Not too many years ago, Mount Airy might have been one of those typical small towns, where the pace of living is nice, but when when local residents want to find some entertainment they’re filling the highways out of town.
That’s certainly changed.
Of course, nearly everyone in the universe knows the city for its Mayberry connection, with upwards of 25,000 fans flocking to the town every September for Mayberry Days, not to mention the continuing and constant influx of Mayberry tourists the rest of the year that probably bring enough visitors to fill five or six Mayberry Days festivals.
And in October there’s the giant Autumn Leaves Festival, with visitor numbers reaching well into the six-figures over the three-day event.
But one of the things that’s keeping people here at night — and even bringing people from as far away as Greensboro — is the Surry Arts Council Summer Concert Series.
It should be no surprise. The series, which features some of the best-known beach music and classic top 40 hits bands in the Southeast, brings live entertainment to the city two or three times most every week from April through September.
The Fantastic Shakers, Legacy Motown Revue, The Embers, and Band of Oz are just a few of the nationally and internationally known musical acts who take the stage in Mount Airy every year. Some make two or three trips to the city each season.
Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council, said some of those bands, the ones in demand throughout this region of the country, often call her and ask to be put on the Mount Airy schedule.
“We have become well known among the beach music bands and fans,” she said.
But it wasn’t always that way.
The series had its beginnings more than a decade ago — well, truth is, the genesis of the series goes back much further, well into the past century.
When the library was built in 1982, the city of Mount Airy’s long-range plan included an amphitheatre at that location, according to Jones.
She said her agency was able to get a $5,000 grant for grading the site. “I thought, if we could just grade that property … I wasn’t even thinking at that time about a building, I was just thinking about grading and having some sort of music out there.”
Once the project got under way, though, the idea blossomed.
“We thought we should move forward with that project,” she said of the idea of expanding the grading to constructing a full amphitheater, rather than simply an outdoor field for music. “Initially, we had about $60,000 in funding, so without a capital campaign, we raised some additional funding with assistance of the Tourism Development Authority, and selling granite tiles, and a significant donation from the granite quarry.”
Those granite tile sales were a way for folks to help with the project, while having their name — or the name of someone they wished to honor — memorialized on the tile.
And the granite quarry to which she refers is, of course, North Carolina Granite Company, which oversees the world’s largest open-faced granite quarry. Company officials, Jones said, really wanted the arts council to use Mount Airy Granite in the construction, leading the firm to financially support the project.
Top that with a donation for naming rights for Zack Blackmon Sr. then what was going to be an open outdoor dance floor transformed into a modern amphitheatre.
The timing was good, too, for garnering community support.
“It was also the time Andy Griffith was visiting Mount Airy and it added excitement to building the facility,” Jones said. He had been in the city — his hometown and the model for his fictional Mayberry — just a couple of years earlier for the dedication of the Andy Griffith Parkway.
Now, though, he was back in town, generating a great deal of buzz.
“Andy actually unveiled the TV Land station there before it (the amphitheater) was completed,” she said. The statue, of course, is the bronze sculpture of the iconic Sheriff Andy Taylor and his son Opie, carrying their fishing lines down to the fishing hole. Although the statue sits at a point between the Andy Griffith Playhouse and the Andy Griffith Museum, its first exposure to the local public was just down the street at the still under-construction amphitheater.
“The cement had been poured literally days before the unveiling,” Jones said. “Everyone was certainly excited. Andy Griffith was the first person to ever step foot on the amphitheater, along with Ed Jones, president of TV Land.”
That was in September 2004. The following summer, the structure was complete and the first Surry Arts Council Summer Concert series was produced.
But it wasn’t easy.
“There was no concert series here prior to that,” Jones said.
Instead, if local residents wanted live music, or if tourists to the city were looking for something other than Mayberry-specific activities, they hit the road to larger cities.
“There was not a lot of activity for people in the community on the weekends,” Jones said. “This (the concert series) was something I thought would work.”
While she found a fair bit of support for the idea of building the amphitheater and starting a concert series, there was opposition as well. Jones, however, believed in the concept.
“Having been here and realizing there was not a lot of activity for people in the community on the weekends, a lot of driving elsewhere to do things, we were in the tourism mindset at that point, and we were trying to develop venues to get people to drive into Mount Airy rather than drive out of Mount Airy for entertainment.”
Even after convincing those in the community it would work, and getting support for the amphitheater, once Griffith christened the facility with the statue unveiling, the real work began.
“In those first years, it was extremely hard for me to book the bands,” Jones said. “I was trying to book the bands a year in advance and … our series had no credibility.”
Many of the bands simply have too many opportunities to play in larger communities, or to play corporate gigs that pay well, so it was hard to convince those groups to block out a date or two a year down the road for a concert series no one had ever heard of.
“Now, bands are calling us to be part of our series. We have become well-known among the beach music bands and fans.” While the series is mostly Beach Music along with R&B and Top 40, Jones said her group has tried to branch out into other musical genres as well, including Caribbean music and even a Jimmy Buffet tribute band.
“Certainly, as far as that goal of being an entertainment venue, it has worked. It is not a profit center for the arts council, but it has been successful. It is a community service — our goal is always to break even, and we’ve been able to do that.
“Attendance has grown. We used to think 200 or 300 was a great crowd, now we think 700 or 800 is a great crowd.” Some concerts, she said, will even crack the 1,000-person mark. And, she said, people of all ages seem to enjoy the shows. “Literally you see everything out there from kids to 90-year-olds on the dance floor.
One of the byproducts of holding a regular concert series is that Mount Airy becomes a destination place for folks seeking a few hours of entertainment, and it offers up something for the daytime Mayberry tourists to do at night.
“We are capturing an increasing number of those folks,” Jones said. Her organization’s annual publication, Mayberry Confidential, released each September and distributed throughout the year, lists the concert series for the upcoming year. “We’re getting calls from folks who are here from the weekend, who are learning about the shows from Mayberry Confidential,” she said.
Additionally, Jones said a number of regional residents drive in from Wilkes County, from Norman, Greensboro, and recently they even had a call from some folks in Durham, asking about the concerts and directions to the amphitheater.
“We’re becoming a well-known venue for good music and dancing. There are dance clubs that promote it as place for their members, as a place to dance. They drive in, even spend the night.”
While the series and its fame has grown, the one challenge that remains persistent is the weather. In the early years of the series, if bad weather threatened, the event would be moved to the Andy Griffith Playhouse. Now, it goes to The Historic Earle Theatre on Main Street.
That facility, Jones said, offers more room for seating, a dance floor, and a concession stand where popcorn and soda is sold.
Regardless of whether the shows are held at the Blackmon Amphitheatre, or the Earle, one thing remains constant: the series has now made Mayberry a real-life concert destination center for tourists and regional residents alike.
For a complete schedule for the year, or for more information, visit the Surry Arts Council’s http://www.surryarts.org/surryart/amphitheatre.html or by calling 336-786-7998.
John Peters is editor of The News and can be reached at 415-4701.