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Whistle if You Love Andy Griffith

As <i>The Andy Griffith Show</i> turns 50, Americans still find comfort in our favorite small-town sheriff.

"Andy had a nice head of hair," says Russell Hiatt." And he was very particular about it."

See also: Bye Now, Andy (An Appreciation)

Russell is the owner and sole barber at Floyd's City Barber Shop in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Andy, of course, is Andy Griffith, 84, who grew up a mile away. Russell speaks softly as he gives me a trim, applying lather to the back of my neck, opening a straightedge razor, and dispatching the hair‚ scritch, scritch, scritch, with a firm and even hand. Russell has been cutting hair for 63 years; he became Andy's barber after the actor graduated from high school.

I look in the mirror and watch half a dozen folks watching me. The barbershop, named after the one in "The Andy Griffith Show," is among the chief  attractions in downtown Mount Airy. During my haircut three white-haired visitors step inside, sit down for five minutes, then quietly leave, evidently having found what they came for. A Maryland family‚ including a lanky teenage boy with braces‚ occupies several chairs. The boy is taking it all in, thrilled to be here. "So you're an Andy Griffith fan," I venture. He seems embarrassed, but smiles and nods. "He owns all 249 episodes," his mother reports in a tone of pride mixed, if I'm not mistaken, with resignation. I ask what he likes about the show. "I guess it's the old-fashioned stuff," he says. "They didn't have any crime." 

I'm here in Mount Airy not for the haircut, but to search for Andy Griffith. Well, not literally‚ I'm told he lives quietly on the North Carolina coast, not far from the summer theater where he made his professional acting debut in 1946. Rather, I'm searching for the spirit of Andy Griffith, which maintains a steady, mystical hold on millions of Americans. Over the past few years Andy's name has topped the list of celebrities AARP readers are most interested in, beating out everyone from Tom Hanks to Colin Powell. TV Land, the MTV-owned cable network known for its classic shows, reports that reruns of  The Andy Griffith Show are among its top three most-watched regularly scheduled programs, drawing 47 percent more viewers than the network average. The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club, an online community of fans, has 1,350 chapters nationwide. All this for a man who makes few public appearances, who doesn't give interviews, and whose trademark series went off the air in 1968.

I was three years old when "The Andy Griffith Show" debuted in October 1960, and 11 when it ended. Like others of my generation, I ran to the television like Pavlov's dog when I heard the theme song's lilting whistle. I was a kid of the New Jersey suburbs, which were far in spirit from small-town North Carolina. Mayberry struck me as unspeakably foreign, like those beach towns of southern California where teens in surfer movies lived. A town of picnic baskets and harmless eccentrics.

Ken Anderson lived in a small town like this. He's the author of Mayberry Reflections, a sort of Monarch Notes to the first four seasons. Ken grew up in Wisconsin and, for him, the show rings true. "We sat on our porch, and we knew every person who walked by," he says. "A lot of towns were like Mayberry. Once my generation is gone‚ and I'm 63‚ that type of life will be gone."

Know more about Mayberry than your own hometown? Try answering these ten fun questions about the show and its stars.

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Which is why so many folks take Exit 100 off I-77 to downtown Mount Airy, Andy Griffith's hometown. The town lacks the visual exactitude of Mayberry‚ the show's exteriors were filmed on a back lot in Culver City—and some of the buildings served as Atlanta in "Gone With the Wind"—but Mount Airy has heartily embraced its role as a real-life Mayberry. In 1989, when Russell Hiatt changed the name of his shop from City Barber Shop to Floyd's, out-of-towners began streaming in for haircuts (more than 700,000 visitors have signed his guest books). This did not escape the notice of other Mount Airy enterprises. I stayed at the Mayberry Motor Inn (formerly the Mount Airy Motel), across from the Colonial Mayberry Mall and Aunt Bee's Barbecue. Walking through downtown, I passed Opie's Candy Store, Mayberry Country Store, Barney's cafe, Mayberry Embroidery, and Snappy Lunch, which opened in 1923 and is the only "Mayberry" business that predates the show. In the seventh episode of the first season, Andy suggests to Barney that they double-date and stop for a bite at Snappy Lunch after the picture show. Travelers have heeded Andy's advice ever since, still lining up today for Snappy's fried-pork-chop-and-coleslaw sandwiches.

The actual town is larger than the fictional one (10,800 Mount Airy residents versus 1,800 in Mayberry), but visitors find an old-fashioned main street with an old-fashioned hardware store that has a potbelly stove. There's a genuine small-town affability here, despite the erosion of small-town life. Over my pork chop sandwich I read an article in the local paper with a Mayberry-like headline: "Retired Schoolteacher Reminisces About 40 Years in the School System." But the content diverged: "Children didn't bring guns to school then," the teacher said. "If they had a problem they would just fight‚ but it's different now." With factories moving overseas, Mount Airy has lost nearly 3,100 textile jobs since 1999. Yet the gap between the "real" Mayberry and the "fictional" Mayberry doesn't concern most visitors. The real Mayberry, after all, isn't found on a map. It's a state of being.

"If I had to give a warmth award, I can't think of who in the history of television would exceed Sheriff Andy Taylor."

This Mayberry spirit extends far beyond Mount Airy. Marsha and Dave Scheuermann own the Taylor Home Inn in Clear Lake, Wisconsin. When I called them, the answering machine clicked on with the show's whistling theme, followed by a sign-off message: "Have a very Mayberry day!" Marsha and Dave met in an online chatroom for Andy Griffith fans, then in person in 1997 when a group of  Internet buddies traveled to Mount Airy for Mayberry Days, an annual September event celebrating all things Andy. Marsha and Dave married soon after. They discussed building a room devoted to Andy Griffith in their new home‚ but then their dream, as dreams will do, got unruly. Why not the whole house? And why not share it with others?

The inn, which opened in 2006, is a meticulous replica of Andy Taylor's TV home. They designed it by watching every episode, some as many as 200 times ("It wasn't bad punishment," Marsha notes). They built a two-foot-square model of Andy's home to work out the details, employing a clever geometry. Knowing that Andy was a little over six feet tall, they used him as a unit of measurement‚ call it a "Griffith," when plotting out room sizes. "My husband is a stickler for details," says Marsha, perhaps unnecessarily.

Within weeks of the inn's opening, thanks to an Associated Press story, Marsha and Dave received some 750 e-mails and 1,000 calls. Guests choose one of three rooms (Andy's, Opie's, or Aunt Bee's) and often wander the house, admiring artifacts that remind them of the show. When they see the elixir bottle on the piano, visitors frequently break into "Toot Toot Tootsie": "That's what Aunt Bee sang when she got tiddly," says Marsha.

"We've had people come in and, honestly, they have wept," Marsha continues. "Everybody wants to get back to Mayberry. It was simpler, it was slower, it was friendlier. The world was not the scary place it is now."

The newly expanded Andy Griffith Museum, which reopened in November 2009, is housed in a Mount Airy building next to the Andy Griffith Playhouse, formerly the elementary school where a young Andy first appeared on stage. Here I meet Emmett Forrest, a retired electric-company administrator who owns most of what's on display. After I admire a seersucker suit worn by Otis, the Mayberry town tippler, and an advertisement for Andy Griffith Country Ham, Emmett steers me to an old black-and-white photo of school kids. He points to himself, then to a fellow with large ears. (That's Andy.) I ask Emmett if Andy was a good student. He thinks for a moment. "Mediocre," Emmett replies. Was Andy popular? "Oh, yeah, but no more popular than anyone else. He was an average young man."

This averageness may be part of Andy's appeal. It's paradoxical—Andy's averageness is vastly above-average. Andy projects averageness the way Bogart projects cool, or Meg Ryan projects a frisky sexiness.

On the show, Andy is the good-hearted uncle we all wish we had, the kindly man who could solve your vexations with quiet wit and efficiency while not drawing undue attention. In Mayberry, Sheriff Taylor rarely made jokes at someone's expense. He had a way of cocking his head upward before delivering any line that had a slightly ironic edge, just to let you know we were all in this together. Andy gathers us in the comfortable middle. Think of it as a Mayberry of the mind.

In the pilot and the early shows, Andy played a comic hayseed sheriff, drawing big laughs. But that quickly changed, says Robert Thompson, Ph. D., a professor of  television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "Andy let Sheriff Taylor become the pillar of normalcy and sanity, and let the jokes go to Barney. That's hard for a star to do." Because of that, Andy emerged as caring and wise. "If I had to give a warmth award," adds Thompson, "I can't think who in the history of television would exceed Sheriff Andy Taylor."

After a ten-minute walk from the museum, I found myself outside Andy's boyhood home, now a B&B owned by the local Hampton Inn. The house is humble and undistinguished, a small brown-and-beige bungalow across the street from a hulking water tower. It is, I would say, a very average home.

Mount Airy manages a neat trick: it's very fake, yet very real. The black-and-white squad cars that take tourists on driving tours are fake, but this is the place that imbued Andy Griffith with the values he enshrined in Mayberry.

Much the same can be said of the man himself. He's acting on screen‚ we all know he's acting‚ but the sincerity seems real. He puts people at ease. "I don't know if he works to do that, but I suspect not," says Marc Fienberg, who directed Andy in the 2008 film "Play the Game." "It's just Andy Griffith‚ someone genuine and straightforward." He's Andy Griffith, starring Andy Griffith. 

The one person I thought could give me insight into Andy Griffith's popularity was, of course, Andy Griffith. I sent him letters, called his manager, and asked several people to intervene on my behalf, to no avail. I gather he's just not much for talking about himself, which shouldn't be a surprise. Volatile stars such as Russell Crowe fascinate us when they burn with a white-hot glow. But then the flames dim and we lose interest. Andy never burned explosively (although he showed he could in his first film, Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd"). His glow is more like a comforting hearth fire.

A phrase often used to describe Andy's popularity is "getting back to Mayberry‚" shorthand for something larger. I spoke to Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou, Barney Fife's girlfriend. Betty grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and lived happily for 50 years in Los Angeles and New York City. She appeared at Mount Airy's Mayberry Days festival a few years ago and found the quiet mountain town appealing. In 2007, in a case of  life-imitating-sitcom, Betty moved into a Mount Airy apartment with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. "It's peaceful and gorgeous and I watch the mountains every day and that makes me happy," she says. "I can thank Andy for that."

Betty suspects that Mayberry's appeal is linked to a restless search for sanctuary in times of foreclosures, terrorism, and, yes, crime: her wallet was recently stolen at a Mount Airy shopping center. "We're all scared to death," she says. "We need some place to hold on to." Andy Griffith and Mayberry offer a solid boulder amid a turbulent river, a person and place where we can recalibrate our lives.

There's an episode from season four in which Andy lets Opie stay out a few extra minutes before bedtime. "Daylight's precious when you're a young'un," he tells Barney. In a harsh world, the light that is Andy grows brighter.

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