|‘Thelma Lou’ moves to Andy Griffith’s hometown |
|MOUNT AIRY, N.C. (AP) — On the drive home from the Los Angeles airport, there was a particular billboard along La Cienega Boulevard that always gave Betty Lynn a chuckle. “This Ain’t Mayberry!” it declared. |
As if she needed a reminder of that fact, the West Hollywood home where Lynn had lived since 1950 was broken into twice last year.
“That made it for me,” the 81-year-old actress says. “I just was too frightened to stay. So I thought, I’ve got to find some place I feel SAFE.”
When she reflected on what safe meant to her — and what “home” meant, for that matter — one place stood out.
And life imitated art.
The woman who played Thelma Lou on “The Andy Griffith Show” moved more than 2,100 miles to Mount Airy — Griffith’s hometown and one of the inspirations for the fictional Mayberry.
Lynn knows this ain’t Mayberry either. It never existed, really.
She figures this picturesque town in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains is about as close to Mayberry as she’s going to get. In this life, anyway.
“There’s NO place like it, unless it’s heaven,” she says over a lunch of hot coffee and a hamburger with onions at a local country club.
Despite a career that spanned more than a half century and saw her starring opposite such luminaries as Bette Davis and Natalie Wood, Lynn remains best known for her turn as Deputy Barney Fife’s steady girl.
Though she was in just 25 episodes and made her final appearance 41 years ago, Lynn continues to be adored by legions of Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club members and sought after by nostalgia seekers. Like other veterans of a show whose scripts have been used in college courses and Sunday school lessons, she has basked in Mayberry’s benign afterglow.
Nowhere does that reflected light shine brighter than in Mount Airy.
Griffith has long insisted that Mayberry wasn’t based on his hometown, despite references to real Mount Airy people, businesses — like the Snappy Lunch, which still serves a mean pork-chop sandwich on Main Street — and local landmarks like Pilot Mountain. But don’t bother telling that to the chamber of commerce.
Check local phone listings and you’ll find no fewer than three dozen businesses with “Mayberry” in their names. There’s Mayberry on Main, the Mayberry Five & Dime, a Mayberry Kountry Kitchen — even a Mayberry Septic Pumping Service.
And if THAT don’t beat ever’thang, there’s Floyd’s City Barbershop, right next door to Opie’s Candy Store, Aunt Bea’s Garden (note the scrupulous avoidance of the proper spelling, “Aunt Bee”), Wally’s Service, Goober’s restaurant, Thelma Lou’s Puppy Parlor, not to mention the many “Andy’s” this-n-thats.
Griffith rarely makes an appearance here these days. But walk along the picture-perfect Main Street lined with late 19th- and early 20th-century brick storefronts, and loudspeakers playing vintage Griffith comedy sketches fill the air with his unmistakable homespun twang.
For Betty Ann Lynn, the road to Mayberry was a roundabout one.
The daughter of a trained singer, she began acting on radio and fine-tuning her lyric soprano voice in supper clubs at age 14 in her native Kansas City, Mo. At 18, Lynn signed up for the USO Camp Shows and entertained troops in the China-Burma-India theater in the final months of World War II.
After the war, she was “discovered” in a Broadway production of “Park Avenue” and signed by Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox.
With her freckles and bright-red hair, she was cast in a series of girl-next-door roles. Even acid-quilled Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper couldn’t find anything nasty to write about “the cute redhead.”
“Remember Betty Lynn, bobby-sox baby sitter in ‘Sitting Pretty’?” Hopper wrote in a June 1948 “Looking at Hollywood” column. “She is playing the same sort of role with Bette Davis in ‘June Bride.’ Betty had to get a high school technical adviser to show her how to blow bubble gum.”
Studio propaganda, Lynn says.
Over the next decade, she played a series of daughters: Loretta Young’s in “Mother is a Freshman”; Fred MacMurray and Maureen O’Hara’s in “Father was a Fullback”; Clifton Webb’s oldest in “Cheaper by the Dozen.”
She was on hiatus from Disney’s “Texas John Slaughter” TV show when she got the call to read for the part of Don Knotts’ girlfriend. Disney dropped the Western series, but Barney turned out to be a steady date.
Lynn was paid $250 a day, or about $500 an episode. When she had her agent ask for a $50 raise, she was told, “We can replace you.”
“I told Don about it, and he said, ‘They wouldn’t have done that. They wouldn’t have let you go,”’ she remembers. But Barney had already gone through two girlfriends, and Lynn didn’t want to risk it.
When Knotts left the show in 1966 to pursue a film career, producers offered to give Thelma Lou a hairdressing salon and another story line.
Without Barney, she says, “I didn’t think Thelma Lou made much sense.” So after five years, she left Mayberry.
Lynn went on to play a series of small, dead-end parts — including Griffith’s secretary in five episodes of “Matlock.”
In 1990, she played her final dramatic role — as a nun in the short-lived police series “Shades of LA.”
To devotees of the Griffith Show, Lynn was always a star.
Since 2001, Lynn has been coming to the Mayberry Days festival. The first time, the grueling routine of stage appearances and autograph sessions left her exhausted.
For the last few years, Tanya Jones of the Surry Arts Council has brought Lynn in a little early and kept her over a week or two to recuperate. Lynn loved the place, but it wasn’t until last year that the thought of staying crossed her mind.
She was at Mayberry Days last September when her house was broken into for the second time in less than four months. Too afraid to return home, she lived in Hollywood hotels for several months, wondering what she should do.
Relatives asked her to come live in Tulsa, Okla., but she couldn’t bear the thought of winters there. She looked into the Motion Picture Home, an industry retirement community, but decided it was too expensive for a place “where you get one room.”
As she sat in her hotel room, her mind kept wandering back to Mount Airy and the Blue Ridge.
“That view is what really took me,” she says. “I kept thinking of all those trees and those mountains.”
Jones put Lynn in touch with a lawyer, and earlier this year, the actress traded her three-bedroom, two-bath Spanish-style home for four rooms in the RidgeCrest retirement community.
She hopes people don’t think she came to Mount Airy to capitalize on the Griffith Show’s fame. One thing seems clear: She’s a bigger star here than she ever was in Hollywood.
As Lynn mounts the sidewalk in front of Barney’s Cafe on a recent afternoon, a pickup truck rolls to a halt — right there in the middle of Main Street.
“Miss Betty!” a woman shouts out the window. “Did they let you out?”
Slightly stooped, her red hair streaked with gray but her chestnut eyes as twinkly as ever, “Thelma Lou” can still stop traffic.
Later, Lynn visits the nearby Andy Griffith Playhouse, where a bronze statue of Andy and Opie (Ron Howard) immortalizes the show’s signature fishing hole opening.
Pat Pendleton of Rockport, Maine, is sitting in a rocker in the arcade out front as Lynn emerges. When Pendleton finds out who the lady in red is, she stands and moves in for a hug.
“I feel like I know you,” Pendleton says as she embraces Lynn.
A chat ensues. Pendleton comes away with a snapshot, Lynn with an invitation to Maine.
“I loved that show,” the star-struck Pendleton says afterward. “She is as sweet as she was on there.”
Some people assume that they can get to Griffith through Lynn, but they are mistaken. She hasn’t seen or spoken to him since Knotts’ memorial service early last year.
“I would never intrude on his life,” she says.
Lynn misses the Hollywood amenities, particularly the restaurants. But after years of painting her own rooms and mowing her own lawn, there are trade-offs.
She has maid service once a week and can have meals brought up to her suite for $2. And she has something she never had in her Hollywood home: air conditioning.
“It’s very rewarding to see Betty happy,” Jones says.
“I AM happy,” Lynn assures her.
Nine months after the move, Lynn’s spare bedroom is still piled high with boxes of photographs, scripts and other memorabilia. Just about every piece of furniture in the apartment is on loan from a friend or fan, including the wing-backed chair from which she gazes on her beloved mountains.
Thelma Lou and Barney were eventually hitched during the 1986 two-hour reunion special, “Return to Mayberry.” Lynn never married — partly because she was always caring for an aged or infirm relative.
Upon her arrival in Hollywood nearly 60 years ago, a studio publicity specialist sat down to interview Lynn.
When the woman asked why Lynn wanted to be an actor, her reply was: “I want everybody to love me.”
For now, she just hopes she’s not a disappointment to Mount Airy.
“I’m not Thelma Lou,” she says. “It’s just old me and that’s it. Plain old Betty.”
Published in The Messenger on 10.08.07