‘The Waltons’ Special Effect Team Lit This on Fire to Symbolize Burning Pieces From the Hindenburg

by Suzanne Halliburton

Fans of The Waltons probably remember an episode in season five that saw John Boy getting the opportunity to cover an actual historical event that evolved into a disaster.

On an episode called the Inferno, The Waltons dramatized the Hindenburg. The Hindenburg was a massive passenger airship. And it burst into flames when it attempted to dock at a Naval Air Station in New Jersey. You probably have seen the grainy newsreel footage. The accident happened on May 6, 1937. The fire killed 35 people, or more than one-third of the passengers and crew onboard the ship. Another person on the ground was killed.

The Hindenburg disaster May 6, 1937 in Lakehurst. Private Collection. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

How Did the Hindenburg Explosion Show Up as a Plotline on The Waltons?

So how did John Boy find his way onto the Hindenburg scene? On The Waltons, John Boy was a writer. And he entered his work in a contest, which he won. The prize was tagging along with reporters to cover the Hindenburg, one of the flying Zeppelin airships. The story was going to be big, anyway.

In real life, the Hindenburg already had one big roundtrip, traveling from Germany to Brazil. The trip to the United States from Frankfurt was supposed to be the first of 10 scheduled passenger treks between the two countries. It took three days for the Hindenburg to travel to New Jersey. Unlike the first leg, the return trip from New Jersey back to Germany was fully booked. Many of the passengers bought tickets to attend the coronation of England’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

So in the mid-1970s, how would The Waltons incorporate the Hindenburg coverage into an episode?

Judy Norton, Who Played Mary Ellen, Interviewed One of Production Assistants For Details

Judy Norton, who played Mary Ellen, John Boy’s sister, hosts a show called Behind the Scenes on The Waltons. The episode she posted Thursday provided details of the Inferno. John Dayton, who was a production assistant on the show, described the old-school way the Hindenburg was reenacted. In hindsight, Richard Thomas, as John Boy, could’ve been burned.

As Dayton explained, the special effects team stood on ladders and took strips of cut up blue jeans and lit them on fire. They then tossed the burning material Thomas’ way.

“Well, that troubled me,” Dayton said, “but not Richard. Like the consummate pro he was, he soldiered on. I mean, watch that scene. That’s real fire landing on Richard, and that’s real soot on his face.”

The scene directors then incorporated actual newsreel footage of the Hindenburg.

“Watching the episode,” Dayton said, “I could clearly see the scratches and dirt embedded on the footage. But in the mid-70s, television was still in analog. Green screens were measured in inches, not feet, so we got away with it.

And The Waltons didn’t lose John Boy to a disaster.

You can check out the rest of the behind-the-scene details of about The Waltons episode: