Mount Airy, North Carolina: Andy’s Home Town, Mayberry
Andy Griffith, Barney Fife, Aunt Bee, and the Gang Are All Alive in Make Believe Mayberry
By Rich Grant
It was a Saturday afternoon in Mayberry, North Carolina, and the town was humming with activity. There was already a crowd building up outside the Snappy Dog lunch counter ready to get a “dog and a pop,” just like Andy and Barney did.
Kids were looking in the window of Opie’s Candy Shop, while their moms were wondering what type of Aunt Bee’s jellies and jams to stock up on.
The town loafers were sitting in the square, where a live bluegrass group was performing, and every few minutes a Mayberry black and white squad car would cruise by, windows down (no air conditioning in these early 1960s Fords), and to the delight of everyone, blare their siren.
Slow and Easy Saturday
It was a typical, wonderful, slow, and easy Saturday in small-town Mayberry and from Wally’s Service Station (where you might see Gomer and Goober working) to the museum where Andy and Opie were frozen in bronze walking to the fishing hole, everything was at peace and in its place.
Of course, Mayberry never existed. Except in black & white in 249 episodes of one of the most popular television shows in history. Consistently ranked in the top 10 shows when it started in 1960 until it finished in 1968, the “Andy Griffith Show” is still popular 60 years later on reruns and in nostalgia.
So Many Similarities
While Andy Griffith always claimed Mayberry wasn’t exactly based on the town he grew up in, Mount Airy, NC, the facts seem to tell a different story. For one thing, there are so many similarities.
Mount Airy is about the same size and location as where Mayberry was located – somewhere between Mount Pilot and Raleigh.
The Real Snappy Lunch
The Snappy Lunch referred to in the show was actually a restaurant where Andy ate as a teenager, and there are other hints and references in the show to things found in and around Mount Airy.
But it doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not, because Mount Airy has embraced the idea that it is Mayberry and that legend has turned the town into a $100 million a year tourist attraction.
Every item that can be silkscreen or have a photo printed on it has been produced, from kitchen magnets to T-shirts to coffee mugs, all with pictures of the Mayberry gang.
There’s Aunt Bea’s BBQ, Barney Burgers, and jams and jellies with the cast pictures on them. The whole town has entered into the gag, and there are Mayberry Used Car Lots, Mayberry Motel, Mayberry Campground, and Mayberry Real Estate shops. The cast is even there themselves in Andy and Barney’s squad car, which is parked on the main street with a wonderful life-size photo of the principal character sitting in it, all in glorious black & white.
Touristy? You bet! And that’s the beauty of it. It’s not how Disney would have done it with historic attention to every detail, but it is a living, breathing Mayberry. And as you walk through the town, you are filled with constant amazement of how many contemporary souvenirs can be created for a 60-year-old black & white TV show. And how fun they all are.
Andy Griffith Show as Art
From its very beginnings in Oct. 1960, the “Andy Griffith Show” was unlike any other show on television, and today many critics regard it as a piece of art, a theatrical production that, much like Norman Rockwell, created a mythical town and time period, filled it with eccentrics and became a piece of American folklore. Mayberry may never have existed, but enough of it was real that people related to it.
At the start, Andy Griffith was a North Carolina actor and comedian that had made a small name for himself in a Broadway play and film, “No Time for Sergeants.” But when his other big play on Broadway, “Destry Rides Again,” ended, he decided he was ready to try television.
His agent got him a guest role on the popular “Danny Thomas Show” playing a small-town sheriff who arrests Danny for speeding and places him in jail.
The episode was a hit, and there was talk of expanding Andy’s role into a series. Andy and actor Don Knotts had become friends when they appeared together in “No Time for Sergeants,” and Don called Andy and said, “Do you think your sheriff needs a deputy?” And thus, Barney Fife was born.
But Andy wasn’t happy with his original character – a sort of country bumpkin sheriff who was also editor of the local newspaper and county judge.
Unlike shows that made fun of rural folks like the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres,” Andy wanted a show that glorified small towns and the people who live in them – a show that was based on character, not plot.
At the time, most sitcoms were shot before a live audience with three cameras, making them more like theatre where the audience had to laugh regularly.
The pattern developed in these shows as: line – line – line – joke; line – line – line – joke.
The “Andy Griffith Show” was filmed with one camera, and if a scene didn’t work, they would refilm it twenty times to get it right. For eight years, they produced an unheard-of 32 half-hour shows a year.
On television, where each second was worth thousands of dollars, a typical “Andy Griffith Show” might start for minutes with Barney just sweeping the jail and Andy working at his desk while they chit-chatted aimlessly about nothing, like two old friends. Which they were, for life. Andy was with Don Knotts the day he died.
Though Andy was in real life somewhat of a womanizer, he wasn’t comfortable doing romantic scenes on film. As a result, every major character – Andy, his girlfriend Helen, Barney, his girlfriend Thelma Lou, Aunt Bee, Opie, Gomer, Goober, Floyd the barber and Howard the county clerk were all single.
The only married character on the show was Otis, the town drunk.
But one thing was consistent throughout the run of the show. All of the characters had great affection for each other. The television news at this time was filled with Civil Rights demonstrations, the war in Vietnam, assassinations, protests and riots, but in Mayberry, the only problem might be Aunt Bee entering her pickles in the county fair, not knowing that they were so terrible Andy and Barney had replaced them with “store-bought” pickles.
The first year of the series was a little forced, with New York actress Frances Bavier trying to give Aunt Bee a Southern accent, but over time, the series changed, accents and country jokes were dropped, and Andy realized his role on the show was as a straight man to the crazy antics of the other characters.
Andy developed into an almost Lincoln-like character who used common folk sense and a little humor to help family, friends and the townspeople of Mayberry learn life lessons. Today, there is even a Christian website that proposes you can learn everything you need to know in life by watching the “Andy Griffith Show.”
Visiting Mayberry Today
So, what’s it like returning to Mayberry? Your experience in Mount Airy will depend a lot on how you relate to the “Andy Griffith Show.” If like me, you grew up with the show or at least have become familiar with it from reruns (which considering the show has been on TV for six decades includes quite a few people) then you would have to be a bit of a cold-hearted person to not lose yourself completely and enjoy the whole touristy experience of being in Mayberry.
If you’ve never seen the show, you will probably be completely bewildered and lost and think you had somehow stepped into a strange and dreadful world.
But for those who enjoy the fun of Mayberry, here’s what to do:
Take a Squad Car Tour: You’ll need reservations, but it’s a hoot to ride around the town in a black & white Mayberry Squad car.
All eight drivers (there are six old Ford squad cars) grew up in Mount Airy and are historians of the show.
My driver, Steve Talley, is living his dream, driving around and talking about his town, firing off the siren when he sees friends or pretty girls, and meeting people from around the world who are thrilled to be in Mayberry.
You start at the picturesque old gas station, Wally’s Service Station, where Gomer and Goober worked, and drive by the house where Andy Griffith grew up. The whole house can now be rented as a hotel room from the local Hampton Inn with all 249 shows available on DVDs inside.
The squad car cruises down the main street (tourists will be snapping your picture) and around and about town, while you learn lots of gossip and the history of the show.
Andy and Don Knotts, like great friends, liked a lot of high jinks during filming and practical jokes, which the classically trained New York actress Frances Bavier playing Aunt Bee did not.
Betty Lynn, who played Barney’s girlfriend Thelma Lou, is a local hero. She moved to Mount Airy many years ago and at 95 still lives here, making appearances and signing autographs when her health allows.
Walk Mayberry and Visit all the Shops: The historic center is only about five blocks long, but every inch is packed with fun. On a Saturday I was there, a bluegrass band of musicians, who looked old enough to be alive when the show was running in 1960, were playing in a little park in front of the Earle Theatre, which still shows movies and has top name bluegrass concerts. Andy Griffith worked in the theatre – as a young ticket taker.
There must be at least a dozen souvenir shops, some better than others, but all filled with Mayberry memorabilia. If you’re looking for the perfect kitchen magnet or T-shirt, shop around. Not all the stores are equal or carry the same merchandise.
Eat Mayberry: Snappy Lunch is the oldest restaurant in Mount Airy, and the one actually mentioned in the show (Andy says to Barney, “Let’s go down to Snappy Lunch for a hot dog and a pop.”) Andy would have eaten here as a teenager. Expect long lines.
Things like Aunt Bea’s BBQ and Barney’s Café are tributes to the show, as is Opie’s Candy Shop and Walker’s Soda Fountain. Ellie Walker was Andy’s first girlfriend in the show and worked in a pharmacy. She was played by Elinor Donahue, who was “Princess,” the eldest daughter in an earlier popular show, “Father Knows Best.” She had no chemistry with Andy and didn’t care much for the show and asked to be “written off.”
His next girlfriend, Helen Crump, was one of Opie’s teachers and was supposed to be a “one-off” (one show and written off). But Helen was invited back to play Opie’s teacher again and again, and suddenly with no backstory of first dates, she became Andy’s girlfriend on the show and eventually his wife. In real life, the actress, Aneta Corsaut, had an affair with Andy Griffith in 1963, though he was married at the time.
Visit the Andy Griffith Museum: The museum bills itself as the “single largest collection of artifacts and memorabilia related to Andy Griffith,” and I doubt that there’s anyone who would disagree with that claim. There’s Andy’s uniform from the show and a phone that Barney used frequently, items from Andy’s courthouse desk, original scripts, and mementos from “Matlock” and other shows.
It was collected by Andy’s lifelong friend from Mount Airy, Emmet Forrest, and if at first, the museum seems very small, in the end, it turns out to be, like so much in Mayberry, just right. Mount Airy resident and cast member Betty Lynn has also donated memorabilia from the show and her life in a separate exhibit, and what a woman she is!
As a USO performer in the Pacific during World War II, she ended up in India and there is a simply fascinating picture of her on a mission protecting an Indian village from tigers where she is wearing a pistol on a belt. Unlike her boyfriend Barney on the show, the pistol is obviously armed with more than one bullet.
Try to Look at the Statue of Andy and Opie and Not Whistle.
Donated by TV Land, which shows the Andy Griffith reruns, there is a life-size bronze statue at the museum that replicates the the barefoot six-year-old Opie walks with his dad Andy Taylor to the local fishing hole.
The song played in the background had lyrics, but everyone preferred the tune just being whistled by Earle Hagen, who was musical director for the show.
Ron Howard who played Opie went on to be a star of his own shows and now is of course, one of the most respected film directors in the world.
The others, except for Betty Lynn, are all gone. But like Norman Rockwell, they left behind an artistic vision of small-town America.
Unrealistic? Of course. Unless you walk down the streets of Mount Airy on a Saturday afternoon in July and look at the faces of people who, at least temporarily, are transported back to that magical place between Mount Pilot and Raleigh who are smiling and eating ice cream and having the time of their lives in that little strip of the “Twilight Zone” that shall forever be known as Mayberry.
More on Mayberry
There are many other things to do in the Yadkin Valley around Mayberry including wine tours, hiking, rock climbing, and music.