by Billy Ingram
Frances Bavier, Emmy-winning actress who gave life to Aunt Bee on “The Andy Griffith Show,” was by most accounts the polar opposite of her alter ego. Hardly the domesticated matriarch, Bavier was a sophisticated lady who resided in New York and Los Angeles her entire life, working alongside esteemed actors like Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. A Broadway and motion-picture performer turned small-screen superstar who, in 1970, abruptly decided to walk away from her Top 10 sitcom, “Mayberry RFD.”
After 15 years of the weekly television-series grind she’d had it with the Business of Show, one of the reasons why Bavier moved — alone at age 70 — all the way across the continent to Siler City, NC where her biggest fan operated a family furniture store. In this mythical shire mentioned so fondly in scripts produced for her by former writers from “Amos & Andy” and “Leave it To Beaver,” she hoped to discover the small-town goodness that she herself had come to represent in the minds of middle America.
Something she clearly had no concept of.
Naturally she was warmly received by Chatham County’s 3,700 aw-shucks-just-plain-folks. Grand Marshall in the parades, an honored guest at civic functions, the very flower of verisimilitude as she maneuvered the narrow streets of Siler City in the same pea-green, two-door 1966 Studebaker Daytona she drove on “Mayberry RFD” — now seen five days a week in syndication.
What began as an immersion into Americana quickly disintegrated into what can best be described as an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” On Saturday mornings, school buses pulled up in front of her split-level brick home on West Elk Street to unleash the Cub Scouts with instructions: “Go find your Aunt Bee!” There were neighbors peering through her windows at all hours of the day expecting her to be in character, a role she despised. The few townsfolk she grew close to insisted on calling her “Aunt Bee.” Irritating, but she had to have some friends.
In small Southern towns, particularly in that era, if people knew your family you were accepted; newcomers were kept at arm’s length. Sure, it’s all kissy-kissy, “Can I get you some more sweet tea, Hon?” on the surface but in most folk’s minds Miss Bavier would always be that person who moved to town in 1972… from California, no less.
A visit to the town center meant all eyes casting judgment, the ladies at the beauty parlor never forgave her for not joining one of their churches. There were unceasing invitations to Sunday services wherever she went. “Don’t forget, you went to church in Mayberry,” passers-by would say with a sickly-sweet, curt grin. That was one of Bavier’s signature moves on the show!
Week after week the same goobers would bump into her asking, “Was that Opie I saw mowin’ yer grass on Sadiddy?” She’d want to scream, “Why are you fixated on my yard?!?” Young couples followed her down the aisles of the Piggly-Wiggly, “Yer not makin’ pickles this summer are ya, Aint Bee?”
Small wonder that, by the 1980s, the former television star was living out of her back bedroom, curtains pulled tight, with 14 devoted kitties for company. She loved her feline companions so much she converted a 250-square-foot bathroom into a sprawling cat box with kitty litter inches deep. What few visitors she had in her final years, store clerks and deliverymen mostly, were overwhelmed by the peeling paint, filthy living conditions and an atmosphere steeped in soft-cream clouds of ammonia that hung over everything like a suffocating umbrella.
Even her “Smart New Look” Studebaker fell prey to the furry Borg; its immaculate vinyl interior shredded, the Chevy 355 cubic inch V-8 engine impossibly clogged with animal dander.
In 1986, three years after she’d stopped venturing out in public, Andy Griffith and Ron Howard made a surprise visit to Siler City’s reclusive cat lady. Bavier refused to allow her decade-long coworkers inside, speaking to them only momentarily through the closed front door. This was after declining repeatedly to be part of their Mayberry reunion movie. Why would she participate? She never liked Andy Griffith from the very beginning.
When she died in 1989, Frances Bavier funneled most of her $700,000 estate into an annuity that, to this day, pays out a yearly Christmas bonus to every Siler City police officer. But her true legacy began gestating not long after she was laid to rest at Oakwood Cemetery. When her home was donated to a local hospital, Bavier’s feral cats scampered for the countryside, causing one hell of a population explosion that is only now, a quarter century later, beginning to subside. Ask any Chatham County veterinarian. They are all too familiar with someone bringing in, “One of Aunt Bee’s cats.”
Excerpted from Reverend Buck Goes to College, Billy Ingram’s upcoming book.