Fall 1960. America was changing, and the pace of change was riveting. Throughout the ’60s, for better and for worse, millions of Americans must have felt they were in a different country.
On November 8, 1960, Americans went to the polls to choose a new president. It was a tough, tight race between two men, neither yet 50, seeking the country’s top job in what was considered a critical time in the nation’s history. The Democratic nominee, John F. Kennedy, told Americans that “we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier–the frontier of the ’60s–a frontier of unknown and opportunities and perils–a frontier of unfulfilled hope and threats.”
As Americans voted that day, the candidates could sit back–the campaigning behind them–and await the results. The Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, made the most of his down time. He left the country. Climbing into a white convertible with a military aide and a Secret Service agent, Nixon took the wheel and headed south of Los Angeles. He made a stop in La Habre to see his mother and from there continued southward, along the Pacific coast; the Vice President of the United States was on a joyride. When the military aide mentioned he had never been to Tijuana, that’s all it took. The three men crossed into Mexico and following the suggestion of border agents, lunched on enchiladas and beers at a restaurant named “Old Heidelberg.”
Nixon and crew then headed back to the Ambassador Hotel, near downtown Los Angeles, where the next morning he would learn it was all over, at least for the ’60 campaign. He sent Kennedy a telegram extending his congratulations and best wishes.
JFK’s inauguration on January 20, 1961 didn’t put America’s changes in motion, but it served as a terrific symbol. In his inaugural address, Kennedy acknowledged the new era, proclaiming “the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans.”
In his memoir, Chronicles; Volume One, Bob Dylan took note of the changes America was experiencing in the early ’60s.
America was changing. I had a feeling of destiny and I was riding the changes.
Dylan arrived in New York City shortly after JFK’s election. Recognizing that not only was his country changing, but his consciousness as well, he considered New York City the right place to observe and participate. But change was called for in smaller towns as well: towns such as Greensboro, North Carolina.
Just short of a year prior to Kennedy taking office, the South’s first sit-in took place at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. Four black students from North Carolina A&T College sat in the “Whites Only” chairs and ordered coffee and donuts. The established order took umbrage with the young men, but it couldn’t hold back the changes at hand. On July 26, 1960, less than six months after the four students took their seats, Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counter. In the months ahead, other lunch counters and theatres in town were desegregated.
Less than 75 miles from Greensboro is the town of Mount Airy, North Carolina. Historically, it’s known as the town where Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese Twins, lived and worked their 110-acre farm from 1839 until their deaths on January 17, 1874. Mount Airy is also the birthplace and childhood home of actor Andy Griffith. The setting for The Andy Griffith Show is the fictional Mayberry, North Carolina. Making the connection is easy enough. The people are friendly. The town’s streets are picturesque and the pork chop sandwiches at The Snappy Lunch are as down-home as anything in Mayberry.
Good Times with the Bad . . . The Andy Griffith Show made its debut on October 3, 1960. The show’s appeal, as with classic works in all artistic endeavors, is timeless. In in its first five seasons, when the show was filmed in black and white and featured Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fife, “The Andy Griffith Show” left a cultural imprint. With its terrific writing and superb cast, the show conveyed much about the human condition. The town folk had their foibles but the people of Mayberry generally desired to do right by their neighbors. Nearly sixty years on, The Andy Griffith Show, running daily on a retro channel, continues to attract viewers of all ages. Each generation over the last three decades years wanted to spend time in Mayberry.
A compelling feature of The Andy Griffith Show is that while its setting was a small American town in the ’60s, it reflected little of the real world its millions of viewers experienced or observed. Mayberry, with Sheriff Andy Taylor gently upholding law and order, seemed an oasis of good will. There was an absence of dissent, violence, bigotry and soldiers going to war. The people of Mayberry lived in The Other ’60s, quite removed from America’s anxiety. The life that mattered was lived in Mayberry, where even Raleigh, the state’s capitol, seemed worldly and perhaps a bit decadent. Yes, the same Raleigh that seemed bucolic to New Yorkers, Chicagoans and denizens of other large American cities.
Millions of viewers who first saw episodes of The Andy Griffith Show in the early to mid ’60s were also attracted to the music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Many of them were opposed to the war in Vietnam, supportive of the civil rights movement and causes long associated with the American Left. Bill King, co-publisher of Beatlefan magazine since its founding in 1978, has reported on all things Beatles and enjoyed the opportunities over the years to interview Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. He also interviewed Andy Griffith and other members of the show’s cast in the ’80s when writing for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s TV magazine. Having spoken with Griffith several times, King says he doesn’t think “Griffith and (show producer) Sheldon Leonard set out to make Mayberry a place apart from contemporary America–just a place apart from big city America, as personified by New York City.”
King recalls the Griffith “pilot” episode, aired on The Danny Thomas Show, in which “Danny gets pulled over by Andy for speeding in Mayberry and is amazed by how different everything is there.” Especially at the start, Mayberry was “drawn very broadly,” says King, “and that was moderated as the years passed. I believe it was intentional, however, for the comedy to remain timeless. Andy has said so over the years. Just as he didn’t want (the show) to be about jokes as much as it was about characters, he didn’t want it to be particularly topical. A wise decision. Topical shows don’t age that well. Mayberry is forever.”
Former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor and reporter Jim Auchmutey, alas, never interviewed a Beatle, but he did talk with Andy Griffith. Auchmutey recalls Griffith talking about why there were few black people in Mayberry. Griffith had given the matter some thought and seemed comfortable discussing it.
Griffith, Auchmutey remembers, “first said his hometown of Mount Airy was on the edge of the mountains and was overwhelmingly white (the census showed a black population of less than 10% at the time). Second, he said the network (CBS) wanted them to stay away from anything controversial. In the fall of 1960, when the show debuted, the sit-in movement was getting under way and the most controversial thing about the South was the racial question. The network wanted to avoid it entirely. In the last year of the show, Griffith said the show did have a black character but people don’t remember that very well. They remember the early years, when the show was filmed in black and white, when Mayberry was white.” Auchmutey takes a measured view of the show by saying, “One of the reasons the town seems so timeless is that it’s untethered to the social ferment that was going on at the time. It’s sort of a fond anachronism.”
The final episode of The Andy Griffith Show aired on the evening of April 1, 1968. The show went out on top of the Nielsen ratings for the ’67-’68 season, even as the program’s writing, acting and sensibilities had declined over the past three years. Perhaps American viewers recognized The Andy Griffith Show had lost some steps, but there was still much to love about the “fond anachronism” that was Mayberry.
Things Have Changed . . . Three days after the final episode of The Andy Griffith Show, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Two months and a day later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while walking through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Minutes before, he had proclaimed victory in the California Democratic Presidential Primary. Violence rocked the nation throughout the summer. Exhausted and deeply divided, America went to the polls on November 5. Richard Nixon, again the Republican nominee in another tight race, edged Hubert Humphrey to win the White House.
The times had indeed been changing, in fact for the better where civil rights were concerned; that is until Dr. King was murdered. Yet the war in Vietnam was still being waged. Turbulence prevailed. With peace and love more sloganeering than reality, Americans couldn’t be blamed for seeking their own versions of Mayberry. Bob Dylan, now the devoted family man, was observing the changing times, if not riding them, in Woodstock, New York, roughly a two hour drive upstate from New York City. In the rural outpost, Dylan couldn’t secure the privacy and safety he sought for his family, so as the ’70s dawned, he left Woodstock for Manhattan. The peace and safety of a place like Mayberry is hard, if not impossible, to find. After all, it’s a fictional town.
Ain’t Nothing Doing On TV . . . Living the family life in Manhattan’s famed Dakota co-op apartment building were John Lennon, Yoko Ono and their son, Sean, born on John’s 35th birthday, October 9, 1975. From The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to Masterpiece Theater, Lennon enjoyed a variety of television programs, just as he absorbed books and periodicals on many subjects. So Beatlefan co-publisher Bill King was asked if he thought Lennon ever watched The Andy Griffith Show. Wisely, King says there’s no telling whether Lennon ever saw the program, “though if he had cable, chances are he might have on Ted Turner’s old Superstation.” Bill King has spent many hours at work and play studying both John Lennon and Andy Griffith. He found the idea of Lennon taking in the adventures from Mayberry most appealing. “I like to think, ” King said, “if he actually watched it, that he would have appreciated the relationships on the show, particularly between Andy and Opie, which to my mind is still the best father-son portrayal I’ve ever seen. Andy wasn’t the typical bumbling father of ’60s sitcoms and Opie was far from the typical sitcom brat. Those characters felt real and the love between them was undeniable. I know grown men, myself included, who still choke up whenever they see the scene where Andy tries to prepare Opie for a confrontation with a bully. I think Lennon appreciated quality work and The Andy Griffith Show was certainly that.” The observations by Bill King are spot-on. In fact, one can easily imagine Andy telling Opie, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”