I got down the North Carolina map and looked up Siler City. There it lay in the center of the state, about an hour’s drive from the conference center where I would be spending three days. I knew then that I would be taking an afternoon and driving to Siler City to find Aunt Bee.
Frances Bavier had played the aunt to Andy Taylor and son Opie in the 60s sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show.” Over the years, along with much of America, I loved the program more in reruns than when it was fresh. By the late 1980s we were living in Charlotte and I learned that Miss Bavier, perhaps in her 80s by now, had retired to Siler City. I might not be able to actually meet her, but one never knows about these things, and I surely would not if I did not try.
Inside the village of Siler City, I aimed at the tall white spire of the First Baptist Church where I introduced myself to the secretary as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charlotte. I was looking for Frances Bavier. She smiled and said, “I can tell you where she lives, but you won’t be able to see her. No one ever does. She’s a recluse. Stays inside with a houseful of cats.” She described the two story brick-and-rock facade house which I located a dozen blocks away. So this is where a Hollywood star retires. The house would have fit in any middle class neighborhood in the country.
I walked up to the door and knocked several times without a response. I left my card in the front door and drove to the newspaper office. The young woman on the front desk did not know of any articles they had written about her. In fact, she was not real sure who Frances Bavier was. A man came over and said, “I suppose we’ve written a few articles on her, but that was a long time ago. I wouldn’t know where to start looking.”
I asked, “Is there anyone in town who knows her well, whom I could talk to?” He thought for a minute and named a local woman who ran a craft store. “She’s the daughter of Miss Bavier’s best friend, the one she came out here for.”
I found the woman working in the back of her shop. When I said I wanted to learn more about Frances Bavier, she grew silent. You got the impression people had been here before trying this approach. I assured her my interest was only personal, that I loved the show, and figured this would be the closest I would ever get to meeting her.
“She fell for the Mayberry myth,” she said. “You know how the show would sometimes mention Siler City. Well, it sounded to her like an idyllic place to live–the perfect small town where everyone knows you and neighbors look out for one another. When my mother wrote her a fan letter, she wrote back. They started swapping correspondence and then Mother went out and visited her. She started coming here on vacations, and eventually decided to move here.”
“But it was a mistake,” she said. “At first, the town welcomed her. She rode in the high school homecoming parade as a grand marshall or something. But pretty soon she grew tired of curiosity seekers walking all over her lawn and peeking in her windows. School buses would unload in the front yard and people would walk around her house, and it was more than she could take. She hired a neighborhood boy to cut her grass, and when the kids at school started teasing him, calling him Opie, he quit. That’s the sort of thing she has had to put up with. I imagine she has regretted a thousand times moving here. She’s up in years now and in poor health, but she has her cats, and a maid to look after her.”
I regretted then that I had knocked at her door. Later, I wrote her a letter on our church letterhead, wishing her well, saying I was praying for her, and offering to be of help to her in other ways if she ever needed a minister. I never heard back.
I read once that Ron Howard, the “real” Opie, and some friends were in North Carolina making a movie and decided to drop in on Miss Bavier. They called from the edge of town, but she refused to see them. She needed far more time than that to get ready for guests. They never did see her.
A year or two after my visit to Siler City, Miss Bavier died. Having no relatives, she left her estate to the local firefighters and EMS people who had responded to her emergencies over the years. When her belongings were auctioned off, fans from everywhere converged on the town, but the newspaper reported there was little of real value in her home.
In his book “The Andy Griffith Show,” Richard Kelly quotes Sheldon Leonard who remembers Frances Bavier as “a rather remote lady….she was self-contained.” Richard Linke called her “very touchy and moody due to her age, and you had to be very careful how you treated her and what you said around her. I think Andy offended her a few times, and they became very close friends.” Jack Dodson said, “She was the only person in the whole company whose feelings you had to be careful not to hurt.”
Apparently, Frances Bavier was no Aunt Bee. It was a role she was playing. I’m not sure why that surprises people–me, included–in this sophisticated age. Maybe that’s why she did not answer the door. To leave us with our illusions.
Once my wife and I drove up to Mount Airy, North Carolina, the town where Andy Griffith grew up. He has said repeatedly that Mayberry was not patterned after his hometown, that it was a composite of a lot of people’s thinking. But there was Floyd’s Barber Shop and the City Cafe running its blue plate special. Out on the highway was Aunt Bee’s Restaurant, not far from the billboards erected by the chamber of commerce inviting tourists to stop and visit the real Mayberry.
It turns out that even Mayberry is looking for Mayberry.