Return to Mayberry for the first time

by Brian Clarey

Return to Mayberry for the first time

Out past Pilot Mountain, across the Beamer Bridge, the town of Mount Airy paid tribute to its most famous son this weekend.

I’ve known about Mayberry Days, the weekend festival that transforms the small mountain town (pop. 10,436, give or take) into the fictional Valhalla epitomized by what everyone around here agrees is the most influential television show ever to break the airwaves.

I’ll tell you a secret: I never liked “The Andy Griffith Show” — blasphemy in these parts, I know, where episodes are quoted chapter and verse.

“It’s like that old episode of ‘Andy Griffith,’ where those Hollywood hotshots come to town to make a movie.”

Or, “Like those hussies from Mount Pilot who came through Mayberry.”

Or, “Remember what happened when Opie killed that bird with his slingshot?” Truly, I don’t. When I was introduced to the show as a kid growing up in the shadow of New York City, I could find absolutely nothing in it to which I could relate. It might as well have been about a town in another country.

So I did not realize that the theme song from “The Andy Griffith Show” has lyrics. I hear them spilling out of an amplified speaker on Mount Airy’s Main Street, the locus of Mayberry Days, a paean to fishin’ holes, skippin’ stones and cool lemonade, sung by the man himself. Griffith was born here in Mount Airy, a product of its customs and mores who turned that homespun charm and simple, country wisdom into a franchise.

The show ran for eight seasons — a whopping 249 episodes between 1960 and 1968, back when there were just three channels. Mount Airy has been eating lunch on it since 1990, when the festival began. It will last for as long as the show remains culturally relevant to people around here, which is to say forever.

On Friday, the first full Mayberry Day, the sidewalks of downtown Mount Airy look like the lunch rush in midtown Manhattan, or is it Branson, Mo.? In the middle of a workday, tight clusters of pensioners, young families, looky-loos and the gainfully unemployed move leisurely down Main Street, past the soda fountain and the Fudge Factory, the notorious Snappy Lunch counter and the ancient hardware store.

During Mayberry Days, Main Street teems with activity: a mule-drawn surrey and a Thomas train cart tourists down the street; celebrity lookalikes cover Aunt Bee, Otis the town drunk, Gomer and at least two versions of Barney. You can examine a 1960 Ford Fairlane used as a police car in the show; hit up a food truck or carny stand or get something sweet at Opie’s Candy Shop.

For a moment, I’m stunned, and it may be the Mayberry Days crowds feeding into an illusion, but it seems to me that downtown Mayberry is in many ways more vibrant and diverse that downtown Greensboro.

I’m not talking about racial diversity here — Mayberry Days is as white as a Vespa run to a strawberry-picking farm — but economic and cultural diversity. Beside the usual collection of souvenir and gift shops, enough to make Bourbon Street blush, and the period pieces like the Snappy Lunch, the hardware store and the barbershop, Mount Airy’s Main Street has a car dealership, two music stores, a dry cleaner, furniture stores, toy shops, wine bars and, further down, a contemporary art gallery, a computer shop that looks like a knockoff Apple store, a modern deli and an honest-to-goodness boutique clothier.

They have a downtown performing arts center — several of them, actually, if you lump the Andy Griffith Playhouse together with the restored Earle Theatre and the Blackmon Amphitheatre, pronounced by one woman on the sidewalk as “am-feethee-AY-ter,” with five syllables.

They have lunch crowds during the day, ghost walks at night, plenty of free parking, benches on every block.

You ever see the one where Andy and Barney head off to the big city and realize that Mayberry has everything a body could need?

I’m not ready to concede that point yet.

I don’t want to live in Mayberry — I want to live in a city, amid the struggle and mess that inevitably comes when large groups of people share resources and combine their vision. Cities are experiments, laboratories of culture; the bigger the city, the more capacity for conflict, but also for excellence.

On that scale, Mayberry lags behind. But it’s easy, on a beautiful autumn afternoon with the sun coming over the mountain and the action thrumming on the streets, to convince myself otherwise, that life in Mayberry could be as sweet as a big slice of Aunt Bee’s pecan pie — or apple, or lemon, whatever kind of pie Aunt Bee used to make. As I’ve said, I never really watched the show.