(In memory of Andy Griffith, here’s a story I wrote for the New York Times in 1991.)
Lessons for Living, From the Lapsed Town of Mayberry
By J. Peder Zane
Michael A. Chambers used to spank his 7-year-old son. But a year ago he changed his way of thinking as he watched reruns of his favorite program, “The Andy Griffith Show.” “I saw that the character played by Andy Griffith never laid a hand on his boy but talked through their problems,” he said. “It made me realize that there was a better way.” Mr. Chambers, a 32-year-old graphics designer from Houston, is not the only fan who says he has gotten more than laughs from the show about the cozy Southern hamlet of Mayberry. Among the roughly 5 million people who visit Sheriff Andy Taylor, his son Opie and Aunt Bee each day are parents who use the show to teach values, ministers who quote it in Sunday sermons and other viewers who use it as a moral compass in a sometimes frightening modern world.
“It’s like religion to a lot of people,” said James Clark, founder of the Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club, which he says has 20,000 members. “Andy’s very wise, he’s the Solomon, the Abe Lincoln of Mayberry. And so many of us in real life will ask: ‘What would Andy do? How would he handle this situation?’ ”
The devotion of those fans has also attracted a coterie of scholars who say the program is not just an escape from the real world, but a demonstration of how television teaches what families or towns once taught.
“The program does not merely reflect society, but suggests values,” said Richard Kelly, a University of Tennessee English professor who wrote a book on the program in 1981. “At a time when a lot of the standards have broken down, it represents a kind of lost paradise founded on the best hopes of people.”
In Mayberry the men swap tall tales but the women are tight-lipped about their pickle recipes. The only substance abuser is a hiccupping town drunk named Otis. Law and order is kept by a sheriff who never wears a gun and is the best fisherman in town.
Of course there are problems. There was the bully who used to take Opie’s milk money, and those burly vegetable farmers who wouldn’t listen when Andy’s goofily officious deputy, Barney Fife, told them to close down their roadside stand. And there was the time Barney had to play Pied Piper to a goat, leading him out of town with a harmonica because the goat had eaten a box of dynamite. 1968’s Top-Rated Show
“Mayberry was about the best things of small town life when there were still small towns left,” Andy Griffith, who also helped write the show, said in an interview a few days ago. “Every problem could be solved in a half hour and usually by someone taking an interest in someone else.”
The show began in 1960 and left the air in 1968 as the top-rated series. Now in reruns in 127 television markets, its appeal is stronger than ever. “Andy Griffith Show” trading cards were introduced last year, and fans have scooped up 25 million of them. “Aunt Bee’s Mayberry Cookbook” — which includes recipes for Poke Sallet, Sweet Tater Pone and Hoot Owl Pie — has sold 200,000 copies since April. It was put together for Rutledge Hill Press in part by Mr. Clark, the “presiding goober” of the rerun watchers club’s 600 chapters, who otherwise writes corporate newsletters for a living. Aunt Bee herself, Frances Bavier, died in 1989; being on the show meant so much to her that she left her New York home for Siler City, N.C., a real town that Mayberry folks sometimes said they’d just visited.
The show’s enduring influence still astonishes Jack Elinson, a Bronx native who co-wrote about half the first season’s episodes with Charles Stewart, a native of Seattle. He said the moral elements were standard television fare in the 1960’s, though he sees why it is so popular by contrast to what he calls the “raunchy in the sex gutter” mentality of today’s shows. “All we were trying to do was write a wholesome show that would get some sponsors and an audience,” he said in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. “In this business, you never know what you’re going to do and most of the time you never know what you did.”
Grant T. Byrd, a Baptist minister in McKinney, Tex., uses the show in lectures to youth groups because “television is so much a part of their world.” He said the patience Andy has for his bumbling deputy, allowing him to find solutions without butting in, is a model for a parent-child relationship founded on empathy and love.
Robert J. Curtis of Colorado Springs — who has nearly all 249 episodes on videotape — said the show conjures warm memories of watching it with his parents.
Now he encourages his 5-year-old daughter to watch as one way of sharing his own childhood with her. That kind of memory — television watching creating nostalgia for earlier episodes of television watching — shows one peculiar opportunity given to the first generation that grew up on television: it can relive chunks of its childhood through reruns. The psychological influence of that can be profound, said Cecelia Tichi, an English professor at Vanderbilt University, who contends that television has replaced the hearth as the secure, warmth-giving center of family life.
“The Andy Griffith Show” is “a double whammy,” she said. “It evokes the innocence and simplicity we equate with our childhood, and Mayberry is a living, breathing adult world constructed from those ideals.”
Mr. Curtis says he also lets his daughter watch because he knows children copy what they see on television. “It teaches kids to be respectful instead of smart-alecky,” he said. “I want my child to be like Opie, not Bart Simpson.”
SIDEBAR: WHAT WOULD ANDY DO?
- Andy confronts Opie after he killed a bird with his slingshot: Opie: “You gonna give me a whippin’? ” Andy: “No, I’m not gonna give you a whippin’.” (He opens the window.) “You hear that? That’s those young birds chirpin’ for their mama that’s never comin’ back. Now you just listen to that for a while.”
- Andy explains to Opie why, after refusing to sell his prize fishing rod, nicknamed Eagle-eye Annie, he traded it for a frilly jacket Aunt Bee wanted: “I said I kept it because it gave me so much enjoyment and that I wouldn’t sell it for money. And I didn’t sell it for money. I just kind of swapped it for a different kind of enjoyment. So Eagle-eye Annie’s doing just what she did before. Even right now she’s giving me pleasure, real heart-warming pleasure.”
- Andy tells his deputy Barney why they shouldn’t confront the bully taking Opie’s milk money or teach Opie to fight. “It’s not lessons in fighting he needs. I just don’t want him to be afraid. I don’t want him to be the kind of boy who that goes around lookin’ for fights. But I don’t want him to run from one when he’s in the right.” Opie eventually fights back and the bully gives up his money.
- Andy tells Hollywood producers why he doesn’t wear a gun. “When a man carries a gun all the time, the respect he thinks he’s getting might really be fear.”
- Andy gets a feuding Mayberry couple to turn loving, but then sees that they have turned their anger on everyone else instead. By reminding them of what started the fight, he gets things back to normal. “What looks like wrassling to one is dancin’ to another,” he says, watching them bicker.
- Andy explains to Barney why he told Opie he believes in the boy’s imaginary friend: “A whole lot of times I’ve asked him to believe things that to his mind must have seemed just as impossible . . . I guess it’s a time like this when you’re asked to believe something that just don’t seem possible, that’s the moment that decides whether you’ve got faith in somebody or not.”
- Andy explains why he gave a rich New Yorker a $100 speeding ticket: “You take Mr. Williams here. Just as I’m getting set to fine him $5, he takes out this grrreeeaat big roll of money and he says to me with his nose in the air — and that takes up a mess of sky — he says, ‘All right’ he says, ‘let’s get it over with. How much is it — $5, $10?’ See a little old five or ten dollar bill couldn’t have meant less to Mr. Williams. So I just had to heavy up the price so he’d feel the weight of the law a little bit there.”