Morgantown no Mayberry but it wants to be Barney Fife's home

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- There are no old-time, bubble-topped police cruisers gliding down these streets, no Aunt Bee's Barbeque or Floyd's City Barber Shop serving up midday meals and lazy afternoon chats.

Morgantown has its own charms, but it ain't Mayberry, the folksy, '60s-era town protected by Sheriff Andy Taylor and lanky, trouble-prone Deputy Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show.''

It is, however, the hometown of the late Don Knotts, whose long career as a stage, television and film actor was indelibly stamped by playing the hapless deputy in one of television's most beloved and successful comedies.

That distinction may help residents of Mount Airy, N.C., the real-life model for mythical Mayberry, find a new home for the life-size statue of Mr. Knotts that they'd intended to erect before running into a legal snag.

They raised money and commissioned the $35,000 statue, which depicts Mr. Knotts as uniformed Barney Fife, as a companion to statues of Andy Taylor and his freckle-faced son, Opie, that already stand in Mount Airy.

But in a hash of the kind that poor Barney himself might have stirred up, his fans in Mount Airy put down a non-refundable $9,000 deposit to cast Barney in bronze, then learned they didn't have the legal right to copy his likeness. The partially completed statue's clay base will be destroyed if no one pays for its completion.

Officials in Morgantown, however, believe they may have better luck at obtaining permission to place the statue there, possibly in a Downtown memorial that will honor the accomplishments of a native son who found fame but never lost touch with home.

"This was [Mr. Knotts'] birthplace, his hometown,'' said Monongalia County Commissioner John Pyles, 73, who lived near Mr. Knott's family as a child and remained a friend until Mr. Knotts died at 81 of lung cancer Feb. 24 .

"Definitely it belongs in Morgantown. If it could work out without too much red tape in getting the rights, we'd have to go ahead.''

Mr. Knotts grew up in the Sunnyside neighborhood, graduated from city schools and West Virginia University and maintained ties with friends and relatives there, Mr. Pyles said. He returned for visits and class reunions and loaned his voice for the message that greeted callers to the local Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

"He was probably the most famous resident to come out of Morgantown, and a lot of people remember him, not just for his movies, but for what he did for Morgantown,'' Mayor Ron Justice said. "He was very gracious and humble.''

The committee of government, arts and civic leaders that is planning Morgantown's memorial is meeting this week and will consider incorporating Mount Airy's statue, he said. That memorial likely will be built in the city's flourishing riverfront area, off the bustling downtown boulevard that bears Mr. Knotts' name.

Mr. Knotts' widow, Francey Yarborough, could not be reached, and his daughter, Karen Knotts, declined comment, saying she was not in charge of the estate. But Mr. Pyles said Ms. Yarborough has told him she favors placing the statue in Morgantown.

If Morgantown leaders decide they wish to acquire the statue, he said they would seek her written approval, which could help to eliminate the problem that confronted Mount Airy.

Two hundred twenty miles to the south, folks are still feeling bruised by their stymied effort to erect the statue in the town where actor Andy Griffith grew up and where visitors are treated to plenty of Mayberry references and replicas.

But the Mount Airy men who came up with the idea said they would rather send the half-finished statue to a place where fans can appreciate it than abandon it altogether.

"All I want to do is honor one of the greatest comedic actors of all time,'' said Tom Hellebrand, 44, who runs the Mayberry Kountry Kitchen Diner. "Ultimately, I don't want to see it destroyed.''

Mr. Hellebrand, a former civilian crime-scene investigator in Palm Bay, Fla., moved to Mount Airy in November. He's been a fan of "The Andy Griffith Show'' and its characters since childhood, but said he most admired Barney Fife's good-hearted motives and ability to make people laugh.

After Mr. Knotts' death, Mr. Hellebrand wondered why Barney wasn't standing near the Andy and Opie statues placed in Mount Airy by TV Land, the cable network that airs reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show.''

Mr. Hellebrand and Neil Shelton, who modifies and sells vehicles that resemble Mayberry Sheriff's Department squad cars, decided to make that happen for Mount Airy's annual Mayberry Days in September. They found a Utah company to make the statue, set up a Web site and began raising money.

Along the way, Mr. Hellebrand informed Morgantown officials of the statue and offered to share its design and mold in the future. He also contacted CBS, which originally aired "The Andy Griffith Show,'' to seek permission to use the likeness of Barney Fife.

Mr. Hellebrand said he received a letter granting permission to construct the statue for non-commercial community purposes. Several weeks later, he said a CBS attorney notified him that he had to end the project because it lacked the approval of Mr. Knotts' estate.

Chris Ender, CBS senior vice president of communications, said the network mistakenly believed the statue was being planned by the town and had the blessing of the estate.

"After further review, we learned it was being organized solely by private enterprise,'' Mr. Ender said. "We conferred with the estate and they did not wish to proceed."

Mr. Ender said he did not know the reason why. Mr. Hellebrand, who used personal funds to repay donations used for the statue's down payment, said it would have been turned over to the city and wouldn't have been within sight of his restaurant.

"It broke my heart that it was over,'' said Mr. Hellebrand, who told reporters last month that he'd be willing to donate the statue and its design and mold to anyone who obtained the estate's approval and paid to complete and erect it.

He hasn't gotten any takers. But word of his offer reached Morgantown, where officials are mulling it.

If Mr. Knotts' estate approves the idea of placing the statue in Morgantown, CBS would consider it as well and would review it with Mayberry Enterprises, which controls copyright, trademark and license rights for Andy Griffith and characters of the show, Mr. Ender said.

The Morgantown committee is raising funds and aims to draft a plan to present for community input by the end of summer, Mr. Justice said.

That memorial also is likely to cover other highlights of Mr. Knotts' career -- his early days as a ventriloquist, his work in "The Incredible Mr. Limpet,'' "The Apple Dumpling Gang'' and other films, and his role as landlord Ralph Furley on "Three's Company.'' Other local tributes include a bronze star to be placed at a theater where he performed and a memorabilia display, Mr. Justice said.

And if the Barney statue ends up gazing over the Monongahela River instead of the North Carolina mountains? That would be an unexpected but not unsuitable plot twist for a character whose TV adventures always had happy endings, Mr. Shelton said.

"This [has been] a bad Mayberry episode,'' he said. "It would be a waste to not have it someplace. Hopefully, somebody will come out in the end with a smile.''

The Mount Airy News
The planned design for a life-sized bronze statue of Don Knotts portraying Barney Fife.
Click photo for larger image.

Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.


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