For all of his accomplishments, Paul Henning didn’t seem to think there was enough to his life to merit a book.
Ruth saw it differently.
“They were together over 60 years, and she rode right along with him,” Mary Childers said Thursday afternoon, referring to her aunt and uncle Ruth and Paul Henning.
She spoke at an event to promote Ruth Henning’s book, “The First Beverly Hillbilly: The Untold Story of the Creator of Rural TV Comedy.” The book is published by the Mid-Continent Public Library and the Jackson County Historical Society.
Paul Henning grew up in a musical and highly creative family in Independence, and he met Ruth when both worked at KMBC radio in Kansas City.
“Both those kids – Paul and Ruth – were attracted by the glamour of radio,” Childers said.
Ruth went to Chicago for work, and Paul followed her and wrote for the hit show “Fibber McGee and Molly” in the 1930s. Comedian George Burns – big in radio, later huge in TV – called, looking for a writer.
“And Paul took it because it was a big-name thing,” Childers said.
Paul and Ruth got married, and they headed to Hollywood. In the mid-1950s, he created a hit TV show, “The Bob Cummings Show,” and he was a head writer as well. After that, the studio wanted something else, another hit.
“And he just fell back on this idea he had for a long time about the hillbillies,” Childers said.
Back in Independence, as a boy, he liked going to Scout camp in southern Missouri. He got to know some of the people there – simple people, neither having nor wanting some of what most people would take as modern conveniences. “They were just folks,” Childers said.
Drawing on that and on memories of his own family he came up with Jed and all his kin: Ellie May, Jethro and Granny.
“So when the family was watching the show, we couldn’t stop laughing,” Childers said. “You didn’t know who was going to show up next.
“The Beverly Hillbillies” was a major hit in the early and mid-’60s, as were “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres,” Paul Henning had a huge hand in each. He also did movies, such as “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” the musical version of which was still playing on Broadway when he died 12 years ago.
A pretty good run in the entertainment business, Childers said. Along the way, he was nominated for Emmys and once for an Oscar, and he won the Laurel Award for TV Writing Achievement from the Writers Guild of America.
And it was Ruth – at his side throughout, often an uncredited co-creator – who kept insisting there was a book in all of this. She wrote a manuscript, but the project stalled decades ago.
Then the Historical Society came across a copy of the manuscript in the papers of Sue Gentry, a longtime Examiner editor, columnist and reporter. And now it’s in print. The Henning family is allowing royalties to aid the Historical Society.
The book delves into all of those memories, including life in Independence decades ago, told in Ruth’s style.
“Absolutely,” said Steve Potter, Mid-Continent’s director and CEO. “You hear her voice.”