7/04/2012

Andy Griffith and the Myth of Mayberry


I have an old friend I've known forever who, like me, is a late-middle-aged North Carolina native. He says when his time has come and he's standing at the Pearly Gates, he hopes Saint Peter says to him "Come on in. We've got two dozen black-and-white episodes of 'The Andy Griffith Show' that you've never seen."
That's the kind of impact that the late Andy Griffith had on North Carolina's psyche. Many of us aging Tar Heel Baby Boomers are hoping that the afterlife is an eternity of watching Andy, Opie, Barney, Aunt Bee and the good townsfolk of Mayberry, and never getting tired of them.

The fictional town Griffith created for his show presumably was based on his hometown of Mount Airy, a small town north of Winston-Salem near the Virginia border.  Mayberry supposedly was about 60 miles from Raleigh. In truth, however, Mayberry could have been -- and probably was intended to be -- any one of dozens of drowsy little county seats and mill towns across the state.
And that was how Andy Griffith touched North Carolina. Anyone who grew up in Williamston, or Roxboro, or Mount Gilead, or Yadkinville or Burgaw or Bryson City knew Mayberry's colorful but ordinary residents. They were the same people who operated barber shops, gas stations and moonshine stills in our hometowns. They attended the same churches as we did. They had similar hobbies and entertainment. They canned pickles and sat on front porches playing guitars, and once in a while they got drunk.

They were gentle people who were generally well-behaved and respectful of their neighbors, though not above some occasional gossiping about them. If Mayberry residents did step out of line, government authority was represented by Sheriff Andy Taylor, an affable, joshing lawman who was a little bit smarter than he let on. He'd known the people he was policing all his life, and he seemed to instinctively know when to strictly enforce the law and when to bend the rules to be a little more accommodating of common sense and human nature.
With Andy's guidance, the people of Mayberry always figured out the right thing to do when they were confronted with one of life's moral quandaries. When Andy was wrong, he admitted it and made amends. And while Andy went to church every Sunday and often applied Biblical teachings to his law enforcement, the show's religious values were in the background, always implied but seldom stated.

So Mayberry became North Carolina's pleasing myth, a flattering mirror we could gaze into and feel good about ourselves. The state felt so good about the image crafted by Andy Griffith that a statue of Sheriff Taylor and Opie walking to the fishin' hole was erected on public grounds in Raleigh. It was an honor usually reserved for war heroes and beloved statesmen.
Like all myths, this one is truthful enough to endure. But a myth ultimately is false, and it's easy to see the holes in the Mayberry myth.

"The Andy Griffith Show" first aired on CBS in 1960 at the beginning of a decade that became more tumultuous with each passing year. But the dramatic changes wrought by assassinations, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War didn't touch Mayberry. Edgier new comedies such as "All In The Family" reflected the tensions of the early days of the culture wars.
"The Andy Griffith Show" ended in 1968 as the turbulent decade was reaching its crescendo. By this time the show was being broadcast in color, but it was a pale imitation of its black-and-white glory. Don Knotts -- who played the officious, bumbling Deputy Barney Fife -- had left the cast after the fifth season, and the show's stories and characters had settled into a saccharine blandness.

Still, if the show's later episodes aren't as memorable as those first five black-and-white seasons, I don't think Andy Griffith's legacy is in any danger of fading. A few days ago, my cousin and I rode up to Mount Airy to get a pork chop sandwich at the Snappy Lunch -- mentioned in at least one episode -- and soak up the Mount Airy/Mayberry ambience.
After largely ignoring Andy Griffith for decades, Mount Airy finally realized a few years ago that it was ignoring a gold mine. So the town's Main Street has become essentially a Mayberry theme park that is pulling in a steady stream of visitors. As my cousin and I were leaving the Snappy Lunch, a tour bus began unloading passengers who gathered outside the restaurant's entrance. Meanwhile, dozens of tourists browsed the Main Street shops, most of which had displays related to "The Andy Griffith Show."

So it's clear that people beyond North Carolina still want to believe the myth of Mayberry. They want to believe that somewhere there's a charming little town where people solve their problems by using a few simple rules, some common sense and a loyal affection for their neighbors.
So what if there's no such thing as Mayberry? "The Andy Griffith Show" wasn't a documentary about life in small town America. I'm not the first person to say this, but I think it was a classic morality play gently urging us to try to be a little better in our daily lives. Mayberry is what we could be if we'd just try a little harder.

The photo at the top of this post shows Deputy Barney Fife, town drunk Otis Campbell, and Sheriff Andy Taylor in a scene from "The Rehabilitation of Otis," which aired on 'The Andy Griffith Show' in 1964.

1 comment:

heartweaver said...

This is a fifth dimension. One of my other favorite series began this way. As a lover of harmony and pleasantries juxtaposed with magic and fantasy the series were not too far apart. Mayberry and John or Mabel Q. Citizen with a wish or quandary. Fish or visit The Twilight Zone. Your choice or maybe both. Great tribute article.