The woman who moved from Mayberry to Mount Airy
Betty Lynn, who died this weekend, played an Andy Griffith Show character named Thelma Lou. Then she moved to the town the show is based on, where the line between fiction and reality gets blurry.
Betty Lynn never signed a contract to play the role that would follow her for the rest of her life. Instead, she told me, the producers would just call whenever they needed her. They’d ask her to block off four days on her schedule, during which she’d show up on the set of The Andy Griffith Show and be Thelma Lou, Barney Fife’s girlfriend.
This happened 26 times between 1961 and 1966. She also returned for the 1986 made-for-TV movie “Return to Mayberry,” in which Thelma and Barney get married. After that, her character went dormant for a while.
Then, in 2007, Betty Lynn moved to Mount Airy. Andy Griffith’s hometown. The place that provided the inspiration for the show. It was then that Thelma Lou came to life. Real life. In a town that’s trying to play the town it’s portrayed as on TV.
Betty Lynn died this weekend. She was 95. I interviewed her two years ago for my podcast, Away Message, because a listener posed an intriguing question: How do outsiders see North Carolina? He was asking me because I’m originally from Ohio, but my only recollection was that I thought it might sort of resemble The Andy Griffith Show, the only piece of North Carolina-ish popular culture that had seeped into my childhood. I didn’t feel like I had much to say about the subject. Then I started to think of who might, and that’s when I got in touch with Betty Lynn.
Tanya Jones, who runs the Surry Arts Council, arranged a phone call. We didn’t talk for very long, but Betty was lovely and kind. You can listen to our conversation in this very short podcast episode:
Betty told me a couple of things that she’d told others. She didn’t know much about North Carolina when she was making the show. She wasn’t aware, to Andy Griffith’s slight frustration, that North Carolina even had mountains. She never made all that much money off of playing Thelma Lou. She’d come to the Mayberry Days festival a few times over the years. But after her home in Los Angeles was broken into, Jones encouraged her to move to Mount Airy. Betty rented at first, then decided to live there full time. She made a point of how much she loved it in Mount Airy. The proof, Betty said, was in the fact that she’d stayed for more than a decade.
I’ve been to Mount Airy a few times. As an outsider, it reminds me of (stay with me here) St. Patrick’s Day. That day honors the man who—metaphorically—drove the snakes out of Ireland. But it’s a holiday celebrated most exuberantly by Irish Americans. In Ireland itself, March 17th was once solemn and religious. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Ireland repealed a law that kept pubs in that country CLOSED on that day. Then, in 1995, Ireland’s tourism folks decided to embrace not what St. Patrick’s Day was, but rather what people thought it should be, with the green beer and shamrocks and Erin Go Bragh and all of that. Hence, Ireland concocted a tradition based not on, well, actual tradition, but rather the tradition that people thought Ireland ought to have. Tourists, Maeve Binchy observed twenty years ago, “come looking for an Ireland that does not exist.”
It’s all a bit meta, but that’s sort of what Mount Airy has done too. The first Mayberry Days festival was held in 1990. Since then, the town has remade itself into a destination for Andy Griffith tourists. The Snappy Lunch, where you can get a pork chop sandwich, bills itself as the only Mount Airy business mentioned by name on the show. There were, I observed on one visit, more fake 1960s sheriff’s cruisers on the road than real ones. There is now an Andy Griffith Museum, where Betty Lynn made regular appearances. City Barber Shop, which was supposedly the inspiration for Floyd’s Barber Shop, changed its name to Floyd’s. Russell Hiatt, who’d owned the place for 70 years, made appearances long after he’d stopped cutting hair. People came in, asking for a picture with Floyd. So, Russell was Floyd.
This happens because people project their version of Mayberry onto Mount Airy, a town that is happy to help visitors suspend their disbelief. “This is our industry. That’s what people do,” says Sara Pequeño, a columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer who grew up in Mount Airy. The rise in her town’s Mayberry-Industrial Complex began with the decline of the textile industry. “I’m not going to say it’s not weird, but you latch on to whatever makes your town money and keeps people there.” Mayberry Days is a very big deal in town, a multi-day, cosplaying, down-homey celebration of the show. It brings in a lot of money. The Surry Arts Council, which runs it along with the Andy Griffith Museum, puts that money back into the local arts scene, which includes theaters and playhouses.
This supply of Mayberry-tinged nostalgia is there because there is a demand for it, one that every so often attracts the curiosity of the national media. Most recently, Ted Koppel came to town a few months back for a feature that ran on CBS Sunday Morning. He started by seeing the sights, noting, at one point, that the actual strife of American life during the early 1960s never intruded into the show. During its six season run, there was only one Black character who had a speaking part, and he only appeared in one episode. “Mayberry is where more than 30 million Americans a week went to escape reality,” Koppel said, “which is why it's strange to find so many people half a century later searching for what made America great in a copy of a town that never was.”
Later in the story, Koppel asks people who are getting a Mayberry-themed tour on a trolley (people, Pequeño thinks, were tourists and not locals) what they think of our current politics. Everything devolves from there. There’s talk of a stolen election, of false flag operations behind the January 6th attack on the Capitol, the fake news, and so on. At the end of the story, a man on the trolley speaks up:
A fourth man asked, "Mr. Koppel, can I say something? This conversation about politics and division is what people come here to get away from. We don't care what color you are. We don't even care what your politics are. We just want to be good neighbors and treat everybody alike. And that's why they're coming here."
The Barney Fife impersonator added, "That's what America should be."
Betty Lynn is shown only for a brief moment in the story.
In some ways, Betty Lynn had the relationship with Mount Airy that some folks wished Andy Griffith would have had. Griffith mostly stayed away from town, coming back late in his life to dedicate a statue and a stretch of U.S. 52 named in his honor. Days after his death, a columnist for the Mount Airy News put it bluntly. “Griffith basically built a wall between himself and the real-life Mayberry,” Tom Joyce wrote in 2012, upset that Griffith spent most of his time in Manteo, the place where he acted in The Lost Colony as a young man. “Wouldn’t it have been great to go uptown and see Andy Griffith nonchalantly eating lunch somewhere, as we do at times with Betty Lynn, a co-star on the show who played Thelma Lou?”
I’ve written about Mount Airy a few times, partly because it’s a curious place, partly because there’s an Andy Griffith Show storyline for everything (Pequeño and I each wrote a story about a season two episode about, for real, vaccine hesitancy!), and partly because, to be honest, people tended to click on and read those stories. But the facade that the very real Mount Airy puts up to resemble the very fictional Mayberry has always felt, I don’t know, kind of weird. Not nefarious, really. Not disingenuous. But … just weird. “It’s something that’s weird for us too,” Pequeño told me. “The Betty Lynn thing is a really good example. People knew her as Thelma Lou, but she had a life the other six days a week that she wasn’t at the museum. Mount Airy puts on a good show when it needs to, but the rest of the time it’s ordinary people living their lives.”
It always felt, to me anyway, that a lot of people really wanted Mount Airy to have a human connection to Mayberry. More than anything, I wanted to know if that blurred the lines for Betty Lynn. So, I asked her:
JEREMY: Mayberry, North Carolina wasn’t a real place, but it was based on ideas from a real place. And now you are in the place that Mayberry was based on…
JEREMY: And I just wonder if you ever think about that situation sometimes. Where you sit back and think, like, “I’ve come to inhabit the place that I inhabited when I was on television.” [Does that feel] surreal at times? Like you have to kind of remember what part’s real and what part’s not?
BETTY: I cried when I was no longer on the show and I was no longer Thelma Lou, because I really loved being Thelma Lou. Who knew that years later, I’d be here in Mount Airy being Thelma Lou again after all these years? And people all think of me as Thelma Lou. When I first came, I’d go the grocery store or the drug store, and people would say “Are you Thelma Lou?” I’d say “Yes I am!” And they’d hug me, ruffle my hair, push me around. (Laughs) People thought they kind of owned me, you know? It was really funny.
In our talk, she said she saw her role, one that evolved from fiction to reality, as a role that she was happy to embrace. “A lot of people do believe a lot of television. Especially when it’s good. Ours was good,” she told me. “We had a darn good show.”
I wish we’d gotten to talk more. Betty seemed, by all accounts, to be a lovely woman who was treated well by a town that came to embrace her. She received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine in 2016. She kept on making appearances at the Andy Griffith Museum up until the pandemic began. “I love it very much,” she told me of Mount Airy. “It’s beautiful here.” She’ll be laid to rest in Culver City, California, just a few miles from the back lot where she once filmed The Andy Griffith Show.