’s story is at last going to be told. It’s a story of growing up in Independence, of the early days of radio and of smashing success in Hollywood.
“She thought Paul had an interesting life and needed to tell it,” says their niece, Mary Childers of Independence.
Ruth Henning sat down to write “The First Beverly Hillbilly” in the 1990s, about her husband, Paul, whose long career in Hollywood included creating “The Beverly Hillbillies,” which topped the TV ratings in its first two seasons in the early 1960s and aired for 10 seasons total – and ever since in reruns.
“It just took the world by storm,” said Steve Noll, executive director of the Jackson County Historical Society.
Ruth Henning’s book turned up in the papers of longtime Examiner editor, columnist and reporter Sue Gentry, which are held by the Historical Society. In a 1994 letter to Gentry, Ruth Henning writes, “I really believe one day it will find a publisher.”
It has. The Historical Society has gotten permission from the family to move ahead, and is moving ahead in collaboration with the Mid-Continent Public Library’s Woodneath Press.
“Our goal would be to have it done by Labor Day,” Noll says.
Paul Henning is best remembered for “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but he and Ruth enjoyed decades of success in show business.
He grew up in Independence. They met when both worked at KMBC in Kansas City in the 1920s. They did it all – writing ads, singing. Ruth found a job in Chicago, and Paul followed, Childers says.
Paul went to work for George Burns – a huge star in radio and then TV – in the 1930s, first in Hollywood, then in New York for “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” in the 1950s.
“Ruth loved it. Ruth loved show business,” Childers says.
Paul kept pushing ahead. He created, produced and served as the head writer for “The Bob Cummings Show,” a sit-com, in the mid- and late ‘50s.
And then came Jed Clampett. The story is that Paul drew upon getting to know people in the Ozarks.
“He had a lot of respect for them. He enjoyed them a lot,” Childers says.
“The Beverly Hillbillies” was a sit-com full of innocent misunderstandings when city folks and country folks looked at things differently. Jed’s nephew Jethro always called the swimming pool “the cee-ment pond.”
It debuted on CBS in 1962 and hit the top of the ratings within weeks. Paul even wrote the opening and closing song, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.”
Critics hate it. Viewers didn’t. It was the No. 1 rated show, according to the Nielsen ratings, in 1962-63 and 1963-64 and stayed in the top 12 for the next five years. Henning then created “Petticoat Junction” – a lot of it was from Ruth’s ideas – which was No. 4 in 1963-64 and ran seven seasons. A third show, “Green Acres,” with Henning as executive producer, ran six seasons and was No. 6 in 1966-67.
“He was not a one-hit star,” Noll says.
There was other success, too. He was a writer on the Steve Martin-Michael Caine comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and late in life was given the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television by the Writers Guild of America. It is the group’s highest award.
“He was recognized for his work,” Childers says.
The Hennings gave the land, 1,500 acres, for what is now the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area near Branson. Even that old car truck that Jethro drives in the opening credits of “The Beverly Hillbillies” has a home. It’s at the Ralph Foster Museum at the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri.
“The heritage lives on,” Noll says, “in the area that it arose from.”
NOTE: This article has been updated to remove an incorrect photo and replace it.