If it happened in Mayberry, a recent ambitious upgrade of the Andy Griffith Museum would surely bring a response of “Big, REALLY BIG!” from Barney.
Even among folks in modern-day Mount Airy, it’s eliciting a Gomer-like “Go-llll-ly, Shazam!”
Usually, when a museum or other facility undergoes a major facelift, it’s touted in terms such as “new and improved.” However, that description doesn’t really do justice to what has occurred at the facility housed at the Surry Arts Council complex on Rockford Street.
One recent visitor admitted being “blown away” by the difference.
Sure, the same 1,500-square-foot building is still there, yet what’s happened on the inside of the Andy Griffith Museum can be considered a magical transformation, the stuff that dreams are made of which usually only occurs in Hollywood.
The artifacts are there as before — familiar mementos of the storied show business career of Mount Airy’s most famous native son including his voice work on comedy records, and starring on Broadway, in movies and on television. Of course, Griffith’s most well-known TV role as Sheriff Andy Taylor is amply highlighted along with his later work on “Matlock.”
It’s a collection numbering in the hundreds of pieces. “I think in the area of 800,” Surry Arts Council Executive Director Tanya Jones estimates, the bulk of which was donated by the late Emmett Forrest, a longtime friend of Griffith’s.
What has changed with the makeover is that photographs, posters, clothing, props from sets, shooting scripts, etc., are being totally repackaged to make the museum experience more vivid and interactive. Mayberry essentially has become high-tech.
Whereas the previous facility that first opened nearly 10 years ago was more old-school with photos lining the walls and display cases positioned here and there, the revamped museum is organized into themes that focus on every aspect of Griffith’s life. These start with his early years in Mount Airy.
A key addition to help tell Griffith’s story and pay homage to Mayberry life involves recreations of building fronts such as the Mayberry Courthouse and jail, Snappy Lunch, Aunt Bee’s front porch, Floyd’s Barber Shop and more.
One building facsimile is devoted to Griffith’s movie career. It contains a marquee of the local Earle Theatre listing the debut of “Face in the Crowd” in 1957 with the show times as they appeared in an actual newspaper ad promoting the involvement of the local man.
In each scene or setting, the museum items pertaining to it have been integrated.
There also are all sorts of interactive touch-screen displays allowing visitors to replay scenes from Griffith movies and 20 clips from TV shows, which includes close-captioning.
While the refurbished museum is now getting back into full swing after being closed during the spring to allow the design and other work to proceed, the concept of the $600,000 project dates to 2007 and the state government’s awarding of construction funding.
“We did not get any funds for exhibits,” Jones recalled regarding adequate display components.
For much of the time after the museum opened, the Surry Arts Council did not actually own the collection largely populating the facility which Forrest had donated.
When he died in January 2013, Forrest’s estate awarded that ownership to the organization.
“It took about two years for all the paperwork,” Jones said.
“When the collection became ours, it became our responsibility to preserve it,” she continued, or watch it deteriorate.
“And it was significantly deteriorating,” Jones said, mentioning as one example the original suit worn by actor Hal Smith when portraying Otis the town drunk on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“You were afraid to touch it because you thought it would crumble,” Jones said of the clothing that now is suitably displayed with the jail-themed exhibit. The recreated courthouse front bears the actual plaques actually used in the show.
The arts official also cited scripts that were turning yellow.
Recognizing that conserving such priceless items was part of being “responsible stewards,” Jones said the Surry Arts Council set aside money over the years to complete the project. “We’d been appropriating funds since Day One for display construction.” This was boosted by a $200,000 allocation of city government funding in 2016.
When it came time to finally begin the work to display the collection in a climate-controlled environment and other conditions aimed at preservation, the arts group enlisted local vendors as much as possible for the various facets involved.
It also assembled a team of out-of-town technical experts, such as LKC Creative in Raleigh.
Among consultants who helped shape the vision for the project was Jim Clark of Tennessee, a Mayberry author who founded The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club.
Jones also is “hugely grateful” to her staff for the extra work it performed throughout the transition process.
The final product — the artistic building facsimiles and high-tech gadgetry installed there — has made going to the Andy Griffith Museum more of a journey than a visit.
“Each part of this is designed to preserve the collection,” Jones said during a recent tour of the upgraded facility. In anticipation of its reopening, the artifacts were strewn all over the Surry Arts Council campus so visitors could still enjoy the items.
The arts group official said the intent of the project was a facility that Mount Airy itself and Andy Griffith fans would appreciate — “something that’s going to be a treasure.”
Jones admitted that the task wasn’t easy — or expedient.
“It has been an act of love that had many, many hurdles in the path,” she said of the culmination of an overall 30-year effort that started when the idea of appropriately honoring Andy Griffith was hatched.
But now that the project has been completed, “I couldn’t be prouder,” Jones admitted.
“I think it’s an invaluable legacy to Andy Griffith and what he meant to this town.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.