In the foothills, a town plays its television role to dawdle time away.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in July 2012.
The first time I realized there was a difference between television and real life was when Aunt Bea came to our house for a visit. We were living in Siler City, and she had retired there after years in Los Angeles, California, and somehow my father, who worked then for the Chatham News, knew her well enough to bring her by the house.
“The Andy Griffith Show” ran, roughly, for the first 10 years of my life, and it was, aside from Red Skelton and Ed Sullivan, one of the few shows I remember watching. I knew it well enough to feel, in the presence of Frances Bavier, that she was not exactly Aunt Bea. She did not arrive bearing a plate of cookies or an apple pie; she did not talk in the soothing, maternal — if slightly tremulous — way she did on the show; and she did not treat me and my four siblings like she would have treated Opie and his pals. She was perfectly gracious, and I was thrilled to meet her. But when she left, I remember thinking, even though it was nearly a half-century ago, That wasn’t the real Aunt Bea.
Driving into Mount Airy off U.S. Highway 52, there’s no indication that Mount Airy is not, in fact, Mount Airy: a charming town in the upper Yadkin Valley, with views of both the Sauratown Mountains and the stately Blue Ridge. But if you pay attention, you notice that the stretch of 52 leading toward town is actually called the Andy Griffith Parkway. A mile or two off the highway, as Main Street twists through neighborhoods of neatly kept mill houses, you spot a sign for Aunt Bea’s barbecue and soon after, an advertisement for Barney’s Burgers.
It’s not until you reach the business district proper that you begin to wonder whether you took a wrong turn and ended up inexplicably in perhaps the most idyllic and iconic small town in American popular culture. Mayberry, made popular first by “The Andy Griffith Show,” which ran from 1960 to 1968, and then by its spin-off “Mayberry RFD,” which took over in ’68 and ran to ’71, was the epitome of the small-town South. Despite its accent, its pace, and its unswerving values, the show appealed to rural and urban Americans far beyond the Mason-Dixon Line and, judging by the amount of foreign visitors recorded by the Mount Airy Visitors Center and the Andy Griffith Museum, around the world.
Downtown Mount Airy is small, only six or seven blocks. In one block on Main Street, four shops display Mayberry souvenirs in the windows. In one of these establishments, the Mayberry Country Store, Don Marsh tells me he’s had customers in from Italy, France, South America, Canada, and Alaska. When I ask if they’re all fans of the show, I get looks from both Marsh and his coworker Jean Adams that suggest that people from other continents don’t vacation in Surry County to tour the granite quarry outside of town. “I had a lady in here the other day; every night she goes to sleep listening to a tape of the show,” Adams says. “She said she couldn’t sleep without it.”
Across the street in the back of the Mayberry Five and Dime, a sign above the door reads “Mayberry B and B.” Kenneth Gwyn, who has run the store for 15 years, tells me to check it out. The Mayberry B and B is nothing but a fake jail cell. “People like to have their photo taken in there,” Gwyn says. “I take the picture and put it on a T-shirt.”
Just up the street at Mayberry Consignments, merchandise, like a board game called “Mayberry-opoly,” is mixed with racks of new and used clothes. Owner Julie Teague says the downtown merchants sell different stock in an effort to support the number of tourists who come here to find The Show, as Mount Airy residents refer to it. I ask her if anyone here is resistant to the idea of turning Mount Airy into a fictional town that bears little physical resemblance to the real Mount Airy. “Some people think it’s crazy, that all of us merchants downtown are just cashing in,” Teague says. Then she says something that, although it will not be repeated as plainly during my visit, will become more and more evident: “Every small town in America would kill for what we have. The tourists come for Mayberry, but they fall in love with Mount Airy.”
At this point, I am developing a crush on the place myself. I came into this town with an open mind, but I’m somewhat skeptical of places that lay claim to a single shred of fame or notoriety and remake themselves in the image of that shred. The commercialism, in some instances, seems cynical, or desperate, if not a little hokey. But everyone I meet is open and honest about the way that “The Show” resuscitated what was, some years back, a typical foothills town in rapid decline. Jessica Roberts, director of tourism and marketing for the chamber of commerce, tells me that when the textile and furniture plants left town or went out of business, the town lost 9,500 jobs. “We’ve calculated that tourism brought in 95 million dollars in the county during 2010 alone,” Roberts says. Mayberry created jobs in a town that, like many North Carolina towns of its size, struggles with the realities of outsourcing and a weak economy.
At the Visitors Center, Melvin Miles, a retired vocational education teacher who has lived in Mount Airy since 1975, leads me out to a 1963 Ford Galaxie for a “squad car tour” of the town. Miles is one of five drivers who cruise town in vintage Galaxies similar to Andy’s vehicle. Miles tells me that he meets young children who know everything about “The Show” and who can quote you the number of the episode based on the plot. I am a little shocked that the high-tech sensibilities of grade-school kids, used to computerized graphics and special effects, would cotton to a show shot in black and white and set in a faraway land of party lines and games of checkers. “A lot of parents restrict television,” Miles says. “‘The Andy Griffith Show’ is probably one of the only one of them that’s fit to watch.” He tells me about a 7-year-old who shows up every year for Mayberry Days, the festival held each September and the town’s biggest event. “He’s dressed up like Barney, and let me tell you, he’d just as soon arrest you as look at you.”
The Mayberry Courthouse is a small replica of Andy’s office. The staff of squad car drivers maintains the place, but tourists come to visit all day long. Miles points to a nail between the two cells — one of which is equipped with a rocking chair for Otis, the town drunk, who spent as much time here as he did at home. “That’s where the keys usually go,” Miles says. “But we can’t keep keys. People just take them for souvenirs.”
Miles tells me that the courthouse — which is just a single room taken up mostly by two jail cells, a replica of Andy’s desk, and a window — plays host to more than 20 weddings a year. “One of our squad drivers is also a minister,” Miles says. “He puts on a sheriff’s uniform and marries them off.” Miles tells me of a couple from Missouri who flew down to renew their wedding vows for their 50th anniversary. “They brought friends, their children; they set up right out in the parking lot and had a ball.”
We ride over to see the house where Andy grew up. Miles tells stories about how Andy, who grew up poor, swept the floors of his school for six months to be able to afford a trombone. The house is small and tidy, with a glassed-in front porch. The local Hampton Inn bought it and now rents it out to parties of up to five guests.
Miles drops me off at the Andy Griffith Museum, next to the auditorium that was once a part of Andy’s elementary school. Inside the museum, I meet Griffith’s childhood friend Emmett Forrest. Although the museum is not large — a single room — it is crammed with memorabilia, most of which, Forrest says, was donated by folks from the show. The building is only two years old, but it drew 55,000 visitors its first year.
The museum includes not only items from the set of the show — the gavel and the small statue of an eagle that sat on Andy’s desk; his sheriff’s shirt that was made by the legendary Nudie, who designed sequined outfits for the likes of Porter Wagoner and Gram Parsons — but a surprising amount of memorabilia devoted to Griffith’s other pursuits. Albums Griffith made line the walls, as do posters from his many movies.
But Griffith isn’t the only person honored here. Compared to shows like “Green Acres” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” which ran at about the same time and depicted rural America — especially Appalachia and the South — as a land of ignorant, if often canny, hicks, Griffith’s show got a lot right about the area. What I treasured most growing up in a small, Southern town was its characters — the storytellers and eccentrics. Mayberry was rife with these marginal, colorful folks, and the Andy Griffith Museum doesn’t neglect them. While Forrest shows me a photo from the 1940s of Barney’s girlfriend, Thelma Lou, Thelma Lou herself — in real life, Betty Lynn — comes out and takes a seat to sign autographs. Immediately a line forms. When it’s my turn, Lynn tells me she first came to Mount Airy to participate in Mayberry Days. Back home in Los Angeles, she was robbed twice and her apartment was burglarized, so she decided to move to Mount Airy permanently. I think of Frances Bavier, a native of Manhattan who lived most of her life in Los Angeles, retiring to another small North Carolina town. “I fell in love with North Carolina, all the pretty roads and the trees,” Bavier once told a reporter.
“I like it here a lot,” Lynn tells me. “People here are just so good to me.” What is it about the show that inspires all these people to come to this town when they know it’s not really Mayberry? “The show touches their heart,” she says. “It’s nostalgia. So many of these people grew up with it. They grew up with me. They say I’m like one of their relatives.”
Finally, I have time to visit with Jessica Roberts, who set up my tour. We sit on a bench in front of the grade-school auditorium where Griffith made his first public appearance in the second grade, singing solo, “Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet.” Roberts mentions other famous folk from Mount Airy: country singer Donna Fargo, the world-famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng, and seminal old-time fiddle and banjo player Tommy Jarrell. But our conversation keeps coming back to Mayberry.
I ask if the way the show steered clear of all the turmoil at the time — after all, the decade it ran was one of the most turbulent times in our history — had anything to do with its popularity. Roberts says she believes the show’s “wholesomeness” is still a draw.
“People enjoy going back in time to where things were simpler,” she says. “The world is hectic, and Mount Airy is a great getaway.” But, she admits, “I’ve heard some of the younger people think Mount Airy should just be Mount Airy.”
These younger people raise an interesting question: Has Mount Airy taken the Mayberry theme so far that it has lost some of its identity? The question is complicated by the fact that there is often an elusiveness to the identity of any place. It is as naive to think there is only one Mount Airy as it is to think there is only one Charlotte.
My youthful inability to distinguish between Frances Bavier and Aunt Bea might have confused me, but it did not diminish my enjoyment of the television show. At some point during my squad car tour, I am startled by the sound of the first whistled notes of “The Andy Griffith Show” theme song. It comes out of nowhere, and for a minute, I wonder if it isn’t being broadcast from a bell tower or a church steeple, in lieu of a hymn. But it is only the ringtone of Melvin Miles’s cell phone.
This occurrence makes me remember one detail from the show: All phone calls went through Sarah, the operator. It might be a long way from party line to mobile phone ringtone, but Mount Airy seems to have managed the transition as smoothly as that theme song, which, the second I hear it, still takes me back to a familiarly eccentric place with a comfortably slow pace.
Michael Parker is the author of two collections of short stories and five novels, including the recently published The Watery Part of the World, set on the Outer Banks. He is currently writing a sixth novel, Five Thousand Dollar Car. His articles have appeared in The New York Times and Oxford American. Michael teaches in the MFA creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Find more of his archived stories here.