On a sunny Sunday morning just a few streets over from his childhood home and within slingshot-distance of a playhouse named for him, hundreds of people filled a hillside to honor Andy Griffith.
Just as crowds had weathered heavy rains to attend the Mayberry Days Parade on Saturday, they braved cool temperatures on the final day of the annual celebration to pay tribute to the man whose “creative environment” made it all possible.
The event combined the reverence of a funeral service with the uplifting spirit of an old-fashioned revival, as the air surrounding Blackmon Amphitheatre became liberally filled with praise for Griffith as well as the sounds of gospel music he loved.
As Mayberry celebrities watched from onstage, a crowd city police estimated at 500 seemed hinged on every word while jamming the amphitheatre’s seating area and adjoining lawn.
The Music Of Griffith
Vessels of Clay, a local group, delivered such favorites as “How Great Thou Art” and “The Church in the Wildwood,” while acclaimed singer Robbie Britt rendered “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”
During a significant musical prelude for the tribute to the Mount Airy native who died on July 3 at age 86, the Grace Moravian Church Band set the tone with several instrumental selections. These included “Rock of Ages” and “Just as I Am.”
Griffith was a member of that band as a youth, and two horns placed conspicuously on the amphitheatre stage provided reminders of that link. The multi-talented Griffith had played one of the instruments, and he and wife Cindi donated the other to the group years later.
The impact Andy Griffith had on others — including legions of Mayberry fans — also took center stage during the tribute.
Retired actress and local resident Betty Lynn was among those offering comments about Griffith, including her thankfulness for a conversation they had about a month before his death. It would be their last.
“Anyway, we talked a little while,” Lynn said of what transpired on June 1 when she called Griffith on his birthday.
It included “commiserating” about their respective infirmities of age — “what hurt and what didn’t,” joked the actress known for her role as Thelma Lou.
“And finally, we told each other how much we loved each other,” she said. “And that was the last time we talked, and I am so glad we did.”
Lynn also read comments sent by Rance Howard, father of Ron Howard (Opie) and Clint Howard (Leon, the boy with the peanut butter sandwich), which were specially prepared for the tribute.
The elder Howard praised the positive impact Griffith had on his family, including giving Ron the opportunity to experience the atmosphere of a place called Mayberry. While working on a TV show can be demanding, Griffith always put Ron’s welfare first, his father’s statement continued.
“Andy was an excellent role-model — the guardian of good taste and good humor,” Rance Howard further wrote. Griffith’s goal with the show was to have people laugh with the cast and not at them, he said.
One of the many praiseworthy gestures by Griffith, Howard added, was flying from his home in North Carolina to California to speak at the memorial service for his wife Jean, even though Griffith was recovering from a heart attack.
Another memorable part of the tribute was the playing of a recorded message from Ron Howard. He asked an official of the Surry Arts Council, the Mayberry Days sponsor, for such an opportunity after learning that the comments had been solicited from his father.
Ron Howard said he learned much about the craft of film-making from working on the TV series based in fictional Mayberry.
“I’ll always be grateful for the creative environment he established on the set of ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’” said Howard, now an A-list Hollywood director and Academy Award winner. Even at age 6, he was comfortable and felt encouraged to learn, according to the recorded comments.
“I learned how much care had to go into a program if it was going to be truly worthy of an audience’s time.”
While Griffith appreciated the value of dedication and accomplishment, he was able to balance that with humility and the enjoyment of working with people he loved, Ron Howard also said.
“Like so many others, I’m going to miss Andy — I appreciate it,” his comments concluded.
After being played the first time, Alan Connolly — the president of the Surry Arts Council Board of Directors, who served as master of ceremonies — asked that they be presented again.
Sunday’s tribute closed with Britt delivering The Lord’s Prayer and Vessels of Clay performing “Will the Circle be Unbroken” as the audience sang along while standing and holding hands.
“Glad To Be A Part”
Tribute organizers and Mayberry fans alike said they were pleased with the turnout, and the dignity, of the event.
“I was glad to be a part of it,” said Connolly, the Arts Council board president.
The crowd size was “outstanding,” he said. “And everybody was really into it.”
That included fans who traveled from both near and far.
Despite being confined to a power chair, Charles Guthrie of Holly Ridge, near Wilmington, was determined to negotiate hilly terrain to reach the amphitheatre, as did others in wheelchairs. Guthrie, who attended Mayberry Days with his wife Monica, wanted to pay his respects both to Griffith and his groundbreaking TV series.
“It’s a good show. It’s an awesome-good show,” Guthrie said. “I watch it every time it comes on in reruns.”
Ken Dudney of Dublin, Ga., stood out in the crowd due to wearing a brown sheriff’s uniform shirt similar to what Andy Taylor donned on the show.
Dudney said he actually had worked with Griffith on his “Matlock” series when it was shot in Wilmington, playing a law enforcement officer, and had deep respect for the man and his art.
“I loved it,” the Georgia resident said of the tribute, adding that he thought it was an appropriate way to honor the late star.
“I don’t know how it could have been any better,” said Connolly.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.