I have long been a fan of "The Andy Griffith
Show," which had its debut the year my son was born. That baby boy now has
a wife, two sons of his own, and a liberal smattering of silver at his temples.
I have come to Mt. Airy to see what that passage of time has done to Andy and
his old-fashioned hometown.
If you round a downtown street corner in Mt. Airy in late
September, you're apt to hear a quartet harmonizing on Mayberry Union High's
alma mater. Beside the Andy Griffith Playhouse, a gaggle of freckle-faced boys
lines up for an Opie look-alike contest, while a skinny dude in deputy sheriff
garb postures twitchily for the admiring masses.
Jimmy-the-goat is tethered outside the old City Hall Street
jail, a box of dynamite within munching distance. Inside, Otis Campbell's comfy
cell awaits Mayberry's notorious but lovable tosspot, but the sheriff's
battered swivel chair stands empty.
A wide-eyed fellow, arms windmilling, lopes down Main
Street. He's wearing a disreputable cap and a black vest over a long-sleeved undershirt.
As he darts around the corner, I hear a maniacal cackle. Ah, hah—Ernest T.
Bass! I listen for the sound of glass breaking. Where's Sheriff Andy when
you need him?
In crossing the North Carolina state border into Mt. Airy, I
have also crossed into the birthplace of Andy Griffith, alias Sheriff Andy
Taylor. For his iconic "Andy Griffith Show," he and his writers
fashioned the fictitious Mayberry in Mt. Airy's image, and the distinction is
never more blurred than during the annual Mayberry Days celebration.
Mayberry, North Carolina, county seat of Mayberry County,
sprang full-grown in 1960 from the sound stages of Desilu Studios in Hollywood,
Calif., while its alter ego, Mt. Airy, was founded in 1885, a stage stop
between Salem, North Carolina (now Winston-Salem) and Wytheville, Virginia. Mt.
Airy is located in Surry County's north east quadrant, some 12 miles from Dobson,
the county seat. Surry County nudges southside Virginia, just slightly closer
to the Smoky Mountain highlands than the Outer Banks.
The current population of Mt. Airy is nearing 9,000, up from
7,055 in the early '60s. Mayberry also experienced an era of growth. It began
with a population of less than 2,000 in 1960. A sign at the train depot well
into the series denoted 5,360. Altitude is something else; Mt. Airy, at 1,100
feet, looks north to the profile of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Mayberry's
elevation is a mere 671 feet. If its downtown facades look familiar, it's
because its studio set was shared with "The Untouchables." Déjà vu for
Elliot Ness fans. The countryside shots may look like North Carolina, but it is
the same California terrain that passed for Georgia hills in "Gone With
Although knitting mills dominate Mt. Airy's economy, its
tourism industry owes a tip of the hat to its mythical counterpart. Ann Vaughn,
director of the Mt. Airy Visitors Center, credits the Andy Griffith connection
for 90 percent to 95 percent of the center's visitors; the center houses the
world's largest collection of "Andy" memorabilia.
"Not only do we have the great draw of 'Mayberry,' but
we also have history and a wonderful regional museum, music and an extremely
active arts council, education and the Surry Community College," says
"Mt. Airy shares the town with Mayberry. We don't
attempt to re-create Mayberry," explains Tanya Rees, in her 13th year as
executive director of the 1,000-plus-member Surry Arts Council, which organizes
As Rees explains, the spur for the first celebration was the 1990
auction of the estate of the late Frances Bavier (aka Aunt Bee).
The draw was from Mayberry devotees on their way to nearby
Charlotte for an "Andy Griffith Show" cast reunion. Entertainment
evolved in the form of a concert by Doug Dillard 's Band, Mayberry's
inarticulate but musical backwoods Darling family.
Spur-of-the-moment, zero-budget amusements were conceived,
such as Ernest T.'s Rock Throwing Contest, Aunt Bee's Bake Sale, and a walking
tour of sites that blurred the distinction between real and videotube: Floyd's
Barbershop, Snappy Lunch and Otis' jail cell, to name a few. Griffith's
relatives and friends enthusiastically pitched in, adds Rees. An estimated
2,000 visitors were transported back to Mayberry.
It is from those humble and makeshift beginnings that
today's three-day celebration of Andy-ness evolved.
A sizeable percentage of the attendees are members in good
standing of a 20,000-member phenomenon called TAGSRWC, or The Andy Griffith
Show Rerun Watchers Club. With some 1,180 chapters scattered as far afield as
Abu Dhabi, the organization was founded as a lark in the fall of 1979, in Nashville,
Tenn. by four ardent "Andy Griffith Show" watchers at Vanderbilt
One member of the founding four, Jim Clark, describes
himself as the "Presiding Goober" of TAGSRWC, undoubtedly the largest
non-commercial fan club in the world. A newsletter that he has published for 19
years has gone online with news of cast members and staff, chapter activities,
and photos. An ambitious lineup of nationwide events—a squad car rally, George
Lindsey TV and film festival, a reunion at Opryland, and more—jam the calendar.
Books, tapes and other collectables are available at the cyberspace version of
Weaver's Department Store.
Jim Clark, a Nashville-based freelance writer, feels the
show's popularity will continue to spread, with reruns of "The Andy Griffith
Show" reaching more households worldwide, on a weekly basis, than during
"I think the interest we are seeing now could be just
the tip of the iceberg," he says.
In 1985, Clark co-authored "The Andy Griffith Show
Book," an encyclopedic text that includes summaries of all 249 episodes of
the show. The newly revised 40th anniversary edition of the book lists, in
astonishing detail, trivia about the denizens of Mayberry, a town directory,
yellow pages of both Mayberry and Mt. Pilot, and an up-to-date roster of the whimsically
titled TAGSRWC chapters. To name a few: Mr. McBeevee-Nashville, Tenn., Mayberry
Says Thanks and Happy Motoring-Phoenix, Ariz., Two Fun Girls from Mt.
Pilot-Charleston, West Virginia, and I'm Dead Sober, Barney, But I'll Get Over It-Winterville,
The time-out-of-place Mt. Airy/Mayberry dualism doesn't
evaporate when the Mayberry Days celebrants head home. Everyday life in this
corner of the real world can become as ambiguous as vision through a new pair
of bifocals. You think you see clearly until you try to negotiate a curb.
The Mt. Pilot of Sheriff Taylor's world is in reality Pilot
Mountain, a prominent landmark on Mt. Airy's southern horizon. The bare stony
protuberance at its peak, an aviation landmark, is celebrated in local murals,
on T-shirts, even the cover of the half-inch-thick Surry County phone book.
Maybe the sheriff has gone down there for some Chinese food. I can't find him
The pages of that phone book feed the myth: The Bluebird Diner's
yellow-page ad announces it's located in downtown "Mayberry" (their
The Mt. Airy white pages contain 34 Mayberry listings,
including a motel that features an Aunt Bee Suite, complete with furniture of
her portrayer, Frances Bavier, thanks to that 1990 auction. The motel is easy
to find; Barney's patrol car is parked out in front. Next to it, an old blue
truck bears the legend:
Toaster & Cuckoo Clock Repair
What can those two be up to? There goes the grasp on
reality, again. I seem to be in a twilight zone.
Out along the highway, just south of the Mayberry Mall, sits
one of America's last operational drive-in movies, the "passion-pit"
from the days when Wally's filling station still handed out free maps.
Andy Griffith's homeplace is now a bed and breakfast of the
same name. It’s at 711 Haymore St., just off the arterial Rockford Street. The
tidy cottage seems too small for the larger-than-life legend it produced.
The home of the Taylors—Andy, son Opie and Aunt Bee—is,
variously, 14 Maple, 332 Maple and 24 Elm. Jim Clark's book tracks 40 such
contradictions " ... inconsequential to the quality of the series,"
but of "great interest to many fans."
Two-and-a-half columns of Taylors are listed in the phone
book, including Her Honor, the mayor. After a 30-year career as an English
teacher, Emily Taylor became Mt. Airy's first woman mayor in 1994. She admits
to making great hay from having the town's most recognizable surname.
"Out-of-towners ask me all the time if I'm related to
Andy. Of course, I tell them we're first cousins," she laughs.
Snappy Lunch is the only Mt. Airy/Mayberry business that has
remained intact and in place (125 North Main St.) since Andy Griffith's
boyhood. (Other luncheonettes around town compensate for their historical
shortcomings by calling all their customers "Sweetie.") Snappy's
proprietor, Charles Dowell, is an enthusiastic goodwill ambassador for the
Mayberry mystique when not serving up one of the ambrosial pork chop sandwiches
that captured the attention of Gourmet Magazine and the "Oprah Winfrey
The newest trophy amid Dowell's chock-a-block "Andy Griffith
Show" mementos is a giant card with blessings and heart-felt thank yous
from 30 female inmates at Raleigh's Central Prison. Local tourism development
folks recently hand-carried 52 pork chop sandwiches, complete with all the
trimmings—chili, slaw, mustard, onions, lettuce and tomato—to the prisoners,
who man the state's tourist-information hot line. Do you suppose Big Maude is
still down there? (AGS episode #74, "Convicts at Large.")
Life continues to imitate art at lunchtime in Mt. Airy.
Surry County Sheriff Connie Watson can ofttimes be found wrapping his
substantial frame around the sandwich made world famous by his fictional
counterpart, then moseying next door to the barber shop for "just a little
off the sides, Floyd." Hailing from North Carolina's Durham County, Sheriff
Watson speaks with much the same accent that Griffith fans are accustomed to,
plus a tad more basso profundo.
"I get kidded a lot," chuckles Watson, when asked
about his parallel to Mayberry's favorite son. Not a stranger to ribbing, he
likens his ambiguous first name to the song about "a boy named Sue."
“I was the seventh boy in the family,” he explains,
"and I think my folks had just run out of names."
Watson attributes the ongoing popularity of "The Andy
Griffith Show" to the way of life portrayed.
"I think the concept of the way people are treated and
looked after (in Mayberry) is what folks are looking for. Around here, we try
to work out peoples' problems; we're peacekeepers," he adds.
"We stayed too busy to get into trouble. There were
always odd jobs, pick-up ball games, choir practice and homework. It was a good
way to grow up," says Forrest, who owns the vast display of memorabilia at
the visitors center.
Griffith went on to the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill, where he followed his musical and theatrical inclinations after
briefly majoring in theology. After college, he starred as Sir Walter Raleigh
in the summer outdoor drama, "The Lost Colony," on Roanoke Island,
followed by three years as a high school music teacher. After taking to the
road and weathering numerous disappointments, the aspiring entertainer was
propelled to stardom by the game of football. In his case, he wasn't playing
it, he was describing the game. While traveling to a performance, Griffith
composed his classic comedy monologue, "What it Was, Was Football,"
which brought him to the attention of the star-makers and the public.
Griffith's four-decade career has proven him to be a
multifaceted serious actor and a beloved musician, but despite numerous motion
picture, radio and television roles, most recently portraying TV lawyer Ben
Matlock for longer than he was Sheriff Taylor, the latter role remains the one
by which history is determined to define him.
Why? It could be that reality was too much with us in 1960.
Clark Gable was dead. An American spy plane had been shot down over the USSR.
Eighty-five million television sets brought the wranglings of wanna-be
presidents encroaching into America's living rooms and our fascination with the
exciting new medium turned sour as we learned our favorite quiz show was
rigged. Small wonder that a fledgling show about a likeable sheriff, true friend
and loving father in small-town USA resonated on viewers' heartstrings.
Mayberry became comfort food to jaded palates; by the time "The Andy
Griffith Show" ended its eight-year run, it had reached the top spot in
the Nielsen ratings.
Today, more than 40 years have passed since producer Sheldon
Leonard, writers Jackie Elison and Charles Stewart, and Andy Griffith met to
breathe life into Mayberry. We are still not ready to relegate "The
Friendly Town" to some dusty library shelf.
In looking around for Andy, I've had a real faith-lift. I
haven't found him or his alter ego, the inviolate Andy Taylor, nor do I need
to. Mayberry is an ideal, not a reviewing stand at a parade of old veterans. I
don't wish to be yanked into the 21st century by the sight of mortal actors,
bowed as all of us by the passing decades. Like the residents of Garrison
Keillor's mythical Lake Woebegone, who are more familiar than a projected image
because they are carved in our imagination, Sheriff Andy's unvarying visage and
values are as steadfast today as 40 years ago. Andy is as real as Mayberry—and
he's just a ways down Main Street, where I know I can always find him.