Andy Griffith and the South of Mayberry

The passing of Andy Griffith last week prompted an outpouring of love and respect for the man and his life’s work in movies, television, and even gospel music.  Yet it was his role as Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS), which received the greatest response from media writers and fans alike.  And how could it not?  Andy Taylor was such an iconic television character it was as if Taylor and Griffith were one.  Even if Griffith disagreed with that assessment, which he did on several occasions, it is what fans of the show believe.

Fans also want to believe that Griffith’s hometown of Mt. Airy, North Carolina, was the setting for the show.  Certainly, there are numerous references to Mt. Airy and other towns in North Carolina.   Yet whether it was or wasn’t doesn’t matter much, because diehard fans of TAGS believe it to be true.  Mayberry is Mt. Airy and Mt. Airy is Mayberry.

A radio talk show host recently asked whether the show’s portrayal of the region was realistic or accurate.  My response is that in some ways this question does not matter.  Television is meant to entertain people, which TAGS did very successfully.  But if we are going to go there, we can think about this from two different angles:  one is Griffith’s, the other is about the reality that existed in Mt. Airy, upon which it is believed the show is based.

Most people associated with TAGS acknowledge that the show reflected Andy Griffith’s vision, which he has repeatedly said was to tell universal stories about goodness that reflected the values he grew up with.  So, who are we to argue that what he presented was not an accurate representation of his own experience?

Then there is Mayberry, the setting for the show.  Was it realistic in presenting a small southern town like Mt. Airy?  Here, one could argue both for and against realism.  On the one hand, it appears there are no African Americans living in Mayberry.  Oprah Winfrey, a self-confessed fan of the show, once asked “Where are the black people?” Historically, Mt. Airy has had a black population, albeit a small one.  Therefore, one could argue against realism.  Yet it could be that Andy Griffith chose to write about the nostalgic South of his youth, in which he grew up in a primarily white community.  If so, then one could say the show was realistic.

This map of Mayberry suggests it could be a real place. Note Andy’s residence on the map. Other places marked can be found on iMayberry.com. Courtesy, iMayberry.com

What we might all agree on is that Mayberry did not represent the South of the 1960s. Throughout its run on television, The Andy Griffith Show regularly ranked among the top ten most watched shows.  It offered a nostalgic portrayal of the region—one that countered the negative images of the region present in the civil rights coverage also being watched by millions on the evening news.   The sit-in movement began in Greensboro, North Carolina, just down the road from Mt. Airy. And in Mayberry, the worst thing to happen might be a prisoner on the loose from the state penitentiary who, by the end of the show, will be caught by Andy Taylor.

The point is that it was Andy Griffith’s intention to entertain people through the stories and characters who lived in Mayberry—not make a political statement about civil rights.  Moreover, many of its fans, like Oprah Winfrey, are African American.  The fact is, the show has universal appeal.

More importantly, especially given today’s reality television programs (a large number of which are set in the South), The Andy Griffith Show didn’t trade in negative stereotypes about the region or southerners.  When there were hillbillies on the show, like the Darlings or Ernest T. Bass, they were fully developed characters with endearing, and likeable qualities.  Female characters, particularly Andy’s girlfriends Ellie Walker and, later, Helen Crump were educated professional women who had their own homes.  In some episodes, their dialogue suggests that they were well aware of the feminist movement of their day.

Television coverage of Griffith’s passing inevitably included interviews with residents of Mt. Airy, still a small southern town.  Interestingly, one woman interviewed by a local station here in Charlotte was from New Jersey.  She told the reporter that she loved TAGS so much that after attending Mayberry Days—the town’s annual celebration of the show—she moved to Mt. Airy so she could live in a place where people still maintained good values and looked after one another.   What this woman sought via her love of The Andy Griffith Show was to return to a different time and place.  It is a nostalgic craving for a bygone America, but as it turns out, it is in the South of Mayberry where she thinks it still exists.

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Andy Griffith and Me

Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor, Sheriff of Mayberry.

I’m just going to speak off the cuff here and not go into any analytical piece about The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS for those in the know) in popular culture.  You see, I love that show.  I mean LOVE that show.  My all-time favorite.

So, it is with some sadness that I write about the passing of Andy Griffith today.  As a fellow North Carolinian, I have an appreciation for his humor and of the South that he represented.  Yes, I know he had a much broader career than TAGS (starring in movies like Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, and having a second TV career with Matlock), but it’s my love of TAGS that I want to write about here.

I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, and it was my evening ritual to watch reruns of the show at 5pm and again at 5:30pm.  Later, when I got to college, I met other fans of the show, even attending an Andy Griffith party dressed as a waitress at the diner.  My date came as Malcolm Meriweather (Mayberry’s British visitor) and rode in on his bicycle.  My graduate school pal and lifelong friend Kelli Logan and I often traded lines back and forth from various episodes and when we see each other, we still do.  At some point, both of us even joined one of the first online discussion boards for TAGSRWC (The Andy Griffith Rerun Watchers Club), a place where we found others doing the same thing–trading lines.  It was a testament to the fine writing on the show, half of which was written by Griffith himself. It was also a testament to our insane love of all things Mayberry.

One Christmas I received The Andy Griffith Show puzzle, which I happily completed. (Ca. 1998)

I’ve watched marathons of TAGS on TV Land and videotaped them (when that technology was around) and later traded them in for a much nicer DVD set.  I purchased one of the earliest Andy Griffith trivia games, for which only my former neighbors–June Carraway and Gary Washburn–could ever really compete.  We all took a trip to Mt. Airy for Mayberry Days one year where we joined thousands of others who shared our passion for the show. There, I got to see the original doors to the courthouse, ate at the Bluebird Diner, and sat for a brief moment in one of the chairs at Floyd’s Barbershop.  The line to the Snappy Lunch for a pork chop sandwich was far too long. I also took a few photos with some of the folks who dress like characters from the show.

Me with Briscoe Darling and Aunt Bea look-alikes during Mayberry Days, ca. 2004.

A couple of years ago, I went to Mt. Airy for a doll exhibit (don’t ask) at the Gertrude Smith House in Mt. Airy.  I was there for about a half an hour when all of a sudden there was a commotion because Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou, had arrived.  You would have thought she was royalty, and in Mt. Airy, she is.  It was then that I learned that she had moved to the town and makes her home in an assisted living facility.  Even if Hollywood has long since forgotten her, the fans of The Andy Griffith Show still hold her in high esteem.  And I must admit, I was a little star struck.

Even more recently, I met a man who works in maintenance at UNC Charlotte who shares my passion for TAGS.  After completing some work in my office he noticed two books on my shelf were about the show.  He lit up when he found this out and to this day, he leaves TAGS trivia questions posted to my office door.  And when he passes me on campus in one of those tiny maintenance vehicles he gives me some sort of TAGS shout out.  He’s far better at the trivia than I am, but I appreciate that he keeps me on my toes.

[Above:  A clip from one of my favorite episodes “Arrest of the Fun Girls.”  That would be Daphne and Skippy for those who might not know their names]

So, Andy Griffith, and particularly TAGS, has been with me through most of my life and his passing feels a little like seeing my own life pass before me.  Thankfully, I can pull out those DVDs and watch the show again and again.  I never tire of it.  It makes me laugh no matter how many times I’ve seen any one episode.  I can also engage in banter with others who share my passion.  And that’s good for my southern soul.