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50 years of Mayberry: A remarkable TV story

Fifty years ago Sunday, the hamlet of Mayberry, N.C., invited America in to enjoy its Southern charms. And strangely America is still coming.

Despite a dynamite-munching goat, kerosene pickles and the occasional citizen’s arrest, Mayberry’s boundaries have held up extraordinarily well.

Still in syndication and airing daily on cable’s TV Land, "The Andy Griffith Show" has proven to be one of the most durable in the history of television, a medium where program lifespans are often measured in weeks, and lives on as a timeless influence in popular culture.

Mayberry is carved into the national lexicon, a synonym for simple and genteel living. Its bug-eyed deputy, Barney Fife, is still popular shorthand for bumblers behind a badge.

It was set in a Southern paradise free from the emotional turmoil of its age. While war, riots and racial strife battered the nation’s psyche in the 1960s, Mayberry moved at a rocking-chair pace, projecting a come-sit-in-the-parlor mentality little known beyond its fictional ramparts.

And what most people don’t know is, its comedic premise started out wrong.

Mayberry Minutia: AY-321 was the license plate on Barney’s 1960 Edsel, Aunt Bee’s convertible and Otis’ jalopy.

Formulating Mayberry magic

At 9:30 p.m., Oct. 3, 1960, "The Andy Griffith Show" debuted to so-so reviews and terrific ratings.

In that episode, titled "The New Housekeeper," Sheriff Andy Taylor’s Aunt Bee arrived to keep his house and be a mother figure to his son, Opie.

Griffith was cast as a comedic hayseed, milking laughs as a folksy bumpkin. That wouldn’t last.

Playing opposite Don Knotts, whose hyperkinetic performance as deputy Barney Fife would snag five Emmys, Griffith realized his talents were best spent playing the straight man to an eccentric cast.

"Originally, I was supposed to be funny. I noticed on the second episode that Don was funny and I should be straight. That set it up and I played straight to the rest," Griffith said in a 2003 interview with The Observer.

"And I never regretted it," added Griffith, who at age 84 lives quietly in Manteo and was not available for an interview. "The straight man has the best part. He gets to be in the show and see it too."

Griffith quickly became the common-sense core of the narrative, a Solomon of the sticks, with Mayberry’s oddballs whirling about him.

Mayberry Minutia: Actress Margaret Kerry played different characters, Bess Muggins and Helen Scobey, just a few weeks apart in season one. She was better known in Hollywood as the nimble dancer who provided the live-action model for Disney’s three-inch Tinkerbell.

Oasis in turbulent decade

One facet of Mayberry life was best exemplified by Fife. He was excited to be going to the new movie playing at the theater: "The Monster From Out of Town."

Mayberry was magically insulated from the world where its viewers dwelled. When big trouble came – in the form of grifters, bank robbers or the three escaped inmates from a women’s prison who captured Barney and barber Floyd – it came from beyond the borders, and eventually retreated there again. Mayberry’s purity was organic.

Originally, "The Andy Griffith Show" was scheduled to debut Sept. 26, 1960, but was pre-empted by the first of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, an event that would kick off one of the most turbulent decades of the century.

By the time show ended in September 1968, the nation had been through the civil rights struggle, near flashpoint in the Cold War and the buildup in Vietnam. In its last year, the show played to a national backdrop of assassinations, race riots and social upheaval at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

In Mayberry, there was only the rock-chucking misanthrope Ernest T. Bass and a town drunk who practiced self-incarceration.

Mayberry Minutia: African-American actor Rockne Tarkington was the only black featured as a main character. He appeared in a March 1967 episode as Flip Conroy, a retired NFL player who was going to coach Opie’s football team.

A 'Garden of Eden'

Some still question the show’s avoidance of reality in the final days of the Jim Crow era. "I have an issue with that," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, who counts "The Andy Griffith Show" among the 10 best TV programs ever made (his list includes "The Sopranos") and uses it in teaching.

"Politically, that was really disturbing. In the ‘60s, especially during the early years before the Civil Rights Act, the country was in the throes of major civil rights issues. That show made this small town in North Carolina seem like the Garden of Eden. There was some nasty stuff going on then."

Griffith has acknowledged producers were ineffective in mirroring the nation’s pulse, particularly in racial matters. No African-American ever got a recurring role on the show, whose setting was the rural South.

"We tried in every way to get that to happen and we were just unable," Griffith said in that earlier interview.

"At that time black people didn’t want to play subservient roles, to do maids and butlers and all that, and we were unable to make it so people would rush into a black doctor’s office. And I’m sorry about it, too."

Mayberry Minutia: A 1967 episode with Aunt Bee as a holdout juror featured a young, unknown actor named Jack Nicholson.

Mayberry’s sense of place

Thompson believes that one of the show’s key elements of success was the timeless hometown feel Mayberry projected.

"I’ve never known a series that had a sense of place like that did," he says. "You got the sense you knew this town. You got a sense you could go there.

"Even though the thing was shot on a back lot – there were not that many exteriors at all – but even without that, with the references to diners and the movie house, you really got a sense that it was a real place, and within a few seasons it seemed like not only a real place but a good place."

Griffith grew up in Mount Airy, about 90 miles north of Charlotte. References to the foothills city were sprinkled liberally through the scripts. Snappy Lunch (established on Mount Airy’s Main Street in 1923 and still famed for its pork chop sandwiches) was one of Griffith’s boyhood hangouts and Mount Pilot (a repository of "fun girls") sprung from nearby Pilot Mountain.

Raleigh was an exotic destination, a place where Barney relished a corner room at the Y.

Today, Mount Airy trades on its Mayberry heritage and does a steady tourist business with shops and attractions keyed to the myth. Even the city’s auto salvage yard has a Mayberry theme. As traditional industries have become the victims of offshore competition, tourism in Surry County has grown to an $83 million industry.

An Andy Griffith museum in Mount Airy draws about 200 visitors a day and in its first year has attracted tourists from all 50 states. Plenty of children come, too, and know "The Andy Griffith Show" and its characters from watching reruns with their parents, museum staffers say.

"Someday, the word ‘Mayberry’ is going to be in Webster’s dictionary," says Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council and one of the original organizers of the annual "Mayberry Days" 20 years ago. It was held again last weekend and drew an estimated 50,000 visitors. "Mayberry is iconic for gentle living."

Mayberry minutia: Andy Griffith and Don Knotts starred together in the 1958 movie "No Time for Sergeants." Two years later, hearing that Griffith was pulling together a show about a small-town sheriff, Knotts called to ask: "You got a deputy?"

Mayberry’s impact on TV

Television was just entering its teen years as cultural force when "The Andy Griffith Show" debuted. When it left the air after 249 episodes, it had helped shape a rich decade of programming on CBS.

It was the first prime time show to sire two successful spinoffs – "Gomer Pyle, USMC," which ran for five seasons, and "Mayberry RFD," which ran for three.

It opened the door to a flurry of popular rural comedies on the network: "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres."

But all were doomed by a new technology. By the late 1960s, Nielsen and other ratings providers were able to not only estimate audience size, but were beginning to develop demographic information on who was watching.

Major advertisers wanted to reach younger and more urban audiences. Shows inspired by Mayberry’s success skewed older and rural.

CBS began purging the schedule of heartland comedies – most of which were still Top 20 shows – to make room for the next generation of programming that would attract new audiences, revolutionary fare like "All In the Family" and "M*A*S*H."

Mayberry Minutia: "The Andy Griffith Show" was the fourth highest-rated program of 1960 and throughout its eight-year run was never out of the top 10. In its final year, it finished as TV’s No. 1 show.

An international fan club

Jim Clark of Nashville, Tenn., runs a society called The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club. It has about 20,000 members in 1,360 chapters, including a few overseas where U.S. servicemen tend to gather.

It’s no mystery to Clark, who co-wrote the 2000 book "Mayberry Memories," why the program endures. It remains a television rarity.

"Primarily, it’s great storytelling," he says. "Also wholesome. Lots of nostalgia."

In polls of his club members, a perennial No. 1 show is "Man In a Hurry," which aired in January 1963. A businessman from Charlotte is eager to get home, but his car breaks down in Mayberry on a Sunday and he waits impatiently for repairs.

Slowly, the front-porch charm of the town works its magic and by the end, he decides to put his feet up and sit a spell.

"I think that one epitomizes the show," says Clark. "If you turn on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ for 30 minutes, you can just slow down and enjoy life."

Mayberry minutia: Frances Bavier, who played Aunt Bee, loved Studebakers. Her last was a 1966 (it can be seen in a few scenes in "Mayberry RFD"). She took it with her into retirement in Siler City. After her death in 1989, it was auctioned to a fan for $20,000, though her legion of cats had trashed its interior.

A real Mayberry story

Betty Lynn played Barney Fife’s girlfriend Thelma Lou in 26 episodes. Years ago, she began coming to Mount Airy for Mayberry Days.

Weary of the hassles of life in Los Angeles, she moved to Mount Airy in 2007 where she reigns as a town celebrity.

Lynn started out making $500 an episode on "The Andy Griffith Show" (which was about $200 after taxes and agent fees). She had no contract, and when Knotts left the show after the fifth season to pursue a movie career, producers couldn’t see a way to keep her in the cast.

Lynn has played on Broadway and in the movies opposite Bette Davis, Robert Montgomery, and Loretta Young. No role ever held as much fame as apple-pie sweetie Thelma Lou.

Mayberry minutia: In an episode in 1966, Don Knotts returned in a guest role. Barney met Thelma Lou at a reunion, but she had already married. They reprised their roles in a 1986 TV movie, "Return to Mayberry," where Thelma Lou returned as a divorcee. You know how it ended.

Heart, soul and memories

When Lynn is scheduled to be at the Andy Griffith museum to speak about the show, lines form out the door for autographs. At 84, she still projects bobby-sox innocence tempered with a soft elegance.

"None of us realized people would still love the show after 50 years," she says. "None of us had a clue when it happened all this would happen later."

She’s been told by many fans that they wished they’d grown up in Mayberry.

"I think the fact it was funny, but had heart. Underneath, there was love. Boys would watch it and wish Andy was their daddy. You never know the emotional impact a show can have, but it really had it."

In a serious episode that stretched the dramatic range of TV comedy in 1963, Opie killed a mother bird with his slingshot. His father forced him to listen the cries of her hungry chicks and raise the birds himself.

At episode’s end, he let them fly off, leading to an epilogue emblematic of the show’s fundamental optimism.

"Cage sure seems awful empty, don’t it Pa?" observed Opie.

"Yes son, it sure does," replied sheriff Taylor.

"But don’t the trees seem nice and full?"

Memorable dialogue from Mayberry

Andy: Opie! Time to come in, son. Opie: Aw, Pa, just a little while longer. Please? Andy: Well, OK (aside to Barney). Daylight’s precious when you’re a young-un.

Barney Fife: If only someone would just kill somebody. Andy: Barney? Barney: It wouldn’t have to be anyone we know ... If two strangers was to come to town, and if one of them was gonna kill the other one anyway ...

Floyd Lawson: You know, everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it. Calvin Coolidge said that. Andy: No, Floyd, that wasn’t Calvin Coolidge that said that, it was Mark Twain. Floyd: Then what did Calvin Coolidge say?

Barney: Man, we really packed it away, didn’t we? Andy: Yeah, boy. Barney: Fortunately, none of mine goes to fat. All goes to muscle. Andy: Does, huh? Barney: It’s a mark of us Fifes. Everything we eat goes to muscle (pats tummy). See there?

TV Land Tribute

Cable’s TV Land will launch a four-hour marathon of landmark episodes beginning at 4 p.m. Sunday.

Back-to-back episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show" air on TV Land weekdays at 4 p.m.

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