MOUNT AIRY, N.C. - The man walking towards us along North Main St., was whistling a familiar tune. It’s one you hear being whistled a lot in this sleepy little town nestled in the shadow of the stunningly beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I’ve heard several people whistling that tune today,” I told Janet Phillips, the charming woman who welcomed me to the Mount Airy Visitor’s Center.
“It’s so familiar but I just can’t place it,” I told her.
“That’s the theme from the old Andy Griffith Show and it’s the town’s anthem,” said Phillips of the place where actor Andy Griffith, the classic show’s main star, was born.
“That’s it,” I blurted when Phillips told me. “I knew it was familiar.”
There’s lots in Mount Airy that reminds you of the classic show that is still seen in reruns around the world. The charming town and its southern good looks provided the inspiration for the fictional Mayberry, the television town where Sheriff Andy Taylor - Griffith - lived with his Aunt Bee - late actor Frances Bavier - and son Opie, played by a very young Ron Howard, and maintained law and order with the help of his bumbling sidekick, deputy Barney Fife, played by the late Don Knotts.
Mount Airy’s connection with Griffith and the show provides it with a lucrative tourist industry and the townsfolk here take full advantage of the show’s continuing popularity. That’s why you’ll see things like Aunt Bee’s Room, located on Mayberry Motor Inn Highway.
It’s a room owner Alma Venable opened and dedicated to Aunt Bee’s memory after she bought several of the late actor’s belongings. It has since turned into a mini-museum where over 30 of Bavier’s cherished mementoes are displayed. You need an appointment to visit the room but it’s well worth it.
Then there’s Floyd’s City Barber Shop, located at 129 North Main St., a pivotal setting in the TV show where the characters would gather to share Mayberry gossip.
Owner Russel Hiatt, who has been cutting hair in this location for 50 years, started a wall of fame some years ago and many famous personalities, including talk show diva Oprah Winfrey, have had their photographs taken in one of his two chairs. In all, there are over 18,000 photographs hanging on the wall.
Left: Many of the town shops reflect the show’s characters. Right: A statue of Andy Griffith stands outside town’s playhouse.
A little further along North Main is Snappy Lunch, the restaurant mentioned many times on the cult TV series and where the real Andy Griffith ate lunch as a young boy growing up in Mount Airy. In fact, Andy’s favorite dish, the pork chop sandwich, is still one of the most popular items on the menu.
“And don’t forget to visit ….”
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted Phillips.
“Is that … can it really be ….”
“Yep,” said Phillips, “it’s the old squad car.”
The vintage black and white 1962 Ford Galaxy cruiser that became one of the show’s most famous props passed in front of the visitor’s bureau just as Phillips was telling me where to go and what to see.
A man and a woman were in the back seat but didn’t look like worried prisoners.
“The old squad cars are used to take people on tours of our town,” said Phillips. “It’s great fun and people seem to have a real connection with the show after their tour.”
There’s a number of vintage ’62 Galaxy cars painted black and white located around Mount Airy, including in front of the Old City Jail, a local recreation of the courthouse seen in the show’s many episodes. The Squad Car Tours last about an hour and cost $25 per person. It makes stops at all the landmarks associated with the show, including Wally's service station, the place from whence the character Gomer Pyle (Jim Neybors) came.
The town’s most famous landmark is the Andy Griffith Playhouse, where the loveable actor first performed as a young man and where a statue of Andy, in sheriff’s garb and a fishing pole slung over his shoulder, is seen walking hand-in-hand with his fictional son Opie. Thousands of people come to Mount Airy each year and have their photographs taken in front of the famous bronze statue that stands outside the playhouse, circa 1920, where many theatrical performances are still performed by budding young Andy Griffiths.
Each year the town celebrates Mayberry Days, usually in September, and former characters from the show, including Howard Morris, who played the loveable Ernest T. Bass, join in the celebrations, which include a parade, a talent show and lots of good down home cooking. Many look-alikes also show up in costume and impersonate their favorite characters.
Griffith isn’t the only famous entertainer to be born in Mount Airy. The late country singer Donna Fargo was born here along with the original Siamese Twins, Eng and Chang Bunker, both of whom are buried nearby. “This is so much fun maybe we’ll head down to Mount Pilot for the afternoon to see what’s there,” I told Phillips, who just laughed at the suggestion because, just like Mayberry, Mount Pilot, which served as the county capital in the show, didn’t really exist.
“If you want to see Mount Pilot, just look over there,” said Phillips pointing to a mountain range off in the distance. “That’s Pilot Mountain and that’s where the name Mount Pilot came from.” Mount Airy, or Mayberry as Andy Griffith fans would like to know it, will have you whistling a different tune once you’ve been here - mainly because this is no whistle stop for TV fans.