Stunned tourists on their first trip to Mount Airy in search of the Mayberry experience said the death of the star and creator of “The Andy Griffith Show” early Tuesday morning would stay with them forever.
From those eating lunch in Barney’s restaurant, to those watching the streaming TV coverage inside the Mount Airy Visitors Center, everyone in town seemed to be aware of Andy Griffith’s passing.
Tim Fritz and his wife Leslie of Anderson, Ind., pressed their faces against the window at Barney’s, then ventured inside to play with the bobble-head dolls of Barney Fife above the ice cream counter. They said they were stunned after hearing the news of Griffith’s death just five minutes early at the visitors center.
The Fritzes had been planning their trip to Mount Airy for some time. They came with Leslie’s sister and husband, Jody and Steve Purdy of Statesville.
Tim Fritz said “The Andy Griffith Show” is his favorite show by far.
“It is, without a doubt, a show for all time,” said Fritz. “We are just in shock. This is a day we will never forget.”
Eric Fleming, owner of Barney’s, said his thoughts were with the family and friends of Griffith during their time of grief.
“I hate it. I think he did a lot for the town. I never met him, but I wish I had. He is an icon. He will be missed,” said Fleming.
Bud Cameron, former Surry County Register of Deeds, who was eating at the counter at Barney’s, said he was sad about Griffith’s passing, but he felt he’d lived a long productive life.
Steve Martin, a visitor information specialist at the visitors center, said he was getting calls from all over the country with people either wanting to ask questions about Griffith’s death, ask about funeral arrangements or to express their sorrow. He said one man from Atlanta, Ga., who called early in the day to ask about services, was almost in tears as he spoke of what a wonderful man Griffith was and what he meant to him.
“People are mostly shocked and sad. Being from around here, we knew what type of person he was and tried to emulate him. This is a sad day for us, the country and the world,” said Martin.
Tanya Taylor, membership and communications director at the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, said phone calls from NBC and CNN started pouring into the chamber shortly after she arrived at work at 9 a.m.
“We were heartbroken to hear the news,” said Taylor.
Even though Griffith didn’t live here, Taylor said she feels that tourists will still come to Mount Airy to seek the nostalgia the show represents.
Jessica Roberts, director of tourism for the chamber, said while the news of Griffith’s death was sad, she feels the same as Taylor, that tourists will still seek out the Mayberry experience.
“We are deeply saddened by the news of Andy Griffith’s passing, but his spirit will always be a part of Mount Airy. Andy Griffith has been a positive influence on the tourism industry in Mount Airy and Surry County. Visitors come from all over the world to visit Mount Airy to get a taste of Mayberry because of Andy and ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’” she said.
“Most of our visitors flock to Mount Airy because of the Mayberry connection and come here to experience our famous attractions such as the Andy Griffith Museum, Squad Car Tours, Snappy Lunch, Floyd’s Barbershop and our beautiful Main Street. ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ reminds people of a simpler time and people will come here for generations to come because of the nostalgia of ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’” said Roberts.
Visitors Chuck Marschinke and his wife Audrey of Birmingham, Ala., said the news of Griffith’s death was “unbelievable.”
The couple was passing through the area in their RV when they stopped off in Mount Airy. It was a planned visit. The news of Griffith’s death, however, was a shock. It was the couple’s first trip to Mount Airy.
“I’m 60, so I grew up watching the show. It was such a clean, pure show — everything about it sent such a positive image about parenthood,” said Marschinke.
He said visiting Mount Airy was the high point of their travels so far. Being in Mount Airy on the day that Griffith died, he said, will make it a visit that he will remember forever.
Down Main Street at Floyd’s Barbershop, Ethan Boles, who came to spend the day enjoying the “Mayberry” experience with his girlfriend Jena Rosenberger on their two-year anniversary, got an unexpected surprise when he was getting his hair cut — an NBC film crew asked if they could interview him as barber Russell Hiatt gave him a trim.
With a TV camera pointed at him and a boom microphone hanging over his head, the college student explained how Griffith showed people how different the small-town life was from the big city.
“Do you think this is the end of an era?” asked interviewer Neal Gettinger.
“I don’t think it’s the end of an era. I think people love this show and I think his ideas will continue,” said Boles.
He said he watches the old episodes on Netflix.
While Rosenberger waited for his interview and haircut to conclude, she sipped on a peach NeHi soda that she rested on the black and white checkerboard floor of the barbershop. She said her favorite episode was the one where Barney ended up in a wedding dress on a mule.
The couple planned their visit two days earlier and only found out that Griffith died when they arrived at the Andy Griffith Museum on Tuesday morning.
He said that being in Mount Airy the day of Griffith’s death was a “moment in history.”
Hiatt was asked what Griffith did for Mount Airy.
“There are a half-million people in my guest book. He brought them here,” said Hiatt.
Hiatt, 88, said he used to cut Griffith’s hair. Griffith was just two years younger than Hiatt.
He said Griffith modeled the Floyd the Barber character after him.
“This will leave a big hole in the whole town. We are going to miss him for sure,” said Hiatt.
The crew asked him if Griffith’s passing was a shock. He said he had known Griffith had been sick for some time.
“It wasn’t a shock,” said Hiatt. “But, he will be truly missed.”
Reach Mondee Tilley at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 719-1930.