MOUNT AIRY, N.C. - It's a warm spring afternoon, and I have some time to kill before my ride in the back of a squad car. So I reach into a large metal ice chest at the corner filling station and fish out a 12-ounce bottle of cold Cheerwine soda. A few hearty gulps later, I put the empty bottle, still dripping with condensation, into a wooden crate.
It's a scene right out of my own childhood - all except the squad car - because it's always the early 1960s at Wally's Service Station, thanks to Andy Griffith, who grew up here. And I've certainly picked the right time to stop by for a spell: all year, this former mill town of 8,400 people is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the folksy, feel-good Andy Griffith Show.
Gomer and Goober, who manned the pumps at Wally's during 249 episodes spanning eight years, are long gone, but the group of mostly middle-aged tourists gathered inside the refurbished filling station - now a country store - talk fondly about these two good-natured rubes as if it were only yesterday. And thanks to the miracle of cable TV, for many it was: an estimated 1 million viewers drop in daily for a neighborly visit with Sheriff Taylor (Griffith); his bumbling deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts); his freckle-faced son, Opie (Ron Howard); his doting housekeeper, Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier); and the supporting cast of laughable but lovable townsfolk.
Those reruns have more than prolonged the life of the sitcom; they have revitalized Mount Airy. As recently as the mid-1980s, this was still the sleepy Piedmont town that young Griffith, a Mount Airy High School Class of 1944 graduate, gladly left behind to study religion at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
That's when Tanya Rees of the Surry County Arts Festival and Jim Clark, founder and Presiding Goober of TAGSRWC (The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club), recognized the need for a real-life Mayberry. And they weren't about to let long-standing assertions by Griffith and the show's writers that Mayberry was actually a composite of small Southern towns stand in the way. After all, the similarity of the names, the frequent references to nearby Mount Pilot (really Pilot Mountain), and the fact that it really was Griffith's hometown, made Mount Airy the obvious candidate.
Thus was born the Mayberry industry - slowly at first, and not always with a straight face. And in Deputy Fife's words, it turned out to be "big - really big!" Within a few years, Mount Airy was attracting nostalgia-hungry crowds faster than Aunt Bee's rhubarb pie, especially to the annual "Mayberry Days" celebration the last weekend in September. Now they arrive in droves throughout the spring and summer to see the town that insists it inspired the show - even though it was filmed entirely in Hollywood.
The best way to see the town is from the back of a 1962 Ford Galaxie 500 squad car. This is the ride I've been waiting for, and I have teamed up with Art and Deitra Zediker from Panama City, Fla., and their young granddaughters, Taylor and Trinity. The girls have never seen the show, but they sure enjoy the siren as our friendly driver and tour guide, retiree Melvin Miles, heads down Main Street for 35 minutes' worth of drive-by sightings of both the historical Mount Airy and the imaginative Mayberry.
Like many locals, Miles is convinced that the name "Mayberry" came from a small mountain community along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia that Andy's mother visited as a child.
The next morning, I head out to tour the town on foot. I start at the new Andy Griffith Museum, dedicated at last year's Mayberry Days, next to the long-standing Andy Griffith Playhouse - formerly the Rockford Road School auditorium - where Andy attended grammar school and first stepped onstage. Outside is a life-size, bronze statue of Andy and Opie on their way to the ol' fishing hole. Donated by TV Land - and dedicated by Andy himself in 2004 - the inscription sets the sentimental tone for the town: "A simpler time, a sweeter place, a lesson, a laugh, a father and son."
Inside, personal and professional artifacts donated by Andy's boyhood friend, Emmett Forrest - the only person in town who Andy kept up with after he moved his parents to California in 1966 - tell the story of the budding comedian's rise from small-town supper clubs to Broadway and beyond. Among items from The Andy Griffith Show are his sheriff's desk and uniform and Barney's salt-and-pepper suit for his dates with Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn).
Lynn will head the list of cast members and relatives at the 21st annual Mayberry Days on Sept. 23-26, when fans will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first episode. The 83-year-old actress moved here after being robbed in Los Angeles three times, she told The Mount Airy News, only to have her wallet stolen last month. But, in the finest tradition of Mayberry police work, the wallet was quickly recovered.
From the museum, I stroll two blocks to commercial Main Street, a solid line of squared-off brick storefronts that could be any small town in America circa 1960. But here, most windows display a mind-boggling gamut of Mayberry wares - from coffee mugs and lunch boxes to board games and locally made hot sauce. The blatant commercialism, however, doesn't detract from the bygone-days atmosphere.
It's time to get something to eat, and there is only one authentic choice: The Snappy Lunch. Dating from 1923 and mentioned in an early episode, this diner has the same formica counter and wood benches where the schoolboy Griffith often ate his own lunch, since there were no school cafeterias back then. I have to order the "world famous" pork chop sandwich - an oversized, saucy, boneless pork chop served between two pieces of bread. Mmmmmm, goooood! as Andy would say.
Next door is Floyd's City Barber Shop, with its trademark "2 chairs no waiting; 25-50 cents" sign out front. There actually are three chairs, but with everyone preferring to have their hair cut by 86-year-old Floyd (Russell Hiatt), there's generally quite a wait - especially since Hiatt stops to chat with all the walk-ins and to sell a few souvenir hats, T-shirts, and key chains.
After about 15 minutes, however, it's my turn, and I climb up into the worn leather swivel chair for personal grooming (featuring warm shaving cream for my neck and sideburns), along with some barber's tales.
Hiatt has been cutting hair here for 62 years and was one of the first to jump on the Mayberry bandwagon, assuming the name of Floyd Lawson, the show's resident barber and sounding board, played by Howard McNear
I notice the portrait of Andy himself getting his hair cut, and like everybody else, I ask Hiatt whether he ever had the professional pleasure. He did, but only once - back in the '50s, when Andy's regular barber couldn't take the wavy-haired rising star.
Like his fictional counterpart, Hiatt is full of local gossip and good stories. There's the one about the Washington, D.C., radio station whose morning shock jocks called him repeatedly with hokey Mayberry questions, with a DJ doing Floyd the Barber impressions in the background.
After several calls, the schtick got old to Hiatt, who was trying to run a barbershop. So he really wasn't paying attention when they asked him if it were true that Andy, Barney, Gomer, and even Aunt Bee used to run around town naked after dark. He mumbled, "Yeah, yeah," and excused himself to get back to business. Needless-to-say, the DJs had a field day.
"It wasn't until someone here in town asked me if I knew what I had said, that I realized that I had said something wrong," he recalls.
And that was about the most excitement Mayberry has seen since Deputy Fife finally got to take that bullet out of his shirt pocket.
The haircut costs me $8, including the Polaroid that Hiatt takes of me and the Instamatic shot that he will have developed later and stick somewhere amid the thousands of others on his mirrored walls.
The last stop on the standard Mayberry tour is the spacious Mayberry Courthouse, next to Wally's Service Station. Against one wall sits a replica of Sheriff Taylor's desk, seemingly awaiting his return from rounding up Otis Campbell, the town drunk, whose "home away from home" awaits him.
Out back stands the Darling Farm, where Andy is sure to encounter yet another mountain of trouble from the hillbilly family.
Fittingly, it is when Mount Airy ceases being Mayberry that it does its sincerest imitation. To see this Mayberry, however, you need to stick around after business hours, when the day-trippers have gone home and the locals go on with their not-all-that-different-from-back-then daily lives.
On this soft spring night, I stroll up and down Main Street, past the Downtown Cinema and any number of houses with wide porches that could have been Sheriff Taylor's. I keep an eye out for familiar faces, half expecting to come across Andy, Barney, or Aunt Bee.
And yes, almost without knowing it, I find myself whistling the show's irrepressible tune, just as Andy would do on his way to the fishing hole with Opie.
It's Mayberry time all year round in Andy Griffith's home town of Mount Airy, N.C., but the 21st Annual Mayberry Days, Sept. 23-26, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first episode of The Andy Griffith Show.
Highlights will include:
A parade down Main Street.
Appearances by cast members and relatives, including Betty Lynn (Thelma Lou), Doug Dillard (the banjo-playing Darling boy), Maggie Peterson (Charlene Darling), Elinor Donahue (Ellie Walker), James Best (Jim Lindsey), Jackie Joseph (Sweet Romeena), David Morris (son of Howard Morris), Laura Hagen (widow of Earle Hagen, composer and whistler of the theme song), and Karen Knotts (daughter of Don Knotts). Also, tribute artists.
Karen Knotts' one-woman show, "Tied Up in Knotts."
Aunt Bee's Bake Sale.
North Carolina State Championship BBQ cook-off.
Annual meeting of TAGSRWC, followed by a talk by Neal Brower, author of Mayberry 101.
For tickets and a complete listing of events, check with the Surry Arts Council at 336-786-7998 and www.mayberrydays.org.
Mount Airy is about 490 miles from Philadelphia. US Airways flies nonstop to Greensboro (65 miles southeast of Mount Airy) from Philadelphia. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $128.
Places to stay
Centrally located B&Bs include:
618 N. Main St.
Sobotta Manor B&B
347 W. Pine St.
In addition to chain hotels and motels, there's the Mayberry Motor Inn (501 N. Andy Griffith Parkway, 336-786-4109, www.mayberrymotorinn.com), home of Aunt Bee's Room, displaying possessions of the late Frances Bavier collected by motel owner Alma Venable.
Or, sleep at the Andy Griffith Homeplace, the modest wood-frame bungalow in which the actor grew up. Contact the Hampton Inn, 1-800-565-5249.
Rates: $175 for up to six people.
For something more upscale, head to the Pilot Knob Inn B&B, 436 New Pilot Knob Lane in Pinnacle, 336-325-2502, www.pilotknobinn.com. It consists of six former tobacco barns, and BedandBreakfast.com has named it one of the 2009-2010 Top 10 inns (Sobotta Manor also made the list).
Places to eat
Mayberry-themed casual dining options include:
The Snappy Lunch
125 N. Main St.
Blue Bird Diner
244 N. Main St.
206 N. Main St.
Aunt Bea's Barbeque
452 Andy Griffith Parkway North
Mayberry Kountry Kitchen
420 E. Pine St.
For more substantial fare, try:
234 N. Main St.
308 N. Main St.
502 S. Andy Griffith Parkway
Things to see
The Andy Griffith Museum
218 Rockford St.
Hours: 9-5 p.m., weekdays; 11-4, Saturday; 1:30-4:30, Sunday.
Admission: $3 for adults; free, children 12 and under.
Wally's Service Station and the Mayberry Courthouse
625 S. Main St.
Hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Mon.-Fri; 10-3, Saturday (Sunday by appointment).
Squad Car Tours: $30 per carload (up to 5 people). For reservations, call 336-789-6743.
Floyd's City Barber Shop
129 N. Main St.
Hours: 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Wednesday and Friday; 7-3, Saturday.
Admission: Free, but a haircut costs $8 (plus tip).
Mount Airy Visitors Center Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce
200 N. Main St.