Crafting images of small-town American life
Close your eyes and picture it: small-town America.
It has a little post office, of course. A general store, too, and a fishing hole. There's a barber who knows everyone — and knows about everyone. There's a friendly auto mechanic. The picture wouldn't be complete without several women who could be anyone's favorite older sister or aunt.
Kids scurry around at reasonable paces, making low-grade mischief while dirtying their short-sleeve plaid shirts or striped T-shirts. Quirky characters wander about in a landscape of picket fences and healthy storefronts. And the police officer in charge? He's tough but fair, community minded, the Solomon of his entire, geographically limited jurisdiction. He's Atticus Finch without any of the racial tension.
This is, today, the comforting script America often reaches for when it summons the vanished rural nation that so many say they long for. Not coincidentally, it is also the state of mind given to us by Andy Griffith and his long-running TV show.
More than anyone except perhaps Walt Disney, Griffith was the entertainment-world emblem of the 20th-century values Americans often like to say they prize most. He spread the notion, begun by no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson, that somehow the very best of us was contained in the rural life — in this case, the fictional tales of Mayberry that "The Andy Griffith Show" delivered for almost a decade.
"The show is kind of like a step back in time, especially for my generation," Molly Jones 24, of Raleigh, N.C., said after learning of Griffith's death Tuesday. "It's kind of like, 'Oh, this is how it used to be,' and 'Why isn't it this way still?' Things were so much simpler back then."
They certainly were in Mayberry, N.C. When Deputy Barney Fife wasn't arresting someone for jaywalking, little Opie was accidentally killing a bird with his slingshot and earnestly dealing with the moral fallout. Aunt Bee was usually either offering affection, feeling underappreciated or cooking ham. Goober and Gomer were causing disarray, and Floyd Lawson or Howard Sprague was dispensing quirky wisdom. (Come to think of it, that was true of everyone on the program.)
The reality of the age was somewhat different. Griffith's show, in a way, defied its times rather than captured them.
Though it felt like the 1950s in many ways, it was actually a product of the roller-coaster decade that followed. It debuted in 1960, four weeks before John F. Kennedy was elected, and ended its run on a spring evening in 1968 three nights before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis. While the country was tearing itself apart, Mayberry quietly endured, a Dick-and-Jane primer for an America yanked in every direction — a vision, during the Cold War, of friendly, unintruded-upon isolationism.
At the center of it all was Griffith himself, a product of Mount Airy, N.C., who began his career doing comedic interpretations of yokels years before he honed his persona into the Sheriff Andy Taylor combination of avuncular community figure, doting father and common-sense Southerner. Though Griffith would later say the sheriff was the better angel of his nature, the perception was otherwise. "Andy was Mayberry, and Mayberry was Andy," Don Knotts, who played Barney Fife, said in 1999.
Griffith was a far more complicated figure than he appeared. As Sheriff Taylor, he effectively acted as a cultural interpreter for a fast-urbanizing nation reared on, and comforted by, Norman Rockwell imagery. Griffith's take on a post-Eisenhower "Our Town" made him, to television, what Woody Guthrie had been to music two decades earlier — a popularizer who came from authentic country roots, polished it all up, then fed Americans back a more digestible version of rural culture. It was an approach that coincided with a musical folk revival in which rural songs were being popularized by mainstream musicians like never before.
During the run of "The Andy Griffith Show," more rural and rural-urban sitcoms had emerged — broader, city-mouse-country-mouse affairs such as "The Beverly Hillbillies," ''Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres." The market for rural-themed comedy in America had grown so glutted by the dawn of the 1970s that there was actually a "rural purge" in which the networks scrapped most of their country comedies as irrelevant and out of sync with the more urgent times. The Griffith show's sequel, "Mayberry R.F.D.," was one victim, cancelled after three years.
Four decades later, the spirit of Mayberry lives on in the town that claims to be its muse. While it's widely believed that Griffith's childhood in Mount Airy inspired Mayberry, it's absolutely certain that Mayberry has inspired Mount Airy. Tourism has made the marketing of small-town flavor good business, and Griffith's hometown has taken the ball and run with it.
Everywhere you turn in the community, there is a Mayberry reference, explicit or otherwise. The names of businesses downtown — Mayberry Trading Post. Mayberry's Music Center. Mayberry Memories, Barney's Cafe — are testament to the exuberant opportunism Griffith made possible. An annual fall festival, Mayberry Days, draws tens of thousands of people to Mount Airy.
And at 129 North Main St., the owner of the six-decade-old City Barber Shop even added the word "Floyd's" at the front of its name two decades ago to evoke the TV show's Calvin Coolidge-loving tonsorial expert.
Melvin Miles, 69, of Mount Airy, has an idea why people are so attracted to this stuff. Miles works for Squad Car Tours, which owns five Ford Galaxys, replicas of the cars used on the show. He remembers a town where people gathered on porches and — lacking Facebook or 300 channels — just visited.
"The people long for the simple way of life," Miles says. "And that does not exist in too many areas anymore."
Mayberry today is shorthand for a shiny America that may or may not have existed at all, yet endures. Just whistle the theme from the show and Griffith's vision is summoned. Listen to politicians talking about traditional values, and Mayberry is there.
Eat at a Cracker Barrel restaurant anywhere in the republic and walk through its "general store," replete with striped candy sticks, jars of apple butter and rocking chairs priced to move, and Andy Taylor is lurking. Try and watch the movie "Pleasantville" without thinking of Mayberry.
Like the folks in "Pleasantville," ''The Andy Griffith Show" eventually moved from black and white to color. Its final episode in 1968 begins at Mayberry's bucolic railroad depot. But the arriving train brings a chaotic, voluble Italian family to town — or, if you're looking for symbolism, the larger world arrives. There is no going back.
Americans loved, and still love, the notion of the small town as a manageable, nonthreatening, friendly, finite community — an idea all but upended in the 21st century, where the truly isolated town is, for all practical purposes, no more. The black-and-white world that Andy Griffith shaped so masterfully is there for our perusal from a distance, but it is not coming back — either on television or anywhere else.