Published January/February 2010
It was like a bad dream from which he couldn’t wake. Cited for running a stop sign in a small Southern town, the New Yorker followed the sheriff to the courthouse. There, a confrontation ensued. The sheriff was called a “hayseed.” He responded calmly, confidently – even cheerfully. His casual “down-homeness” heightened the urbanite’s anger. He wanted to see the justice of the peace, wanted to report the sheriff for what he believed he was – “a Jesse James with a badge.” The meeting came soon enough. Just as soon as the sheriff sat at his desk and replaced the “Sheriff” sign with “Justice of the Peace.” You know what? It all turned out alright. And in only a half an hour.
It was Feb. 15, 1960, and there, in an episode of Danny Thomas’s television series Make Room for Daddy, Sheriff Andy Taylor and Mayberry were introduced. Six months later, the first spin-off series in television history began. We watched The Andy Griffith Show and its reruns religiously. But before there was a Mayberry, there was a Mount Airy. And also a Chapel Hill.
From ministry to music
Andy Samuel Griffith enrolled at UNC in the fall of 1944. We know from university records that he lived in Battle and Steele dormitories before they became administration buildings. We know he worked as a busboy in Lenoir Dining Hall. From Terry Collins’s The Andy Griffith Story, we also know Andy was a sound sleeper and didn’t trust alarm clocks, so he devised one. He tied a rope to one of his ankles and let the other end dangle from his second story dorm window. In the morning, friends tugged on the rope until Andy came to the window and signaled he was up.
It was an unconventional contrivance, and unconventional might be the perfect word for his matriculation at UNC. He was the first on either side of his family to go to college. He came to be a Moravian minister. Sociology took care of that. And Latin, Greek and psychology. He failed Political Science 41 twice. His academic struggles gave him pangs of inadequacy. He once admitted he spent much of his time here “scared to death” from being around so many who seemed so studied and bright. Yet, Andy found a safe haven. When he sang, played or acted, he wriggled free from his cocoon of doubt. And so he sang in the glee club, played in the university band and, when the Carolina PlayMakers staged an operetta in Memorial Hall, he auditioned. He won the role of the Spanish Grand Inquisitor in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. The role transformed him. He might glaze over when asked to discuss forms of government but, when he entertained, he put on the shine.
Academically speaking, it took some doing but, lo and behold, the Mount Airy native – after five years and two summers – graduated in June of 1949 with a bachelor of arts in music.
At home on Homestead
In the immediate years after graduation, Andy portrayed Sir Walter Raleigh in Paul Green’s The Lost Colony on the North Carolina coast, married and taught at Goldsboro High School for three remarkably unremarkable years. He returned to Chapel Hill in the summer of 1952 where he and wife Barbara rented an unheated four-room house on Homestead Road. It’s still there. That place became their studio. There they worked out evenings of entertainment that promised civic groups and conventions singing, dancing, dramatic readings and comedy. And there and in banquet rooms across the state, Andy honed his routines.
One in particular changed his life. Somewhere on the road between Chapel Hill and Raleigh, he worked out a sketch about a country deacon’s first football game. He called it What It Was, Was Football. In March of 1953, he performed the routine at The Carolina Inn and, afterward, was approached by Orville Campbell and an associate who asked if Andy would be interested in recording the bit for their Chapel Hill-based Colonial record label. Recorded at a cost of $20, the 500 copies of What It Was… arrived Nov. 14, 1953 – the same day Notre Dame came to town. The Heels lost, 34-14, but Andy and Orville won big time. The 500 copies were gone in three days, and, by Christmas, more than 10,000 had been sold. A disc-jockey favorite, “Deacon Andy Griffith” created a buzz. So much so that over in that little unheated house on Homestead – the house is set back in the woods, snugly tucked between the Claremont and Winmore neighborhoods – he signed with Capitol Records, and What It Was, Was Football went on to sell more than a million copies. Doors opened, and, just after Christmas in 1953, Andy and Barbara left Chapel Hill for New York and the rest is … well … history.
A distinguished alumnus
What It Was… made certain there would be a Mayberry. The Andy Griffith Show first aired on Oct. 3, 1960, and it was the right show with the right cast at the right time. Imagine: a comedy series without sex and without violence set in a small Southern town where the sheriff didn’t carry a weapon and his deputy was allowed a single bullet. The show’s simplicity won our hearts and still makes us pine for days when doors and windows were not locked and kids roamed without fear. Yes, nostalgia for what we can’t have anymore and even Andy wasn’t immune to it, either.
Once, in 1977, on his way from Mount Airy to his home in Manteo, something moved Griffith to make an unscheduled stop. Wearing a cap and using the cover of darkness to hide his identity, he came back to Chapel Hill – to wander about campus and reminisce. I can’t help but think he gazed at the second-story dorm window and maybe chuckled before an academic building where he wrestled with poli sci or sociology. We do know he lingered in front of Memorial Hall. The doors were locked, but a security guard let him in. Inside, he ambled to the stage where he made his acting debut some three decades before.
One year later, he returned once more to Memorial for a curtain call, if you will. On that day, University Day, his alma mater presented him with a Distinguished Alumni Award. Andy Griffith, and, yes, Andy Taylor’s message assured students they could succeed without being brilliant. They could achieve by just being themselves, by being nice and decent and good-natured. For as long as the show will be re-aired, The Andy Griffith Show will reinforce that message.
Someone once wrote: “A man may die. All things die, but a character in a finished play lives forever.” And so, Andy Taylor and Mayberry and its citizens live on. It’s a place we like to visit and re-visit when we feel overwhelmed or, perhaps, inadequate. A haven filled with simpler times and good people – like floating along in a pleasant dream where we hope, for at least a little while, not to be awakened. CHM