An Interview with Emmett Forrest

Remembering Andy Griffith:
An Interview with Emmett Forrest, Founder of The Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy, North Carolina

Written by Karen Brewer

Emmett Forrest, a childhood friend of the late actor and singer Andy Griffith and founder of The Andy Griffith Museum in their hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina, poses with the Andy and Opie statue in front of the museum.  (Photography by Karen Brewer)

Emmett Forrest reminisced with Nostalgic magazine about the longtime friendship he shared with the late Andy Griffith. A lifelong citizen of Mount Airy, North Carolina, Forrest founded The Andy Griffith Museum in Griffith’s hometown in 1990, from his own collection as well as from additional donated memorabilia items. First housed in the lower level of The Andy Griffith Playhouse, the Museum moved to its current location, a new building adjacent to the Playhouse, in 2009.

Tanya Jones, Executive Director of the Surry Arts Council, founded Mayberry Days in Mount Airy in 1990, Forrest explained. “I had a few items already,” he said. “In order to help put on Mayberry Days, I really got to working on the collection really hard then, and, as it progressed, the actors from the show began donating to me items that they had. So, that’s why I have so many one-of-a-kind items in the Museum.

“Mayberry Days is the last weekend in September each year. It draws people from I guess every state in the union. It’s highly successful. Several of the actors from the show come each year. We have a lot of Mayberryish events. The Parade, I think, is a knock-out. It’s strictly a Mayberry-style parade. And we have everything from a bowling tournament, a golf tournament, a rock throwing contest, to stay in line with the Mayberry theme.”

Actors from The Andy Griffith Show who have participated in Mayberry Days include Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou, deputy Barney Fife’s girlfriend; Elinor Donahue, who portrayed Ellie Walker, Sheriff Andy Taylor’s love interest before Helen Crump; James Best, who played guitarist Jim Lindsey; Maggie Petersen, who played Charlene Darling; George Spence; Margaret Currie; Roland White; Morgan Brittany; Peggy McCay; Margaret Kerry; Elizabeth MacRae; and LeRoy McNees. Doug Dillard, who portrayed one of the Darlings, appeared with his band at each Mayberry Days until his death in 2012.

Also appearing for Mayberry Days have been Laura Hagen, widow of Earl Hagen, who wrote the music for “The Fishing Hole,” the theme song for The Andy Griffith Show, Karen Knotts, daughter of Don Knotts, who played deputy Barney Fife; and George Lindsey, Jr., son of George Lindsey, who played Goober Pyle.

“The Surry Arts Council is absolutely the best Arts Council in North Carolina, probably the whole country,” said Forrest. “Tanya Jones is the Executive Director, and she has accomplished more than anybody could imagine. She is responsible for raising the funds for building the building (for The Andy Griffith Museum). She has also raised the funds and built the Blackmon Amphitheater across the street. And she is the person who started Mayberry Days. She’s just a whiz-bang.” Forrest praised the entertainment and the children’s programs offered by the Arts Council. “I get tired just reading the schedule,” he said, with a grin. “Every Thursday, we have free guitar and fiddle lessons for the kids and even furnish the instruments for them to learn on. The Arts Council really is a big piece of Mount Airy.”

The Andy Griffith Playhouse, adjacent to the Museum, is in the building that formerly was the auditorium for Rockford Street Grade School, which both Forrest and Griffith attended. The school itself has been demolished. “That was the school that Andy and I went through the first seven grades,” said Forrest. “It has since been torn down. That’s where our parking lot is now. The Rockford Street School was the first grade school in Mount Airy. It was a real old building, and I’m sure that, if it was here now, it would be maintained as a very historic building, but it was very old when it was demolished.” He explained that the Surry Arts Council utilizes the former auditorium as the Andy Griffith Playhouse for plays and other forms of entertainment. “It’s very heavily used,” he said.

Emmett Forrest sits at his desk in his office at The Andy Griffith Museum, which he founded to honor his longtime friend. (Photography by Karen Brewer)

Many visitors come to the Museum throughout the week. Forrest and his daughter volunteer to work at the Museum each Thursday. “My daughter comes up from Winston-Salem, so I volunteer on Thursday to work here. Last Thursday, we had people from, I believe, 20 states and two Canadian provinces, in one day.” The third Friday of each month, when actress Betty Lynn meets with visitors and signs autographs, several hundred Andy Griffith Show fans will come to the Museum. “Usually, I come over to greet her,” said Forrest, “because she is such a lovely person, and I just love her to death. She’s a fine lady. We’re delighted to have her here. She’s a sweet gal. Everybody loves her, and she’s happy with her move. So, it worked out good all around.”

Lynn, who portrayed Thelma Lou in the television series, moved to Mount Airy from California in 2007. “She got to know us all pretty well by her visiting here for several years for Mayberry Days,” said Forrest. “When she got ready to relocate, she knew a lot of people in this area, and, of course, we were delighted to have her as a new resident.”

Lynn has contributed items to the Museum, as have other cast members. “I’ve collected from every imaginable source,” said Forrest, “flea markets, sales, and later, when Ebay was available, I got a few items off Ebay. But major items have been contributed by the actors on the show directly to me. Don Knotts’ widow gave me all of his memorabilia from the show. I have Otis’ outfit, George Lindsey’s suit and beanie. My pride and joy are the signs off the courthouse door that Andy gave me.” The signs, with the words ‘Sheriff’ and ‘Justice of the Peace’, are displayed on doors as they were on The Andy Griffith Show. “The signs are original,” said Forrest. “The doors are a prop to show off the signs. Andy also gave me a shirt he wore on the show, the gavel from his desk, the eagle from his desk, and the jailhouse keys. I’ve got a lot of one-of-a-kind items directly from the show.”

The Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy, North Carolina. (Photography by Karen Brewer)

Also in the museum is a rocking chair from Andy Griffith’s childhood. “Andy’s father made that rocking chair in 1927 to rock his little one-year-old baby, Andy,” said Forrest.

“Since Andy’s death, attendance has really mushroomed here. I guess this is the place people can come as a tribute to Andy, and we’re delighted to have them, because they appreciate the items that I have collected over the years. They are a very, very appreciative group of people. “

The Museum is run by one full-time employee and one part-time employee, as well as by volunteers, including Forrest and his daughter. A small admission is charged. “I don’t make any money off the collection,” said Forrest. “All of the money for admission fees goes to the Surry Arts Council.”

A memorable statue, of Andy and Opie Taylor, from the opening of The Andy Griffith Show, stands outside the Museum. “It’s the most photographed item in Mount Airy,” said Forrest. “Everybody likes their picture made with the Andy/Opie statue.”

 

The Andy and Opie statue in front of The Andy Griffith Museum. (Photography by Karen Brewer)

The bronze Andy and Opie statue was donated by the TV Land network and was dedicated during the 2004 Mayberry Days. (Photography by Karen Brewer)

Forrest knew Griffith since both were boys growing up in Mount Airy. “We grew up in the same neighborhood since we were about nine years old,” Forrest said. “We grew up together. We lived about 500 yards apart. He was an average kid, but he obviously had more talent than we ever dreamed.” Griffith and Forrest kept in touch through the years. “We got older together,” said Forrest.

Forrest noted that Griffith had an award-winning Gospel album and, before his acting career, had planned to enter the ministry. “When he entered the University of North Carolina, he entered as a pre-ministerial student. He had planned on being a Moravian preacher.

“There is a series of books now, Bible study books, on The Andy Griffith Show, and it’s very widely used, actually. A lot of Sunday School teachers and preachers use it for a sermon. It takes an episode and the moral in that episode and gives you the Biblical reference, to tie the two together. So, it does the research for the teacher or the preacher. It’s very widely used.”

When asked what makes Mount Airy so special, Forrest answered, “I have no desire to know anything else. I have always been completely happy here. I live here, and I’m going to stay here.”

How does Mount Airy compare to Mayberry? “I see quite a few similarities between the people, the characters on the show and some of the people we have here, but it was a made-up story. Mayberry was a fictitious place. As Andy said, they had problems that they could settle in 30 minutes. We don’t have that.”

Stores on Mount Airy’s Main Street downtown are historic. “The buildings are pretty much the same as they were when Andy was growing up here,” said Forest. “They’ve got new faces but are basically the same buildings.”

On the walls of Forrest’s office at The Andy Griffith Museum are pen and ink drawings by Mike Johnson, of Greensboro, North Carolina. “He’s also the one who painted ‘Mr. Rimshaw’ on the door,” said Forrest, referring to one of the episodes from the show. “The picture where the eyes follow you, in the haunted house. It’s on the door. He makes me ‘sick,’ he’s got so much talent. He writes music and poetry, plays musical instruments, can paint and draw. He’s got all kinds of talent.”

Forrest is a member of the Mayberry Preservation Society, the Mount Airy Chapter of The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club. The Club has chapters worldwide. “They’re strictly fun clubs,” said Forrest. “They make up their own names that relate to comments on the show or events on the show. It’s strictly a fun deal. I’m a huge fan of the show. I watch it on a regular basis. I still laugh at it. Sometimes, I’m sort of ashamed to tell you, but I even shed a tear when I watch some of the episodes.”

What does Forrest think makes The Andy Griffith Show so special? “Andy Griffith,” he replied.

The Andy and Opie statue in front of The Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy, North Carolina. (Photography by Karen Brewer)