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Arts & Culture

Legacy Of Andy Griffith Keeps Hometown Thriving

Actor, singer, and comedian Andy Griffith grew up about two hours north of Charlotte in Mount Airy. And even though he died in 2012, his legacy is still very much alive in the city commonly known as Mayberry. So much so, the museum there that bears his name just got a major renovation.

WFAE’s Sarah Delia took a trip up to Mount Airy to see the museum and learn more about the place that breathed life into Griffith’s career — a career that in turn has kept this modern day Mayberry alive.

When you say the word "Mayberry," a certain type of place comes to mind. Keith Davenport recently made the trip from Lexington to Mount Airy trying to experience it.

"It's almost like going back in time. How do I put it? Things were simpler." Davenport said.

For instance, all the crime could easily be solved with one sheriff and his trusty deputy.

The city now welcomes around 250,000 people a year for Andy Griffith-specific attractions. 

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Credit Chris Miller
Ben Currin is one of the first faces visitors to the Griffith museum see.

Ben Currin, a retired Army veteran, was a visitor years ago. He liked Mount Airy so much he decided to make it his home.

"I moved up here because of 'The Andy Griffith Show,' Mayberry and the people up here, the warmth and friendlessness of the people. I’m living a little piece of heaven right now," Currin said.

Now, he volunteers at one of the first places visitors come, The Andy Griffith Museum, which was renovated over the spring. The museum displays coveted items from the show and Griffith’s career. A lot of credit for them goes to Griffith's childhood friend, Emmett Forest. He started collecting memorabilia in the 1980s. Griffith personally added to Forest's collection when he realized what he was doing. 

There are items like a sheriff’s shirt Griffith wore and even the original "Sheriff and Justice of the Peace" signs that hung on the front door of the courthouse.

Tanya Jones is the head of the Surry Arts Council, the group that operates the museum. She points to one of her favorite displays, the show's jail cell where the town drunk spent a lot of time. There are original jailhouse keys from the set and one of the suits worn by Hal Smith, who played Otis.

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Credit Chris Miller
Relics from "Andy Griffith, including Sheriff Taylor's shirt, have been placed at the center of the museum's exhibit.

They're behind glass now, like most of the pieces, to ensure that they're around for a long time. Before the renovation, items were out in the open making it easy for people to touch objects. A few small items even disappeared.  The old space was cluttered. Now there’s more of a flow to the exhibits.

Jones, a Mount Airy native, had to make her case to the city that having a dedicated museum to Griffith was a worthwhile venture. At that time the city didn’t give any money, but did allow the arts council to build on its land. The museum opened in 2009 and has had enough visitors since then to cover most of the $600,000 renovation.

It’s taken a while for folks in the city to realize Griffith’s legacy and his fans aren’t going to die out, Jones says. It turns out there’s always another generation watching reruns and falling in love with Mayberry.

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Credit Chris Miller
Eagle-eyed viewers of Andy Griffith would spot a copy of Griffith's hometown paper, Mount Airy News

"I’ve had the good fortune of being a part of tourism becoming the thing that saved our town after we lost tobacco and textiles and furniture," Jones said. "It has become more and more apparent that tourism, and Andy Griffith as the hook for this tourism, is driving our local economy and supporting the arts."

Spending by tourists continues to rise each year.  In 2015, the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce says, tourists spent about $116 million.

Walk down the main street of Mount Airy and you’re back in time. This quaint downtown is just a five minute walk from the museum. There’s no traffic, except for maybe an old patrol car driving slowly that’s now used to give Mayberry tours. Across from the Earle Theater is the Snappy Lunch. The restaurant is a relic from Griffith’s boyhood.

Mary Dowell is one of its co-owners. Her late husband, Charles, purchased the restaurant in 1960. It is credited as the only business mentioned on the show that is still open and running.

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Credit Chris Miller
Mary Dowell takes a break from a lunch rush of fried pork chop sandwiches at the Snappy Lunch, said to be the only business mentioned "Andy Griffith" that's still in operation.

"He was watching 'The Andy Griffith Show' and they mentioned the Snappy Lunch, he said he almost fell off the couch. He was so excited. He couldn’t believe that Andy would do that," Dowell recalled. 

Dowell says people come here looking for traces of Andy and his Mayberry. But if such a place ever existed or currently does, it’s really up to the beholder. She points out the city does have more than one jail cell.

Still, she's grateful for Mount Airy's image.

The little city with a big story just wants visitors to stay a little while longer, spend some money, and enjoy the legacy of the man that’s kept it on the map.

One "Andy Griffith Show" cast member, Betty Lynn, became a Mount Airy resident. You’d remember her as Thelma Lou, Barney Fife’s girlfriend.

Over a decade ago, Lynn visited Mount Airy during the Mayberry Days festival. She loved Mount Airy so much, she decided to move there and make it her home. People tell her all the time how much the show means to them. Once she was in the emergency room being treated for a burn, and when the doctor realized who she was, his eyes lit up.

"He said, 'I was an intern. I’d come home and I'd be a wreck. I couldn't sleep. I could turn that on and I could look at that laugh, relax and I could go to sleep. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be a doctor,'" she recalls him saying to her. 

Lynn regularly does meet-and-greet events at the Andy Griffith Museum. People will wait for hours in line to meet her. It’s not uncommon for people to be in tears when they see her.

"I think sometimes they think back to their family they watched it with," she says. "This show touched people in ways that I don’t think any other show ever did."

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Credit Chris Miller
Tanya Jones stops by a picture of Betty Lynn, who portrayed Thelma Lou in more than two dozen episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show."

Lynn refers to her time on the show as the happiest days of her life. And part of that was getting to work with Andy Griffith and Don Knotts, who played Barney Fife.

"I would stay to watch and Andy and Don work together, they were so good! I just loved watching them. Andy would say to me, ‘Haven’t you gone home yet?’ And I would say, ‘No, I’m just watching.’ I loved that," Lynn said.

She holds a little figure of Barney Fife that has some of his more well-known catch phrases that play when you push a button. She mouths the dialogue.

Smiling sweetly at the figure, Lynn says she feels lucky to have had five years of loving Barney Fife. All these years later she’s back to being Thelma Lou to the people of Mount Airy — or Mayberry, a role she didn’t expect to be playing in her 90s. But like she was all those years ago, she’s glad to be part of one America’s greatest TV programs and now to be a permanent resident in it.