Historian and Author Tom Perry's thoughts on history and anything that comes to mind.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Andy Griffith and Mount Airy


If you grew up anywhere near Mount Airy, North Carolina, you could not escape Andy Griffith. If you grew up as a baby boomer watching television, you could not escape Andy Griffith. Most people have a choice about him, love him or hate him, but you cannot deny that he is part of our lives.

He is also part of our economy. Just drive down Main Street in Mount Airy and there is hardly an empty storefront. Contrast that with Martinsville about an hour away that does not have the tourist draw that is A N DY Y as Emmett Forrest, Andy’s boyhood friend and the man who collected most of the material in the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy, likes to say.
Last Christmas I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had surgery on February 15. Dealing with the cancer, thoughts of mortality, the physical condition it causes for a man such as bladder control and ED, leads to depression and I fought that. I needed something to bring me out of the dark and get me writing again. I struggled with history projects that usually I dive into, but then one day I ran into Emmett Forrest on Main Street. He too is fighting illness and he said to me that it was like jumping off a ten story building. Someone asks you about the seventh floor of the fall how you are doing. Emmett answered, “Well, so far the ride has been pretty good.” I marveled at his positive attitude and as I always did, I asked him if he had spoken to “Mr. Griffith” lately. I never called him Andy because I did not know him. Emmett told me about their conversation. A month or so later Andy Griffith died on July 3, 2012.

I had written and toyed with the idea of writing about Andy Griffith, but I did not want to write about The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS). I wanted to write about Andy Griffith and Mount Airy, North Carolina, where we were both born. In fact, I was born about a month after TAGS premiered on CBS just down the street from the house Andy grew up. I began to explore the common experiences and the different Mount Airys we both knew.

I began to watch episodes. I began to watch movies Andy Griffith starred in thanks to Netflix. I was surprised at how good a dramatic actor he was. I went to Goldsboro and found the house he and his first wife, Barbara, lived in along with the high school he taught music. I found his dorm at UNC-Chapel Hill and read some of his papers in the Wilson Library. I went through huge files at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History and I read many articles online with interviews.

I began to write. I found my voice again. I think the reason was that I was laughing so much at the man from Mount Airy. If there is anything funnier in television history than the TAGS when Don Knotts was on it, I have never seen it. I have always thought that after Knotts left Andy Griffith seemed bored. He was bored and eventually left for other challenges and he struggled, but he left us some of the best comedy on the small screen.

So, I have a book that is written as things happened with his death and the day after July 4, 2012, when Donna Fargo came to town to be Grand Marshall for the parade. There is no more professional and classy woman that I have ever met.  When introduced at the museum, she talked about Andy. Before she had asked me how I was feeling, as she knew I was sick. She has MS, but she will not leave until everyone that wants to see her or get her autograph gets there time with the “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA.”

I usually write about things long after they happen, but this was an opportunity to catch Mount Airy on the day it’s most famous son died and the day after when it’s most famous daughter came home. I walked over to the statue of Andy and Opie headed to the fishing hole and found Patricia Comire and her teenage son, Benjamin. She says her family calls her a “Helen looking for an Andy,” but she likes Ernest T. Bass, so she likes a man on the edge too.  People often talk about the “Mayberry Thing” dying away, but Benjamin reminded me that day there are many in the younger generation that still love TAGS.  He knew all about it and talked and talked.

I think many times that there is much envy and jealousy aimed at Andy, but to wish for the “Mayberry Thing” to go away is to wish for Mount Airy’s downtown to lose the economic prosperity it now enjoys and I am against that way of thinking. You might be against the silliness or the greed that it engenders, but do not forget that Andy Griffith gave many of us pure joy in the laughter and entertainment he produced over six decades from standup comedy to Broadway to movies to television to musical recordings, the only thing he ever received awards.

This book is part biography of the man and part memoir of the town we both grew up with and in. If you are looking for negative stories about him, there are not many because no one would go on record and hearsay does not interest me. What I found was a man who did not suffer fools and who was very serious about his craft. He never left Mount Airy. He took with him and shared it with the world and he put it on the map. There is only one person from Mount Airy, North Carolina, to have a Presidential Medal of Freedom and we should be proud of him.

Andy Griffith was not Andy Taylor. I think his father Carl Griffith was Andy Taylor. Described as “the funniest man I ever met” by Andy’s first wife, Carl Griffith was the inspiration for his son. This book is also a little about my father, who grew up the son of mill workers in Mount Airy. In 1966, Erie Perry and Andy Griffith found themselves in line together at the Hospital Pharmacy just a block from Andy’s parent’s home and across the street from where I was born. When I asked my father what he said to Andy, he said nothing because he was so shocked to see him. When I asked my father what Andy said to him like Mark Twain my father, who tells the ladies he is still “Erie-sistible” said Andy was so shocked to see him, he didn’t say anything either. Such is life living in the town that produced two legends in their own time.
For Release September 12, 2012

Laurel Hill Publishing LLC is pleased to announce the publication of 35th book from the regional history press. Beyond Mayberry: A Memoir of Andy Griffith and Mount Airy North Carolina by Thomas D. Perry will ... be available exclusively at Mayberry on Main on Main Street in Mount Airy, North Carolina through Mayberry Days on Saturday, September 29.

Historian and Author Thomas D. “Tom” Perry will be at Mayberry on Main for Book Signings of Beyond Mayberry Wednesday September 26 10 to 2, Thursday September 27 10 to 2 and Friday September 28 10 to 2 at Mayberry on Main, Main Street, Mount Airy NC during Mayberry Days.

The book is also available online at Laurel Hill Publishing LLC’s website www.freestateofpatrick.com. The cost is $19.99.

The book is part biography of Andy Griffith and part memoirs of the town of Mount Airy pointing out the connections between the town and it’s most famous son beginning on the day of his death of July 3, 2012. Perry also discusses his own life in the town and his thoughts about the tourism that keeps the downtown so vibrant.

Perry wrote the book while recovering from prostate cancer surgery. Looking for a project to get back into the swing of writing, he found the laughter of The Andy Griffith Show to be just what he needed. He watched all Andy Griffith’s performances available and based the books on published sources. He observed the events of Griffith’s death and the next day July 4, 2012, which was Donna Fargo Day in Mount Airy as the favorite daughter was in town to be Grand Marshall of the July 4 Parade.

Thomas D. Perry is the author, editor or publisher of over 35 books on regional history. Holding a BA in History from Virginia Tech where he studied under Civil War Authority James I. Robertson, Jr., Perry started the effort to preserve J. E. B. Stuart’s Birthplace just outside Mount Airy in Patrick County, Virginia. Perry is an award-winning historian, who recently raised over $200K to expand the Bassett Historical Center and worked with the Martinsville Virginia Heritage Center and Museum on a groundbreaking exhibit on the Vietnam War titled “Never Forget.”

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