That tall, amiable sheriff and his little boy, Opie, heading to a fishing hole on the outskirts of Mayberry, North Carolina, at the start of "The Andy Griffith Show," were actually strolling along a backlot in Culver City, California.
Ron Howard, the actor who played Opie, is now one of Hollywood's top directors. Most of the other stars – Andy Griffith; Don Knotts, who played his deputy, Barney Fife; and the actors who played Aunt Bee and Floyd the Barber – they've all passed on. After all, it's been 53 years since the show was cancelled.
So, it may come as something of a surprise to learn that Mayberry is doing just fine, even though its actual name is Mount Airy, and its only genuine link to "The Andy Griffith Show" is that Griffith was born and grew up here.
"Andy Griffith, God bless him, if he had not been born in this particular little town, we wouldn't be standing here having that conversation," said Randy Collins, president and CEO of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce.
He's recalling when North Carolina's tobacco and textile industries had the stuffing knocked out of them: "After the mills closed, I think a lot of the town fathers and the business owners got together and said, 'Hey, you know, what about this Mayberry thing? Maybe we can do something with it.' And businesses were born, or reinvented."
"It's a little bizarre, isn't it?" asked "Sunday Morning" senior contributor Ted Koppel. "It went off the air more than 50 years ago."
"It captured a reality that never was."
"True; Mayberry is fictitious," Collins said. "Most everyone knows that! Except maybe some of the rabid fans of the show. They believe it's real."
And, let it be said, the town isn't doing a whole lot to undermine the illusion. Stop by at Wally's filling station, and you can get a ride around town in a vintage Ford Galaxy squad car. These days there's a whole fleet of them carting tourists around town.
Once a month or so, Betty Lynn, who played Barney Fife's girlfriend Thelma Lou, is brought from a nearby retirement home to the Andy Griffith Museum, where crowds of appreciative fans line up for autographs.
"I'm from Arkansas, I've been waiting to see you for 30 years!" said one woman. "I can die now!"
Collins said, "We are constantly looking at other ways that we can promote the community, 'cause we know the Mayberry generation won't be here forever. But now with streaming television, Andy will be forever with us, and we hope a younger generation will pick it up."
As if on cue, the Foster family, from Pomeroy, Ohio, showed up. It is no exaggeration to say that this re-creation verges, for the Fosters, on being a national monument.
Koppel asked the Fosters, "You watch 'The Andy Griffith Show' four hours a day?"
"More than that," said Bobby Foster.
"What do you mean, 'more than that'?"
"It's on sometimes early in the morning," Sarah Foster explained.
"Aren't you afraid that after a month or two of watching four hours or more a day, that you're gonna turn his little brain to mush?"
"No!" young Isaiah replied.
"Oh, no!" said Sarah. "Not when it comes to good, wholesome shows."
"Tell me why you like it so much?"
"Good, clean comedy fun," said Bobby.
"Yeah, good, clean comedy," Sarah said. "Has morals, values. You don't see that a lot today in TV."
Down on Main Street, where tourists peek into Floyd's barber shop or grab a bite at the Snappy Lunch diner ("We drove from Louisiana for the famous pork chop sandwich!" said one man), you hear the same theme.
One man told Koppel, "I think the generations now long for that simplicity of the episodes of Andy being real with his son about stealing or doing the right thing, and as a godless society that we see today is longing for simple life. Back when neighbors were neighbors, and they provided for everybody else.
"What do you see, Mr. Koppel? Let me flip it back on you. I know you're doing this, but what do you see?"
"What you're saying is true of certain people," said Koppel. "If you were Black in the '60s, things were not all that good for you."
"That's true. True."
"If you were a Vietnam vet coming back, things were not all that good for you."
"Spat on and hated, yeah," said the man.
What actually happened during the years the program first played – the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War, marches by African Americans for the right to vote – those events never intruded inside Mayberry's imaginary town limits.
Mayberry is where more than 30 million Americans a week went to escape reality, which is why it's strange to find so many people half a century later searching for what made America great in a copy of a town that never was.
And, as Randy Collins of the Chamber of Commerce acknowledges, African Americans were all but invisible on "The Andy Griffith Show." "There were very few speaking parts," he said.
[Actually, only one: Rockne Tarkington played Opie's football coach, Flip Conroy, in one episode.]
Collins said, "If you watch closely in the crowd scenes, I think Andy and others on the show pushed to make sure that there were people of color in the crowds, but you have to look closely."
Maggie Rosser is in her 90s now. She and her younger brother and sister were all born here in Mount Airy, left, and returned.
"I moved back here, 1973," Rosser said. "So, we wanted a sandwich. And went in our Main Street, and they served us, but we had to go out and eat."
"They wouldn't let you sit?" asked Koppel. "So, even in 1973, or a little bit after?"
"A little bit after, yes," she said.
Bobby Scales, also born and raised in Mount Airy, has a clear memory of race relations in the '60s: "Blacks knew where they belonged, and Whites knew where you belonged, too!" he laughed. "And everything was segregated."
Evelyn Scales Thompson (Bobby's twin) said, "Black people didn't exist. In making those programs, it was for basically the White population."
She believes she understands the ongoing popularity of the program: "It's appealing to people who are not familiar with small towns. And what Andy has projected is a quiet, peaceful town with everybody happy. Everybody's looking for peace."
"So, Mayberry, Mount Airy, good place to live?" asked Koppel.
"It's a good place," Thompson replied. "If it were not home, I would not be here."
"Unwrap that for me! I mean, your home is where you make it."
"Yes, but not where you were born and your memories and family."
"But if your memories are mostly memories of being treated as the lesser, why would you wanna stay?"
"Well, I wasn't treated as a lesser in my family," Thompson replied. "I have family history. Our property is there, and memories of childhood is still very strong. I'm very satisfied being retired in the place where I grew up."
"Somehow," Koppel said, "Mount Airy becomes more complex with each conversation."
"I bet! I bet! Yes, indeed," Thompson said.
Mount Airy is a place where fantasy and reality intersect.
Koppel asked Collins, "If I wave the political thermometer across the forehead of Mount Airy, do people here believe that Joe Biden is the legitimate president?"
"That's a good question," he replied. "Our former president had a lot of support here. If you took a poll, that would probably not lean in our current president's favor."
As for the visitors? For twenty bucks a pop, they get to ride on a trolley car tour of Mount Airy. Sometimes a fella in a deputy's uniform (who does look a little like Barney Fife) rides along. The Elvis impersonator was an unexplained bonus – as was the entire crew from "CBS Sunday Morning."
Koppel asked the trolley's riders, "I know you came here to have a good time and not to talk politics. But let me just ask you, as a matter of curiosity, how many of you think we had a fair election?"
"No way!" said one man wearing an American flag T-shirt with the word "Patriotism."
"I saw two hands go up," Koppel said. "So, is it fair to say the rest of you think that it was not a fair election?"
"No, no. No, it wasn't. I don't think it was at all," said the man.
Another man said, "I think there was a lot of voter fraud. It's never been proven. There's been people that's voted that's been dead 15 years. I think it's more the mail-in ballot stuff. You don't know how much of those that were duplicated, triplicated. The whole bit."
A third man said, "Look how many dead people voted for Biden."
Koppel asked, "One question, it's a serious question and I know you all will take it seriously: Tell me what you think happened on January 6 at Congress?"
The first man said, "They showed truckloads of people that they were bringing in for this. It was all staged. And that's how it started. They even showed pictures of it on the news, about these vehicles coming in with all these BLM people."
Another man, who believed the election was fair, called the January 6 attack, "A disgrace on our country."
"Whose fault was it?" Koppel asked. The man smiled.
One rider did blame Donald Trump, but he was in a distinct minority. A woman said, "I think it was staged. We've been to a lot of the Trump rallies, and I don't understand why they're focusing so much on that one issue when there's so many cities that are being burned down every day by protesters. It's supposed to be peaceful. But it's all focused on holding these two people."
"Murder and kill everybody there – hang 'em, put 'em in jail," said the first man.
Another woman said, "We don't even watch news on TV anymore. We don't feel like we're being told the truth. And we find our truth in other ways. And I won't say what those other ways are, but I feel like we're not being told the truth, because we're trying to be swayed in a direction that we know is not the right direction."
"I won't be offended," Koppel said. "I've been a journalist all my life. When President Trump talked about the press being the enemy of the people …"
"They are!" the woman replied. "And I love President Trump. And I love that man. I do."
A third woman said, "I just hope when this airs, it won't show Southerners as a bunch of dumb idiots. Like so many parts of the country do, you know? We have a lot of love in our hearts. We love our country. We love our fellow man. And if the rest of the country felt like that, it would be a better place."
A fourth man asked, "Mr. Koppel, can I say something? This conversation about politics and division is what people come here to get away from. We don't care what color you are. We don't even care what your politics are. We just want to be good neighbors and treat everybody alike. And that's why they're coming here."
The Barney Fife impersonator added, "That's what America should be."
And, when the script was written in Hollywood, that's the way it was.
For more info:
- visitmayberry.com (Mount Airy Visitors Center)
- Andy Griffith Museum, Mt. Airy, N.C.
- The Snappy Lunch
- Wally's Service Station
- Mount Airy Squad Car Tours
- Good Time Trolley
- Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce
- Watch "The Andy Griffith Show" on Me TV and Amazon Prime
Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Editor: Ed Givnish.
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