Editor’s Note: Long-time Surry Arts Council Executive Director Tanya Jones was recently honored with a Winner’s Circle Award by the Visit NC 365 Tourism Conference for her work at the council and in the tourism industry. Here, we take a look at the evolution of the arts council, and its effect on Mount Airy tourism, over the past three decades.
For decades Mount Airy has been known for three big events that draw visitors from June to October.
Thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Surry Arts Council, folks have plenty of reasons to visit the Granite City year-round.
Traditionally, the summer tourism season has kicked off with the Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention. That part hasn’t changed as the city is planning on that event May 27 to June 2 for its 47th annual edition.
Then this fall, Mayberry Days will celebrate its 29th year Sept. 24-30. The 52nd Autumn Leaves Festival comes Oct. 12-14.
The big difference between now and the early years of Mayberry Days is that the arts council now provides quality programming throughout the calendar.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Tanya Jones as director of the arts council. During her tenure, not only have the city’s existing events grown larger, but many big draws have been created.
For example, on Feb. 16, the council hosted Jerry Douglas and the Earls of Leicester, the winners of the past three International Bluegrass Music Association’s award for Entertainers of the Year. Douglas had already been well known in bluegrass circles, but his popularity soared after his 2012 collaboration with Mumford & Sons on a remake of “The Boxer.”
Landing a nationally known group in Mount Airy would have seemed impossible just a decade ago.
The Becky Buller Band is set perform March 3 at the Historic Earle Theatre. Becky was 2016 IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year and Fiddler of the Year and is the only person ever to win both in the same year. She was also the 2015 IBMA Songwriter of the Year.
Two weeks later on St. Patrick’s Day, the Earle hosts Dr. Mick Moloney and Niall O’Leary.
According to the Surry Arts Council, Moloney received America’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, the NEA National Heritage Fellowship, while O’Leary, from Dublin, Ireland, is a former all-Ireland and world champion step dancer.
Another award-winning act comes in April when Flatt Lonesome performs at the Earle April 21. The band is the winner of the 2016 and 2017 IBMA Vocal Group of the Year, 2016 Album of the Year, and 2016 Song of the Year.
Booking music groups isn’t all the arts commission does, either.
February marks the council’s biggest fundraiser of the year.
On Feb, 23, Cross Creek Country Club hosted the arts council’s annual Arts Ball. Complete with live music by the Band of Oz, the Arts Ball raises money to benefit school cultural arts programs.
All proceeds from the Arts Ball provide free cultural arts programming to students in the three school systems in this area: Surry County Schools, Mount Airy City Schools and Millennium Charter Academy.
Right on the heels of that, the council leads led the 17th-annual Tommy Jarrell Festival. This event was created in 2002 to commemorate the accomplishments of the legendary old-time musician. Dances, music, concerts, and workshops are held during the last weekend of February each year – just before Tommy’s March 1 birthday.
On March 9, actor/comedian Henry Cho is scheduled to perform comedy at the Earle. Cho has performed on “The Tonight Show,” “The Late, Late, Show” and “Young Comedians Special” and hosted NBC’s “Friday Night Videos” for two years. He is a regular performer at the Grand Ole Opry.
For those who enjoy live theater, the Andy Griffith Playhouse will feature the play “In the Shadow of the Mountain” March 24-26. This original play by John Adams explores the fate of a family torn apart by the Civil War, as well as what it means to be free and the cost of the war to the nation.
On March 20-21, the arts council will hold auditions for its version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, with the performance coming the first weekend in June.
Each April, the Andy Griffith Playhouse hosts the annual induction ceremony for the Greater Mount Airy Sports Hall of Fame.
Arts council growth
The Surry Arts Council was incorporated on April 15, 1969, said Jones. It will celebrate its 50th birthday next year.
The Andy Griffith Playhouse, part of a former school campus, was renovated for use as an arts council venue a few years later.
Jones said she came back to Mount Airy in 1978 and immediately became involved in a number of organizations, including the arts council. A decade later she would take over a director in 1988. Two years later, a couple of things happened that changed the course of the downtown.
Jones said someone asked her if the city and the council were planning anything special for 1990 since it would be the 30th anniversary of “The Andy Griffith Show” going on the air.
It seemed like a reasonable idea, so Jones and her staff jumped on board and developed a one-day event. Over time that would grow to two days, three days and now pretty much a whole week.
In 2002, the city welcomed Griffith himself back to town. Then two years later, TV Land and Griffith unveiled the statue that now resides outside the playhouse.
This September’s Mayberry Days lineup includes not only the usual Mayberry regulars like the Dillard Band, Karen Knotts (Barney’s daughter) and Ronnie Schell (of “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” fame), but also country music stars Marty Stuart and Colin Raye.
(A free plug in the form of a question on “Jeopardy” doesn’t hurt, Jones added.)
In addition to the first Mayberry Days, 1990 saw a business turn over the old movie theater on Main Street, for a $38,000 appraisal donation, Jones recalled. The Surry Arts Council took over the renamed Downtown Cinema, which needed a lot of work.
Over time, without a capital campaign, the arts council slowly began raising funds for work on the building. When enough money was pooled to fix the roof, then the work was done, she said. Then later on in stages came other parts such as fixing up the lobby and getting new seats for the lower section and for the balcony.
In the beginning, the cinema showed movies for just $1. Then as the renovations continued, and the place began to look nicer, the price went up to $3, then $5 and now $7.
Once enough funding was raised to work on the facade, the name of the building was changed back to its old moniker from decades ago, the Earle.
Movies are only a part of what the Earle does now as the theater hosts concerts, music jam sessions and the weekly WPAQ Merry Go Round program.
Merry Go Round recently celebrated its 70th anniversary and is second only to the Grand Ole Opry as the longest continuously running live radio broadcast in the nation. The live performance moved into the Earle for its Saturday shows back on Feb. 2, 1998.
The same year the Andy Griffith statue was unveiled, 2004, the arts council was working to raise funds to build an amphitheater across the street next to the public library, Jones noted.
The amphitheater wasn’t her invention, but rather was part of a long-range plan from the city dating back to the 1980s, she said. The Surry Arts Council just jumped in to help make it happen.
In 2005, the Blackmon Amphitheater was completed and ready for use. Now, the arts council books up to 50 bands a year to perform there, she said. People buy about 500 season passes, many of them now coming from out of town to see each concert. Overall attendance each summer series is probably in the area of 25,000 people, she estimated.
Decades ago, Andy Griffith’s long-time friend, Emmett Forrest, had such a large collection of memorabilia that the Mount Airy Visitors Center on North Main Street dedicated a large room in the converted house to showcase the exhibit.
As the collection grew and needed more room, the arts council was also thinking about the need to give tourists more to see and enjoy on their visits. Jones said in 2007 the arts council began to pursue funding toward the building of an Andy Griffith Museum.
The city didn’t want any involvement in the museum, but gave its blessing to the Surry Arts Council to pursue the funding, she said.
The N.C. Rural Center for Economic Development provided a $350,000 grant, which was more than half the cost of the $600,000 building.
While the museum was still under construction, Emmett would come to the arts council office where his collection was housed, recalled Jones. He would collect a $3 admission for folks to come in to see the exhibits and serve as a tour guide. His efforts helped raise $50,000.
Two years after the initial push, the museum had a soft opening during Mayberry Days 2009. Then the facility shut down for additional work before opening for good in November 2009.
About 50,000 people a year are coming through the museum, she said. For the first half of the fiscal year (July 1 to Dec. 31), the museum had a record admission of 37,000 people.
“The museum visitors are the best kind for economic impact,” she said, as about 99 percent of them come from out of town. Many folks come back for repeat trips such as the next Mayberry Days or planning a birthday outing to include making a stop.
Between the playhouse, amphitheater, the Earle, arts programming for children and other Surry Arts Council-sponsored events, the arts council reaches about 3,500 people a week on average, said Jones.
To keep up with all that the arts council offers, check out the website at www.surryarts.org.