The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Destination Guide: Mt. Airy, NC–The “Real” Mayberry

I reluctantly admit to being old enough to remember "The Andy Griffith Show" in first run. It was one of the family's "never miss" shows back in the '60s.

So it was like a trip back to childhood days when I recently found myself walking the streets of Mt. Airy, North Carolina -- the "real" Mayberry.

Located at the foot of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, Mt. Airy was the birthplace of actor Andy Griffith, who drew heavily on his boyhood roots in creating the fictional All-American small town of Mayberry. A little known fact: Mayberry was actually created for an episode of "The Danny Thomas Show," in which Thomas's character was stopped for speeding by Griffith's small town sheriff, who was also the justice of the peace and the editor of the town newspaper.

Mt. Airy has certainly embraced its "inner Mayberry." A stroll down Main Street reveals the word "Mayberry" in nearly every window. This almost makes it easy to forget the town's real name. Mt. Airy bills itself as "the Friendly City," and that certainly is the case. Locals don't seem to mind at all that their city -- with its rich Civil War history, its distinction as the location of the "World's Largest Open-Faced Granite Quarry," its fine local wineries and its idyllic natural beauty -- has become forever identified with the fictional setting of a TV show. From what I could see, they mine it for all it's worth.

Of course, the town has changed since its most famous resident was born there in 1926. But the flavor of the era frozen in time by Griffith's perennially popular program is still prevalent. And that natural sense of being displaced in time is enhanced by some deliberate manipulations. Hey! Was that Sheriff Andy's patrol car that just went by? Actually, it's a replica of the 1962 Ford Galaxy police cruiser that Andy and Barney rode around in. You can ride around in it, too. Squad Car tours of the town are available.

The vintage movie theater had some vintage cars parked in front of it as I walked by, drawn by the sounds of Bluegrass music emanating from within the building. It seems that radio station WPAQ broadcasts its "Merry-Go-Round" from the historic Downtown Cinema Theatre -- where Andy used to go to watch the live swing bands play -- every Saturday morning. I was wondering about all the people I saw on the streets carrying guitar cases. There's a jam session at the theater an hour or two before airtime.

In fact, music -- Bluegrass music in particular -- is a big part of Mt. Airy's culture. Bluegrass legend Tommy Jarrell called Mt. Airy home. The annual Tommy Jarrell Festival was going on the weekend I was there. Country singer Donna Fargo is another native of Mayberry ... er...I mean, Mt. Airy. And there's a weekly free jam session at the Andy Griffith Playhouse as well as an annual fiddler's contest.

Since I didn't really need a haircut, I just picked up a souvenir shot glass at Floyd's City Barbershop -- "2 Chairs - No Waiting" -- and looked over the "Wall of Fame." Look! There's a picture of actor George Lindsay getting his hair cut. Well, you'd expect to find Goober at Floyd's, right? But, wait a minute. Isn't that Oprah Winfrey? And since when did the Incredible Hulk start worrying about personal grooming? I guess actor Lou Ferrigno is more perspicacious about such things.

Way back on November 14, 1960, in "Andy the Matchmaker," the seventh broadcast episode of the series, Andy suggested to Barney that they head over to the Snappy Lunch for a bite to eat. Whereas Floyd's is a business established to "theme in" with the surroundings, Snappy Lunch is for real. Established in 1923, Andy Griffith really did eat there when he was a kid. Probably had a few pork chop sandwiches -- the restaurant's signature offering. It was a little too early for lunch, but my wife thought her pork chop biscuit was just wonderful. And I thoroughly enjoyed my bacon and eggs. Hmmmm....I wonder if one of my restaurant reviews is in order? Oh, and it looks like George, Oprah and Lou ate here, too.

There are lots of neat places to eat in downtown Mayberry ... er, I mean, Mt. Airy. Now, Snappy Lunch is the only real deal, but you might want to try the Blue Bird Diner or Barney's or one of the other "theme" places. But if you don't put ary another thing in your mouth ... now I'm channeling Andy ... while you're downtown, you've GOT to stop by the Mayberry Soda Fountain! It's a rocket back to the '50s and I don't remember the last time I had a better chocolate malt! It's not far from Opie's Candy Store, but after breakfast at the Snappy Lunch and ice cream at the Mayberry Soda Fountain, who had room for candy?

We visited at least a dozen quaint little gift, antique and specialty shops, winding up at the corner of Main and Oak at the three-story Main Oak Emporium. LOTS of Mayberry memorabilia -- and some other pretty neat stuff, too.

Short on time, we didn't make it to Andy Griffith's Homeplace at 711 E. Haymore Street. Similarly, we couldn't do the appointment only Aunt Bee's Room -- filled with mementos and personal possessions of the late Frances Bavier -- at the Mayberry Motor Inn. We did a drive-by of Wally's Service Station -- a restored 1937 vintage service station -- and the Old City Jail, where the locals have recreated Mayberry's "Courthouse" setting in the actual old city jail. Oh, and we saw Emmett's truck. Didn't notice what was playing at the Bright Leaf Drive-In, but it's open year 'round, so, maybe next time.

We paused from our immersion in Mayberry to appreciate the gorgeous local scenery. We were there in the early spring and I am definitely planning a return in the fall. With a camera and a lot more time. Hanging Rock and Stone Mountain state parks are nearby, as is the fabulous Blue Ridge Parkway. And that bumpy-looking mountain over there? That's Pilot Mountain, at the center of Pilot Mountain State Park and the inspiration for Mayberry's neighboring town of Mt. Pilot.

We ended our day at the Andy Griffith Playhouse. Located at 218 Rockford Street, it's the former Rockford Street School, where Andy Griffith attended elementary school and did his earliest stage work. Now a theater and arts center, it's the current home of the World's Largest Andy Griffith Collection -- although I understand that the collection moves around. It used to be at the Main Oak Emporium. But do look for it when you visit. It's definitely worth the time.

As we walked to the Playhouse, we passed by the current real-life Mt. Airy Police Department. I wonder if any drunked-up idiot has ever actually gone in there and yelled, "Citizen's arrest! Citizen's arrest!" I'm sure you have to have a great sense of humor to be a cop in "Mayberry."

Before leaving this wonderful town-within-a-town, we knew we had to do "the statue." It's the ultimate photo op. Back on the occasion of the Fifteenth Annual Mayberry Days Festival, retro network TV Land erected a bronze statue to honor the contribution of "The Andy Griffith Show" to American television and to American culture. The statue depicts Andy and Opie walking to the "ol' fishin' hole." It's a replica of the statue the network erected in North Carolina's capital at Raleigh -- the only time, by the way, that TV Land has duplicated one of its statues. The story goes that it was done at Griffith's insistence. Just stand still and you'll hear that iconic theme song in your head.

At the dedication ceremony for the statue, TV Land President Larry W. Jones said, “Mayberry is a state of mind that represents the very best of southern living – friendly, unpretentious, compassionate, fun-loving, decent and solid." Those same qualities most assuredly resonate in Mayberry's real-life counterpart.

For information on visiting Mt. Airy, contact:

Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce & Mount Airy Visitors Center
P.O. Box 913
200 North Main Street
Mount Airy, North Carolina 27030-0913
Phone: 1-800-948-0949 or 336-786-6116

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