Classics in the Carolinas: Remembering Andy Griffith

This post is a mix of remembering stars who died during 2012 and an addition to the Comet Over Hollywood mini-series, “Classics in the Carolinas”-which highlights classics movie related topics in North Carolina and South Carolina. 

 Opie’s Candy Store, Mayberry Embroidery, Floyd’s City Barber Shop, Barney’s Restaurant.

These are stores you would see as you walked in downtown Mount Airy, North Carolina while the “Andy Griffith Show” theme song echos from many of the stores.

Andy Griffith related stores in downtown Mount Airy, NC. Comet Over Hollywood photos by Jessica Pickens

Andy Griffith related stores in downtown Mount Airy, NC. Comet Over Hollywood photos by Jessica Pickens

Squad car tours are given around the town and there is even an Andy Griffith Bypass and Andy Griffith Mall. Every September the Mayberry Days festival brings fans from all over the world to the small town to celebrate the show with barbecue, musical performances and golf tournaments.

The quaint Surry County, North Carolina town was home to television icon Andy Griffith and was the model for the fictional television town of Mayberry.

Working in Elkin, NC, I lived 30 minutes away from Mount Airy, and while fans all over the world mourned the death of Griffith on July 3, 2012, I knew his death would be an even bigger deal in Surry County.

Andy Griffith is the main tourism draw in Mount Airy. In September 2011, the Mayberry Days festival brought in 70,000 visitors, I learned while writing an article at the Tribune for the 2011-2012 Surry County Directory.

“Mayberry is the hook for 90 percent of our visitors,” said tourism director, Jennifer Eisenhower. “A lot of people come here for the small town, Mayberry experience.”

Andy Griffith in the 1960s.

Andy Griffith in the 1960s.

Griffith was born in Mount Airy in 1926 and graduated from Mount Airy High School 1944.

He was popular in high school and took trombone lessons from a local reverend, remembered Mount Airy News lifestyles editor, Eleanor Powell.

After graduation, Griffith attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill- also the alma mater of Kay Kyser– with hopes to become a Moravian minister. However he changed his major to music, according to a UNC article by Patrick Winn.

Griffith was homesick when he first went to UNC but ended up becoming popular, acting in several Playmaker’s performances such as “The Mikado,” and joining Phi Mu Alpha music fraternity.

At Chapel Hill, Griffith met his first wife Barbara Edwards, married from 1949 to 1971.

After graduating in 1949, Griffith taught high school music in Goldsboro, NC.

Griffith worked his way up in the business while performing in plays and comedic radio monologues. He made his breakthrough performance in Hollywood with the 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd” and his television show “Andy Griffith Show” in 1960.

“The Andy Griffith Show” was said to be based on Griffith’s memories of growing up in Mount Airy, which he has both confirmed and denied throughout he years.

The television show mentions nearby “Mount Pilot”-which in reality it Pilot Mountain– and that Mayberry is north of Winston-Salem, which is all true for Mount Airy.

I remember sitting at my computer at the Elkin Tribune and seeing the news pop up about Griffith’s deaths.

All I could think was “Uh oh,” as I called my editor to tell him our front page stories would be different for the next day’s paper.

The Elkin Tribune’s sister paper was the Mount Airy News, where our newspaper was laid out and printed. I remember talking to one of the paginaters and asking how she felt about Griffith’s death and how people in the town were reacting. It seemed a huge thunder storm that came through town was a bigger deal to most of the citizens.

“It’s been pretty quiet. I don’t really care,” she said. “He didn’t treat the town well and even asked for us to pay him when he dedicated the Andy Griffith Bypass a few years ago.”

Regardless of the bitterness of locals, Griffith has brought millions of tourism dollars to the town.

“Tourism has really saved us, Andy is the hook. He is the reason people come to Mount Airy,” Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council, told CNN.

Visitors from Spain, Germany, Peru, India, the United Kingdom, Guatemala and Canada have all traveled to take part in the Mayberry atmosphere.

“Some months we see guests from all 50 states,” Eisenhower said. “A lot of people come here for one reason: to see all the Mayberry attractions, and they continue to come back.”

February 2012 during one of my visits to Mount Airy with the Andy Griffith statue.

February 2012 during one of my visits to Mount Airy with the Andy Griffith statue.

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‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in Andy Griffith land

Tonight I had my third classic film on the big screen experience- and I have to add it might be my favorite thus far.

The Earle Theater in Mount Airy, NC. Taken from the Surry Arts Council

I drove roughly 30 minutes with fellow Elkin Tribune reporter, Kristin Zachary, to see “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) in Mount Airy, North Carolina.  Some of you may recognize Mount Airy as the town the television show “Andy Griffith” is based off of. The town is full of Andy Griffith related places such as the Andy Griffith Playhouse/mall/Parkway, Opie’s Candy Store or Barney’s Lunch Counter-but I digress, that is another post.

The film was showing at The Earle Theater, built in 1938 and opened in time to show “Gone with the Wind,” according to the Mount Airy News.

I can’t tell you when the last time I had watched “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Though my family owns it, it isn’t a Christmas movie we watch every year like “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” “Bishop’s Wife,” “Christmas in Connecticut” or “White Christmas.”  I think part of the reason we don’t is because my dad gets very, very angry when Thomas Mitchell loses the money.

I had forgotten what a good movie it was, but then it’s a Frank Capra film so it’s pretty much flawless.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, the film is about George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. He is in a bad place in his life, and his guardian angel comes to help. Before coming down to Earth the angel looks back over George’s life- reviewing events like saving his little brother from drowning, the death of his father and getting married. We see the struggles George Bailey has gone through for his family and how he has had to set aside everything he wanted in life to help everyone else out-mainly to keep his father’s business out of greedy Mr Potter’s hands. Before being visited by his guardian angel, he feels like he has reached the end of his rope and everything he has worked for has been for nothing. Bailey wishes he was never born and Clarence the Angel (played by Henry Travers) shows him what Bedford Falls would be like if Bailey hadn’t been born and how much he has affected everyone around him.

We meet grown up Mary (Donna Reed) for the first time.

Capra has some great camera shots. Most of my favorites were toward the end when George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) hasn’t been born such as when childhood friend and local hussy Violet (Gloria Graham) is being arrested- the camera is in her face as she is struggling with the cops.  Another shot is  the close up of George Bailey’s face as he is frantically looking around Pottersville/Bedford Falls. Other shots I liked were at the graduation dance with the close up on Mary (Donna Reed) when George first sees her after many years and ( also at the graduation dance) when the two boys (one being Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Schwartz) are planning to open the swimming pool floor.

Some other thoughts I had during the movie:

-The last time I saw “It’s a Wonderful Life” I was probably in late elementary school or in middle school. Sometimes I didn’t understand why George was upset with how his life was going. Now that I’m out of college and have my own ambitions, I can relate to him a lot more.

George yelling at Uncle Billy for losing $8,000.

-Thomas Mitchell (who played Uncle Billy) broke my heart. He was so sweet and forgetful and didn’t mean any harm to anyone. I almost died at the part where George is yelling at him and calling him a stupid fool for losing the money and then….Uncle Billy cries….and a squirrel jumped on his arm-further tears from me.  I understand being upset over the loss of $8,000, but who sends the absent minded relative to the bank with that much money?

-I always knew Donna Reed (who plays Mary) was a good actress, but I was really impressed with her acting in this movie. Unfortunately, she wasn’t given the chance at MGM she deserved, because many roles that might have gone to her, went to June Allyson.

-Gloria Graham (who plays Violet) isn’t one of my favorite actresses, but she also does a great job in this movie. It may be my favorite role of her’s.

Lionel Barrymore, as Mr. Potter, is the richest, greediest man in town.

-Lionel Barrymore is my favorite of the Barrymores and he sure can play a good bad guy. Barrymore plays Mr. Potter who is the richest man in town, greedy and wanting to have control everything. However, is anyone else bothered by what looks like a bald cap on Mr. Barrymore?

-I never realized how many funny parts were in this movie, either. Kristin and I were cracking up the whole time, particularly because a little boy with a really funny laugh was sitting in front of us. Every time he laughed at the funny parts, we would laugh harder.

At the end of the movie, Kristin and I walked out wiping tears from our eyes and she said, “They sure don’t make movies like that anymore.’

George running through the streets of Bedford Falls thankful to be alive.

Overall, the uplifting film mixed with the small town ambiance of Mount Airy, it was a very lovely experience and is my favorite classic film experience thus far.

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