By Sally Tippett Rains
It was 60 years ago today (Sat. Oct. 3) that the first episode of The Andy Griffith Show aired on CBS. Andy,Opie, Aunt Bee, Barney and the gang premiered October 3, 1960—and filming just wrapped on a new movie called “Mayberry Man” which will bring back all those old memories. The movie will be a lot of fun for fans of The Andy Griffith Show and two lucky St. Louisans have parts in it.
“Initial filming was in Indiana and then moved to North Carolina,” said Greg Schell, a producer of the movie, “Then we filmed in Malibu and just wrapped.”
Production took place this summer in Danville, Indiana– about 3 1/2 hours from St. Louis– and that’s where the local connection came in. Gene Ackmann and Danette Bader (shown left) from the St. Louis area are both in it. The movie involves a hot shot movie star who gets pulled over for a speeding ticket. In his cocky way he assumes he will pay off the ticket and move on–but the judge has other ideas.
The judge orders him to have to attend a Mayberry Festival—a festival centering around The Andy Griffith Show. These types of festivals actually occur annually in real life, both in Mt. Airy, North Carolina the hometown of Andy Griffith; and Danville, Illinois which has a restaurant called the Mayberry Café. The character in the movie absolutely does not want to “waste his time” on that and along the way, events happen which change his life and his attitude.
“It was fantastic and everyone was so much fun to work with,” said Ackman. “Just looking at the streets of Danville, Indiana where we filmed our segment—the way they had it set up was like stepping back in time.”
Ackmann and Bader play “Don and Betty” who are festival attendees interested in getting autographs of the impersonators.
Since the movie takes place in this time era (as opposed to the 1950’s and ’60’s of the black and white television show) they were able to wear their regular clothes.
The photo, right, shows them on the set of the movie.
There is also a subplot in the movie–about two different people making movies about the people who impersonate actors from The Andy Griffith Show. Sounds complicated but it is a heartwarming story. Chris Hudson and Greg Schell play the rival movie producers, and they actually resemble each other which adds to the drama.
Schell points out the movie does not try to “re-do” Mayberry. It is set in modern-day times but pays a tribute to the show and also has fun with the festivals. The Andy Griffith Show characters in Mayberry Man are “tribute characters” so even if some are a little hokey, it works out perfect.
And some of them are really spot on with their portrayals.
“Mayberry Man isn’t about The Andy Griffith Show, really,” says Kerri Brown who worked on the production. “It’s about the life lessons and plain, good old- fashioned decency in people. It’s not about recreating the characters from the show, but rather, about paying tribute to them.”
Brown is an extra and was coordinator for extras in the production. How she got involved in the production played out like a scene from The Andy Griffith Show.
“I grew up on The Andy Griffith Show so I was a fan,” said Brown, who is an author from Georgia. “I showed up at Mayberry Days in Mt. Airy, North Carolina for the first time in 2019, and met Greg Schell and his dad (comedian Ronnie Schell.) I had become Facebook friends with Cort and Stark Howell (shown with her in the photo, right) just before Mayberry Days, because I knew they were going to be there. So, I introduced myself to them at an event called the Mayberry Man Mixer where I learned about the movie. I said to them, ‘This sounds like a really cool project! If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know!’ And here we are a year later!”
With several delays due to the pandemic, the weekend the Danville filming began should have been the Indy 500—the biggest weekend in the Indianapolis area which is very near the small town of Danville.
“As it turned out COVID-19 was bad for us but it was also good,” said Greg Schell a producer of the movie.
The first two weeks of September shooting started on the film that has had to be postponed for several months due to COVID-19. Once they got to filming there was a silver lining, no one was on the street so it was easy to film. There were no crowds from the Indy 500 and not many townspeople were out because of staying home due to the virus. They were able to film it like they wanted because the actors and extras were pretty much the only ones around town due to the pandemic.
“I am so glad we finally got to film it,” said Schell. “Everything with the production is going so great and we are having a lot of fun.”
Greg Schell has been around show business all his life as his dad Ronnie played Duke Slater, who was Gomer Pyle’s best friend.
The elder Schell appeared in two episodes of The Andy Griffith Show before the Gomer spinoff. Though his role as Duke is well-known to old sit-com fans, Schell went on to appear in many television shows and did live comedic appearances with the greats like Frank Sinatra, Tim Conway, Don Rickles and others of that era in Las Vegas.
His son got to know his father’s famous friends including Jim Nabors, Andy Griffith, and Don Knotts.
“Growing up with a father who appeared in two episodes of the Andy Griffith television show, it seemed I was a natural fit to produce this movie. Mayberry Man isn’t so much a re-creation but rather an homage to The Andy Griffith Show and all of the fans who love the show.”
Father and son are shown together in the photo, left.
The St. Louis connection to the movie, Ackman and Bader, who are an engaged couple in real life, met the Schells at the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival in Marshfield, Missouri in 2018 and then saw them again at Mayberry Days in Mt. Airy.
The actors all seemed happy to be in Danville to start shooting in September 2020.
“I had been stuck in quarantine for months in L.A.,” Greg Schell said. “Stuck in quarantine like everybody. Normally I travel a lot but this whole putting my wings down for six months has been a challenge. It’s great to get out and to be doing something so creative.”
“I was delighted to see my friends Gene and Danette make their fine debut as Mayberry autograph seekers!” said Schell. They are shown together in the photo, right, the night before their scenes took place.
Just making the trip and being around others in the production during a pandemic was a big thing for Ackmann whose two bands Butch Wax and the Hollywoods and Garden Party had not been playing for about five months due to the pandemic. Just recently they are playing at small gatherings like wineries, and even then he is keeping a social distance.
“We really have not been out and about because of the pandemic,” said Ackman, “But I felt safe with their COVID-19 protocol on the set.”
Due to the numbers of people allowed when they filmed inside, the set was closed when they performed their part.
“People wore masks when not performing, and there was social distancing,” said Ackman. “They took our temperatures each morning as well as everyone in the cast, so we felt safe during the filming.”
Bader, who works for a financial planning company downtown has been working from home, so she was available when they got the call.
They found out on short notice that filming was going to get underway, so the two grabbed their masks, packed a suitcase and headed to Danville.
“I have never done any acting before,” said Bader. “But our part in this movie was easy since our characters were ‘super fans’… and we are already huge fans of the show!”
The first night they got there they had dinner with Schell. Afterwards they met in the lobby of the hotel where Schell, who plays a character in the movie, began running lines with a castmate.
The night before their filming took place, Ackmann and Bader went over their lines and discussed the film with the actor who plays Floyd the Barber in the movie
Allan Newsome, shown in the photo, right with Bader and Ackman was a dead-ringer for Floyd. He had the same slow southern drawl and when he starts talking one has to do a double take.
“Danette and I enjoyed playing Don and Betty,” said Ackman. “We had a close up and some speaking lines in the movie too.”
Ackmann, shown left with Pierce, who he shared a scene with, has performed with or met many big named musical artists but this is his first time being in a movie.
He has always been an avid fan of The Andy Griffith Show. Literally every day of his life he watches the show twice. He has found it on two different stations and sets his morning and evening routine to it.
During the early days of the pandemic when everyone was in lockdown and STLSportsPage.com was doing daily trivia quiz shows to help reader pass the time, Ackmann was a consultant and provided the questions for the Andy Griffith Trivia Day.
Being around the production crew, he was in hog heaven with all the Mayberry talk.
“We first learned about the movie when we attended Mayberry Days in Mt. Airy, North Carolina last September,” he said. “Anyone who is a fan of the Andy Griffith Show should plan a visit to their Mayberry Days – home to the Andy Griffith Museum, his boyhood home, and the inspiration for the (television) show. This years event will be scaled back due to COVID-19 but we plan on going in 2021 and hopefully they will debut “Mayberry Man,” that is the plan.”
While Ackmann and Bader were there for several days, Greg Schell was in Indiana for weeks doing all the things a producer does.
“As a first-time producer on a feature film, I learned very quickly that there is an endless amount of prep work involved,” he said. “Scouting locations, gathering permits, wrangling extras, acquiring vintage cars, etc. Most of that work was done long before our cameras started rolling last week, and continued on.”
Schell is working with Stark Howell, who is the Director and Screenwriter for the movie. (Schell has the yellow shirt in the photo with Howell, right)
Howell has been a director and storyboard artist in the animation industry for 28 years having worked in that capacity for movies such as Spiderman, Aladdin, Lilo & Stitch, Beethoven, Scooby-Doo, Phineas and Ferb and Hey Arnold!
Stark Howell’s brother Cort Howell serves as a producer.
They are the sons of Hoke Howell, who appeared twice on the Andy Griffith Show as a character named Dud Wash (check that). Hoke Howell was in many sitcoms including Green Acres, The Dukes of Hazzard and Bonanza working along side all the big stars. https://www.mayberryman.com/about/
The Howells grew up with Ron Howard and his brother Clint Howard as their fathers Rance Howard and Hoke Howell were writing partners for a time.
“Working alongside the tireless Howell brothers, Stark and Cort, has been a blessing,” said Schell. “You can really tell that they have poured their hearts and souls into this movie.”
Schell also grew up in a show-business family as his father was comedian Ronny Schell who played Gomer Pyle’s best friend Duke Slater (check) in the TV show Gomer Pyle, USMC. Gomer of course started as a character on The Andy Griffith Show and the Gomer Pyle was a spinoff.
Stark Howard and Greg Schell met each other later in life through surfing. Once they realized the connection to the Andy Griffith Show got together and came up with the idea to do the movie.
They had planned on filming in May during the annual “Mayberry in the Midwest” festival that takes place every year in Danville, Indiana, but the festival was called off because of the pandemic.
Due to COVID-19 and his doctor’s advice, Ronnie Schell was unable to make it to the Indiana and North Carolina filming but was able to film in California.
“My dad is so thrilled that the move is being made,” said Greg Schell. “He’s disappointed that COVID 19 screwed up everybody’s schedules, there came a time we had to make the decision that the show must go on so we decided to go ahead with the production.”
Ronnie Schell is no stranger to attending Mayberry festivals and he has actually been one of the people that Gene Ackmann and Danette Bader got their picture with and autographs from in real life, so it is real life crossing into the movie world. The actors playing the impersonators are really impersonators who attend the festivals.
“When I found out about Stark’s love for The Andy Griffith Show I knew I wanted to bring him to one of these festivals,” said Schell, so they went to the one in Mt. Airy. It was there they met Karen Knotts, the daughter of Don Knotts. She is shown in the photo, left and plays herself in the movie.
Once they got the idea to do the movie they knew they had to have Knotts involved and she was in Danville to film her part of the production.
“She was great,” said Schell. “We shot her scene at 4:00 in the morning. We had to wake up at 3:30 and get to the town square. We were shooting in the dark because her scene was supposed to take place at night. Even though it was early in the morning it looked like it was 10 o’clock at night.”
Knotts has done some acting in the past, but in this movie she is playing herself. The scene is her coming out of the theater one night.
It must have stopped her heart when she first saw the actor who portrays her father. She has attended festivals where he has appeared before. His looks are similar to Don Knotts but it is obvious he has really worked to get his voice and mannerisms down.
“A cool thing in the movie is that there are all these little scenes and things that happen in the movie that are directly related to the Andy Griffith Show,” said Schell. “So if you watched the show, if you are a really big fan of the show, you will catch these things. If you aren’t a die-hard fan there are a lot of things that will go over people’s heads, but the big fans will enjoy these parts.
“They are little gems—in show biz they call them ‘Easter Eggs’– for the true fans. Like there will be a scene where the guy turns to someone and says, ‘This parade’s gonna be big!” and another guy turns and says, ‘Big ain’t the word for it’—and that of course is a classic Barney line. There is stuff like that all throughout the movie.”
Throughout the shooting in front of the courthouse in the town square in Danville which was transformed into Mayberry, Schell said people would say to him it reminded them of Back to the Future.
Back to the Future featured the famous courthouse with the clock and the Hendrick’s County Courthouse in Danville looks similar to the one used in that movie.
“The filming is actually very similar to Back to the Future,” said Schell. “I know Stark is a huge fan of that movie so I think a lot of the shots that we have designed have (Robert) Zemeckis in mind. Zemeckis (director of Back to the Future) is a great director.”
There are a few odd coincidences with the Danville square. At the local movie theater Back to the Future is on the marquis and the aforementioned clock tower which resembles the one from Back to the Future suffered a similar fate.
While Schell was supervising the filming, a local merchant, whose store is in the area told him that that courthouse had also been struck by lightning.In the photo, right, she is pointing to it and explaining.
“She told me the courthouse had gotten struck by lightning and that was exactly what happened in Back to the Future,” he said. “I know Robert Zemeckis went to Danville, Illinois, when he was making that movie. He saw that town square. So when you look at that town square in his movie it looks identical to that clock.”
Schell first came to Danville, Indiana two years ago to attend their Mayberry festival. As soon as he saw the square it reminded him of Back to the Future.
“As soon as I saw the square I looked up and said, ‘man, that looks like the same clock tower that was in Back to the Future’ and Christa Miller who runs the festival said, ‘Robert Zemeckis was here and took a bunch of photos of the town square and went back and built his set.’
“So it is the model for Back to the Future, but when the shop owner told me that their clock tower got struck by lightning after the movie was filmed then it’s even weirder.”
The locations for the movie were various spots around Danville including the Fairfield Inn, the streets and the Mayberry Café.
On a Monday night in Danville they closed down the Mayberry Café, and the movie crew did some filming there. The Mayberry Café is a quaint little diner which capitalizes on fans of the Andy Griffith Show.
There is a squad car parked out front and Andy Griffith Show memorabilia for sale inside. The food is home cooked and made-from-scratch. Menu items include Aunt Bee’s Fried Chicken, Opie’s Prize Catch—Bluegill, Otis’ Whiskey Burger, Ernest T’s Bacon Swissburger and the Barney Burger.
They even have Aunt Bee’s Fried Pickles which reminds loyal Andy Griffith fans of the time Aunt Bee wanted to enter her pickles in a contest and when Andy and Opie tasted them they thought they were the worst things they had ever tasted—so they switched out some other pickles for hers.
Anyone reading this is probably being reminded of episodes they loved.
Greg Schell is excited for fans of the Andy Griffith Show to see the movie when it comes out. Being on the set brings back so many memories from the old black and white television series.
The show ran from 1960 to 1968 with a total of 249 half-hour episodes spanning eight seasons—159 in black and white and 90 in color.
The program is still on television and is shown on ME TV and can be seen on Channel 24 in St. Louis weeknights at 7 and 7:30 p.m.
“I watch it every night and also every morning,” said Ackman.
“People like Gene are the ones who will love this movie the most as they will find those ‘Easter Eggs,’” said Schell.
He had a blast doing the taping as he got to spend time with some of the actors.
“We were in the green room with Bo Pierce who played “Brisco Darling,” said Ackman. The Darlings was the band that came through town. Their daughter Charlene Darling, played by Maggie Peterson always had a crush on Andy and her father would try to get them together.
“It was fun to hang out in the holding room (green room) that day since everyone there loved Mayberry too,” said Bader. “The actual filming of our scene was like a party with a line of fans at the autograph table. Greg was in the scene with us.”
Bader and Ackman as fans were in the scene with Pierce, Chris Hudson, Brett Varvel, Schell and the child who played Opie, shown right. (Photo credit, Kerri Brown)
Since Ackman and Bader have been Mayberry fans, they have used opportunities to travel to places where they would meet others.
“The experience gave us the opportunity to reconnect with some of our Mayberry friends and we made several new friends,” said Bader. “There is a great camaraderie with Mayberry fans as we meet because of a common interest in the Andy Girffith Show and then we are able to see each other at other events.
The weather cooperated and the safety precautions that were put into effect helped get keep the production on schedule once they got it going.
Greg Schell is excited for the fans to see movie and teased about the last scene.
“It is a very fitting scene,” he said. “I won’t say how it ends, but it is a very tender ending, that Andy Griffith Fans will like. I am proud to be a part of this special movie especially because it represents a light hearted brand of entertainment, wholesome family fun with a few fun moments moments that every Andy Griffith Show watcher will enjoy.
“And it’s gonna be big… BIG! Lots of talented and comedic actors and actresses surround our narrative and Mayberry will be so delightful on the big screen”
Fans are going to love this movie. “Big ain’t the word for it.”