KAREN O’REILLY OF BIRMINGHAM, England, made her first plane trip to the U.S. just to meet Judy Norton, better known as Mary Ellen Walton. Tarn and Dave Jenkins drove from Lima, Ohio, to brush shoulders with Jon Walmsley, who played Mary Ellen’s brother Jason. Roy and Norma Aubain of Lenoir, N.C., had planned a beach vacation but chucked it to visit the mythical mountain where television’s Walton family lived for nine years. “People think we’re crazy,” says Roy, a postal employee, “but there’s worse things you could be addicted to.”
For many of the 6,000 zealous fans who convened Oct. 24 in the hamlet of Schuyler, Va. (pop. 400), the boyhood home of Waltons creator Earl Hamner Jr., for the opening of the Walton’s Mountain Museum, this gathering was something like heaven. Hamner, 69, and eight of the 10 surviving core cast members also reunited happily for the occasion. The only absentees were Walton grandma Ellen Corby, who was disabled by a stroke in 1976, and Richard (John Boy) Thomas, 41, who is performing in Danton’s Death in Houston. (Will Geer, grandpa Zeb, died in 1978.)
The cast, touring replicas of the Walton kitchen, living room and John Boy’s bedroom, as well as Ike Godsey’s store, was suitably impressed. “It’s a little overwhelming,” said Walmsley. Conceived by Schuyler county supervisor Woody Greenberg to boost the town’s economy, the museum contains only a few authentic TV artifacts, such as John Boy’s eyeglasses, since The Waltons Burbank set burned down in 1991. Most of the furniture comes from antique stores and thrift shops.
For the close-knit cast—which last got together in L.A. only four months ago to toast the birth of Mary (Erin) MeDonough’s first child, Sydnee—the visit revived memories that go back all the way to the show’s 1972 premiere. Walmsley, for instance, recalls that the cast “had major fallings-out where we didn’t speak for days—like a real family.” Now 36, Walmsley is married to Lisa Harrison, who played John Boy’s girlfriend Toni Hazelton on the show. They live in L.A., where Jon plays guitar in a country-rock band.
Michael Learned, 53, who played mother Olivia, is currently in a touring production of Love Letters. She admits that being apron-tied to Walton’s Mountain was sometimes frustrating for her as an actress, but, she says, “that’s OK—I put my kids through school.” Ralph Waite, 64, who played father John Walton, lost his bid for Congress in 1990 but will soon be seen as Kevin Costner’s father in the feature film Bodyguard.
Norton, 34, works with her second husband, Handy Apostle, 31, writing and directing plays in L.A. An equestrian and skydiver, she says it was partly the so-wholesome image of her character that led her to pose in Playboy in 1985, which she now regrets.
After The Waltons went off the air, McDonough, 31, backpacked through Europe. “I was trying to grow up,” she says. Also in L.A. and married to screenwriter Rob Wickstrom, McDonough is a sometime correspondent for Entertainment Tonight.
Eric Scott, 33, who played Ben, had a rough lime after the show was over and worked as a messenger for a courier company. He is now a vice president of marketing with the firm. “I can’t recapture what I had,” said the actor, who is married to his second wife, Theresa, a nurse. “But as long as I feel good about what I’m doing, I’m proud of it.” David Harper (Jim Bob), 31, single and an L.A.—based scenic painter, says he doesn’t miss the limelight but does admit to missing the family.
Kami Cotler (Elizabeth), 27, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, plans to teach high school English. The baby Walton marvels at the show’s popularity, kept alive by reruns. “An 8-year-old recognized me the other day!” exclaims Cotler. For Hamner, who lives in Los Angeles and is producing a TV series of The Man from Snowy River, the reunion was emotional. “I still feel like their older brother,” he says of the cast. “When I see them grown up, I’m filled with nostalgia.”
STEPHANIE SLEWKA in Schuyler