Tuesday, 3 July 2012

It Started With a Football

The Planter’s Bank of Rocky Mount, North Carolina was, in 1952, much like any other company. It held a Christmas party for staff members and their families. 150 showed up. And the entertainment for the evening? The local paper revealed it was put on by “Andy and Barbara Griffith, of Chapel Hill, stars of The Lost Colony pageant. They presented a series of skits.”

Next February, the Rocky Mount Annual Fire Department needed entertainment at its 23rd Annual Banquet and Ladies Night. The paper says “The variety show was staged by Andy and Barbara Griffith of Chapel Hill who were assisted by a ‘vocal quartet.’”

And when the North Carolina Automobile Association met in Pinehurst the following May? I see by the paper “convention features will include a welcome from Governor Umstead, the president’s annual message, a one-act play depicting the industry, and entertainment by Andy and Barbara Griffith, well-known Tar Heel performers.”

Yes, it’s the Andy Griffith. The one who’s passed away at the age of 86.

Remarkably, these small-time events were only a few months before Griffith achieved sudden nation-wide fame. Griffith first rose to success, not through his TV work, not even his earlier film work, but through a comedy record. “What It Was, Was Football” was pressed on the Colonial label. It was only one of three records the company made to that time, but caused such a stir in North Carolina, that Capitol won a bidding war for it. Billboard revealed the company paid $5,000 for the master of the recording on December 9, 1953.

How sudden was success? Here’s the Rocky Mount paper again, on January 17, 1954 (spellings have been left intact).

North Carolina’s Master Of The Monologue Assured Of Fame Following TV Appearance
MANTEO. N. C.-Andy Griffith, the widely known Sir Walter Raleigh of Paul Green’s internationally famous symphonic drama The Lost Colony which will open for its 14th season in the Waterside Theatre here on Roanoke Island, June 26, is skyrocketing to fame for his hilarious monologues that are becoming best sellers on records. Then on Sunday night he was featured on famous Ed Sullivan’s coast-to-coast “Toast of the Town” television show and a million or so listeners and lookers saw the Mt. Airy-born Griffith demonstrate his talents.
Some who saw the TV-show agreed that while the Lost Colony player was tops, he was still not at his very best, as he was here on the Dare coast last summer when as the Sir Walter-bearded star of his self-directed and produced floor shows at the Dare County Shrine Club. The Shrine Club floor shows were events Griffith staged with members of the Lost Colony cast as an added way to make extra money during the summer seasons, and also another way to improve their acting techniques.
His country-boy’s version of Romeo and Juliet, and his role as the preacher in the “Preacher and the Bear” skits had packed patrons in the Shrine Club as the Scandinavians pack sardines into a can. Likewise, his role as Sir Walter Raleigh in The Lost Colony is one of the most colorful parts of the symphonic drama. Griffith has featured on the cover of Lost Colony’s souvenir program for the past three seasons, first with his wife Barbara (formerly Barbara Edwards of Troy) the first North Carolinian tom play the important feminine lead of the show. The following year he was featured alone in a photograph of the first act and last year in full color he appeared again on the souvenir program cover in the Queen’s Garden Scene and was shown as he presented the Elizabethan monarch with the tobacco plant his explorers led by Admirals Barlow and Amadas had brought back to England from Roanoke Island in the New World.
Talent Is Discovered
The man who more or less discovered Griffith was another Lost Colony player, Ainslie Prior of Raleigh and Hollywood. Pryor had played the role of Father Martin, the Lost Colony priest one year and Governor John White the next. In Raleigh he was director of the state capitol famous Little Theatre. Here on Roanoke Island the Griffiths and the Pryor’s were close friends as the 19952 season of Lost Colony was drawing to a close. Pryer began directing and persuading the Griffiths who at the time were teaching school in Goldsboro during the church off-season, to start a show of their own. This they did and with a success that netted them more than teaching.
In the meantime Pryor had ambitions for himself. He was determined to hit Hollywood and did that very thing. Currently he is playing the prosecutor in “The Caine Mutiny,” one of the most talked about productions of its kind on the road today.
Last season (1953) may the last for Griffith in The Lost Colony, but surely not because he would like it that way. His new contracts with Capitol Records and his manager, Orville Campbell of Chapel Hill, the man responsible for Griffith’s sudden rise to fame may not permit him to return to the drama as an actor.
General Manager Dick Jordan of The Lost Colony, who knows quite a bit about show business and contracts was unable to announce this week whether Griffith will be in the show this year. “I surely hope he will be,” said Jordan.

Campbell, incidentally, was the head of Colonial Records.

Fame put Griffith on the road, entertaining at supper clubs in the South at first. Before one appearance, the Biloxi Daily Herald of June 1, 1954, Griffith’s 28th birthday, explained:

With his wife, Barbara, Andy was entertaining at conventions until late in 1952 with a talking skit. One afternoon, he asked to provide a second show but didn’t have enough material. So while he was driving to the convention hall he hit on the idea of a haywire description of a football game. In 45 minutes, he had written a hit.
The record, which contains no music, regards football as “some kindly of a game.”

The paper compared his act to the long-forgotten Herb Shriner’s but, as Griffith put it “with more fanatical fanaticism.”

Griffith went on to far bigger things, thanks to the enormous influence of television on popular culture. “The Andy Griffith Show” has gone just another popular TV comedy to something of the embodiment of a wistful desire to return to a slow, low-key, small town past.

I never saw that past, and many suggest it never existed. But seeing as how a likeable young man from a small town shot to unexpected fame, and brought the spirit of that town to millions in their living rooms, all because of a football, it might be nice to think it did.

1 comment:

  1. Stephen King's recent novel 11/22/63 includes his rebuttal of "The Andy Griffith Show." At one point the narrator visits a service station in North Carolina. White folk get a nice clean rest room; others go to a creek.