Name from History: Earl Hamner Jr. worked at WLW before becoming creator and voice of 'The Waltons'
Wrote scripts for fellow WLW alum Serling, too
Brent Coleman | WCPO contributor
12:00 PM, Dec 14, 2016
CINCINNATI -- If there's a radio heaven, you know WLW alumni Rod Serling and Earl Hamner Jr. would make a hell of a team.
They already have a track record for making hit scripts: Hamner penned eight of them for Serling's "The Twilight Zone" in the early 1960s.
We all know Serling, his seminal science-fiction series, his fiery spirit, his distinctive New York voice, his chain smoking and the heart attacks that killed him at age 50 in 1975.
Fewer of us know Hamner, who died in March at age 92. But anyone who watched "The Waltons" television series (1972-81) surely remembers his voice-overs that opened 213 episodes of the family-folksy, Emmy-winning drama he helped create and produce.
What we might not know is that Hamner started his writing career here in Cincinnati as a broadcasting student at the old College of Music. He also worked as an intern and staff writer at The Big One: 500-kilowatt WLW-700, one of the stations he listened to as a youth in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
His few years here in late-1940s radio are but a footnote to a career that spanned more than six decades. But the Virginia-born writer remembered them fondly, said longtime Cincinnati broadcaster Mike Martini, who co-founded Media Heritage, a Cincinnati-centric, nonprofit organization that preserves the history of radio, television and film.
"He always credited Cincinnati as being that place where he became professional," Martini said. "It's always big in a broadcaster's career when you get paid for doing what you love."
Hamner -- tall, lean and red-headed with a homespun, mountain style -- was editor of a WLW program called "Postmark," Martini said, which was like an old-fashioned fanzine. He wrote scripts for other shows as well and "did a lot of things like they did in those days. He gave tours of the studios for visitors down at Crosley Square."
Hamner, whom the 1948 city directory listed as a "typist" living at the YMCA, decided in 1949 that "in order to be a professional writer, he had to get out of Cincinnati," Martini said. His replacement at WLW was Serling, who, like Hamner, was a World War II veteran and used the GI Bill to pay for college -- in Serling's case, Antioch in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Hamner moved back to the South in 1949, wrote his first novel, "Fifty Roads to Town," and published it while he was writing scripts for NBC in New York. His credits there include "The Today Show."
Unbeknownst to Hamner at the time, 1949 was significant for another reason. He was a winner in a script competition sponsored by the radio series "Dr. Christian" and went to New York for the awards ceremony. There he met fellow winner Serling for the first time.
Hamner wrote about the experience on his website, http://www.earlhamner.com: "My script won high honors, and I was invited to come to New York to appear on a special broadcast featuring the winning writers. Rod Serling was one of the other winners. We met. ... It was the start of a haphazard relationship that was to prove to be most beneficial to me, and one that I hope was rewarding to Rod."
It was, in fact, rewarding for Serling. WLW hired Serling in 1950, essentially to fill the vacancy left by Hamner. Although the two did not work together at WLW, Serling often introduced Hamner as the man who got him his first real job.
The two creative forces would not collide again until 1962, when Hamner, by then a "Twilight Zone" script writer, moved to Los Angeles to be part of the Hollywood entertainment machine.
Like Walton’s Mountain
Hamner was the first of five boys and three girls born to Earl Henry Hamner and Doris Giannini in Schuyler, Virginia, on July 10, 1923. His father worked in a soapstone mine and later was a machinist for a local DuPont chemical plant, the Los Angeles Times wrote in its Hamner obituary. His family was close-knit, once described by Hamner as being "demonstrative in our love, kissing and hugging a lot."
His mother, who was of early Italian-American heritage, taught Hamner how to read by the age of 4. He published his first piece of writing, a poem titled "My Dog," in the Richmond Times-Dispatch when he was just 6.
Those formative years in the Blue Ridge Mountains south of Charlottesville generated a lifetime of memories that fueled Hamner's writing. Longtime Cincinnati media writer John Kiesewetter, who met and interviewed Hamner several times, also knew one of his WLW co-workers.
"Mary Wood, the (Cincinnati) Post TV columnist who got her start as a writer at WLW, once told me that Earl Hamner loved to sit and tell stories about the crazy family he had back in Virginia, who became the characters on 'The Waltons' in the '70s," Kiesewetter said.
With his family dear to his heart, Hamner left Schuyler after high school with a University of Richmond scholarship in hand. But two years into his college education, the United States Army came calling, in 1943. He served in the 542nd Quartermaster Corps, a supply and services division, in Paris.
Cincinnati was his second choice
Fresh out of the Army and with the GI Bill to pay for college, Hamner applied to a broadcasting college program in Chicago, Martini said, but it was full. The College of Music in downtown Cincinnati, home of the nation's first collegiate broadcasting program, was Hamner's second choice, Martini said, and he arrived here in 1946. (The College of Music merged with the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1955 and, in 1962, became part of the University of Cincinnati as the College-Conservatory of Music.)
A number of WLW staff members taught at the College of Music and developed relationships with its students, Hamner among them. Hamner acted on air in a WLW show, and eventually he was hired on as an intern and then as a staff writer, Martini said.
Hamner retreated to a cabin in Arkansas to finish writing his first book in 1949 and rarely came back to Cincinnati afterward. Hamner’s most notable return took place in 2008, when UC presented him an honorary doctorate degree in broadcasting and he delivered a commencement speech.
In the years between his departure and return, Hamner had a stalwart career that included numerous awards, including Emmy and Peabody honors. In addition to creating "The Waltons," which was based on his early book "The Homecoming: A Novel About Spencer's Mountain," he created three other TV shows: "Falcon Crest" (1981-90), "Apple's Way" (1974-75) and "Boone" (1983-84). He produced the animated "Charlotte's Web" (1973) and wrote the script for the 1968 TV version of "Heidi," which cut into the final 1 minute, 15 seconds of a crucial NFL game during which the Oakland Raiders beat the New York Jets by scoring two quick touchdowns while the football nation in the East Coast time zone yelled at "Heidi" to go away.
Broadcasting historian Martini recalled that the writer's humble and sweet demeanor were not an act. Martini said he objected to the branding of Hamner by some writers as being the real-life John-Boy Walton, the young writer and eldest Walton child in the TV family.
"Towards the end, five or six years before he died, he was writing short stories for science-fiction and horror publications," Martini said of Hamner. "He was always trying to shake that image of being sweet and saccharine."
Martini said the director of "The Waltons" became frustrated because he had to ask many of the 100 or so actors who auditioned to narrate the show to "do it like Earl." The director finally said to Hamner, "Why find someone else to do it? Why don't you do it?" That's how Hamner got a job he held for 10 years and 213 episodes.
Hamner landed his first big break in a much different way. According to a 2006 UC Alumni Magazine article, science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury urged Hamner to submit a "Twilight Zone" script to Serling in 1959. The two writers jelled, and Hamner went on to write eight episodes, the fourth most among the show's writers, which included Serling.
Script with a twist
Hamner's first "Twilight Zone" script, titled "The Hunt," is a prime example. In it, a backwoodsman named Simpson Hyder and his hound dog, Rip, encounter a man at a gate up in the mountains. The man invites Hyder in but says the dog isn't allowed. Little does Hyder know but he is at the gate to hell and its keeper fears Rip would smell the brimstone beyond it and scare Hyder from entering. Man and dog walk away and encounter another man at a second gate. This time it's heaven, and the keeper, having heard Hyder's description of what happened at the other gate, tells him, "You see, Mr. Simpson, a man, well, he'll walk right into hell with both eyes open. But even the devil can't fool a dog!"
The camera cuts away to Serling, who delivers, as he always did, the moral of the story: "Travelers to unknown regions would be well-advised to take along the family dog. He could just save you from entering the wrong gate. At least it happened that way once in a mountainous area of the Twilight Zone."
Hamner received this compliment on www.RodSerling.com: "The fact remains that Hamner wrote his share of gems for the series. Examples include 'Jess-Belle,' a timeless tale of love and witchcraft, 'You Drive,' a possessed automobile story that easily predate Stephen King's 'Christine,' and the pre-'X-Files' alien-abduction classic, 'Stop Over in a Quiet Town.' "
Yet, unlike the outspoken Serling, Hamner led a quiet life -- he loved fishing and tending to his Bonsai garden -- and a quiet career. He was a family man first, with his wife, Jane, and two children, and a behind-the-scenes advocate of the simple values of love, honor, pity, pride, frugality and self-reliance that he had absorbed growing up in Virginia and later brought to television, even edgy shows like "The Twilight Zone."
Hamner, in his 2008 commencement speech at UC, said not everyone understood how he had infused the series with American folk morality.
"I received a lot of compliments on those scripts, except from one person," he said. "Admittedly, the stories were pretty far out, but my mother-in-law found them downright weird."
Hamner on Serling
Earl Hamner once had this to say to a reporter about Serling:
"My first impression of Rod was of a young man in a hurry. He almost levitated in his drive to get going, and while he was not a tall man, he willed himself to height and to an intense presence. He presented a somewhat 'tough-guy' image of himself, accenting his experiences as a paratrooper and a prizefighter."