It’s just after noon on the third Friday of the month, and 89-year-old Betty Lynn is preparing to take her seat behind a small brown table in the main room of the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy. Visitors are already beginning to flood into the building to meet the actress best known to ’60s TV fans as Barney Fife’s girlfriend, Thelma Lou, from “The Andy Griffith Show,” set in the fictional town of Mayberry.
Once a month, Lynn sits throughout the afternoon greeting fans. “Last month we had over 500 people come through,” she said. They come from all over the world to meet a former cast member of the popular show and to see the large collection of Andy Griffith memorabilia, assembled by Griffith’s life-long friend Emmett Forrest (andygriffithmuseum.com).
In 2007, after being twice robbed in her Los Angeles home, Lynn left Hollywood for the quieter secure life in Mount Airy, which was also Andy Griffith’s hometown.
“I’d been coming here for the Mayberry Days festival for ages, so it seemed like the perfect place to settle,” she said. This year’s Mayberry Days festival runs Sept. 23-27.
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“Everyone has been so kind since I moved here,” said Lynn. “It didn’t take long for me to feel like a local rather than a visitor.”
“The Andy Griffith Show” ran for eight seasons, throughout most of the 1960s. It won six Emmys, including five for Don Knotts.
“Andy was fun and a bit of a tease off camera, while Don was sweet but very quiet and nothing like his Barney Fife character,” said Lynn. “But that just illustrates what a good actor he was.”
While she loved the show, she did have one concern during her some two dozen appearances spread out over five years. “If you had a uniform, like Andy or Don, the studio supplied those. But I had to wear my own clothes and had to remember not to wear the same ones so people wouldn’t think Thelma Lou only had one outfit!”
Lynn also appeared in some 20 films and over 40 other TV shows, including many Westerns. “I enjoyed Westerns, but filming in the hot Californian summers wearing long dresses and petticoats was rough,” she said. “During one show, I think it was ‘Texas John Slaughter’ for ‘Disneyland,’ we sat down to lunch and these huge bugs swarmed all around us. We were told to just ignore them and eat around them.” Throughout her career, she worked with some Hollywood greats.
“My first film, ‘Sitting Pretty,’ and then later ‘Cheaper by the Dozen,’ were with Clifton Webb, a sweet man with a good sense of humor,” she recalled. “I also did two films with Bette Davis, who got everyone to call me Boo, after one of my characters, so it wouldn’t be confusing when the director yelled, ‘Betty on the set!’”
She also worked, at one time or another, with almost all the cast of “Gilligan’s Island.”
“Alan Hale Jr. was on an episode of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and played a mountain man looking for a wife,” Lynn said. “Recently, I saw the episode again, where he picked me way up in the air twice. I laughed because I looked like a rag doll.”
Lynn also remembers an episode with Barbara Eden, who is a guest at this year’s festival.
“This was before she starred in ‘I Dream of Jeannie,’ and she played a new manicurist in town and was adorable.
In addition to Eden, Clint Howard, Don Knotts’ daughter Karen, and other guests are expected for the five day event. “It’s always so much fun and one of the reasons I love living in the area.”
But on this day at the museum, Lynn was braced for a long afternoon as enthusiastic fans formed the meet-and-greet line.
“It’s a little tiring by the end of the day, but it’s the least I can do since people may stand for hours to take a picture, get an autograph or a hug,” Lynn said. “There’s a lot of love coming my way.”
The 26th Mayberry Days, hosted by the Surry Arts Council, runs Sept. 23-27. More details at surryarts.org.
Special guests this year include Barbara Eden and Clint Howard. Eden played Mayberry’s first manicurist, while Howard appeared in several episodes as Leon, a cowboy-hat wearing youngster who always had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his pocket.