It was officially Betty Lynn’s birthday, but Monday seemed to be just as big of an occasion for the throngs of “Mayberry” fans who helped the beloved actress celebrate.
A daylong slate of special activities started with an autograph session at the Andy Griffith Museum which allowed Lynn, who turned 90, to greet a steady stream of well-wishers. They began crowding into the facility early for the activity that had a scheduled 12:30 p.m. start.
“I got here about 10 o’clock,” said one of the first in line to see Lynn, Charlie Bowman of Patrick Springs, Virginia.
This didn’t represent a first for Bowman in terms of meeting the actress who played Thelma Lou on “The Andy Griffith Show,” but Monday’s occasion was big — really big, Bowman indicated.
“I’ve met her a bunch of times,” the Virginia man explained. “But since this is her 90th birthday, I thought I’d come (today).”
Many others had the same idea, including a man from Elkin, Marvin Laster, who like Lynn also was born on Aug. 29, 1926. That distinction earned Laster the privilege of being the first to have an audience with the actress, who as the oldest-living regular cast member of the “Andy Griffith Show” is an important part of television history.
Several area TV stations were represented at the autograph session which by around 1 p.m. had already attracted 100 people. Only 70 at a time could be allowed into the museum for safety reasons, meaning others had to wait outside in the lobby for their chance to stand in line and meet Lynn.
Many more would join their ranks as the three-hour session progressed. “It was several hundred,” said Tanya Jones, the executive director of the Surry Arts Council that organized Monday’s birthday observance.
Lynn was seated at a small table that had a sign identifying her as Mayberry star Betty Lynn, but “Thelma Lou” really needed no introduction.
Once they got their face-to-face time with Lynn, most wished her a happy birthday while also chatting with the actress about the show and having her sign pictures and other items.
One of the more unusual things the retired actress autographed was a mandolin brought by Ben Currin.
“I just moved here last month,” said Currin, who came from the Raleigh-Durham area.
Similar to Betty Lynn, the catalyst for that relocation was the annual Mayberry Days observance held every September in Mount Airy by the Surry Arts Council. Lynn moved to this city in January 2007 after visiting the event and falling in love with the place.
“I started to come to Mayberry Days about 10 or 11 years ago,” said Currin, 66, who grew up watching the long-running show and says Mount Airy — the town Mayberry was patterned after — is similar to that inhabited by Andy, Barney and others.
“In stores and restaurants, they treat you like they’ve known you forever,” he said.
For her part, Lynn seemed to thrive on the crowds who showed up Monday.
“It’s so good to be alive and see everybody,” she was overheard telling one of her many fans.
Later Monday afternoon, Betty Lynn would grow tearful as a special exhibit to her long career in show business was unveiled on the lower level of the Andy Griffith Playhouse beside the museum.
About 50 people jammed into a lobby there, one wall of which was occupied by what appeared to be a large cabinet-like structure temporarily concealed by black cloth.
Many snapped pictures as the covering came down and revealed a space filled with memorabilia, as Lynn dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief.
“I don’t know if I’m going to make it,” the Thelma Lou actress said at one point.
While the items featured in the exhibit came from Lynn’s own collection, Monday marked the first time she had seen them arranged in a display.
“There’s so much to look at,” she said while marveling at the arrangement. It includes such items as photographs, lobby cards from movies she appeared in, a written biography about Lynn, tap shoes she wore, a script from “The Andy Griffith Show” (from the “Cyrano Andy” episode) and even a government-issued pistol Lynn received while overseas in 1944-45 singing to wounded soldiers.
Lynn joked that it seemed as if her entire life was depicted. “Here it all is, in one case.”
That was the intended reaction of those who assembled the display, said Jones, the arts council official.
“We’ve worked so hard to make this exhibit as special as it can be for her.”
Monday’s birthday activities were undertaken to show appreciation for Betty Lynn and what she has meant to local arts and tourism and fans of “The Andy Griffith Show,” to whom she makes herself available on a regular basis.
The day also included a special dinner with Betty Lynn at a local restaurant, The Loaded Goat, which was named for a popular episode from the show. The dinner was a sellout.
“They went fast,” one arts council employee said of reservations for that gathering.
The final event of the day honoring Betty Lynn was a special screening at the Earle Theatre of a 1948 movie she appeared in with Bette Davis called “June Bride.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.