It was not your typical frat party. The year was 1979, and a group of Vanderbilt University students gathered before the television in the Phi Kappa Sigma house. Jim Clark, a North Carolina kid attending the Nashville school, put the club together. Forget beer pong and togas. These college guys were going to Mayberry. They were dedicated viewers of The Andy Griffith Show.
“It started out tongue in cheek but it really caught on,” Clark told the Associated Press in 1983. “I was surprised at how many people were fanatics about it like I am.”
Clark grew up watching the wholesome sitcom, set in a fictional town near his own home. “They were more than just jokes, one-liners. There was almost always a moral.”
After graduating, Clark was working as a waiter in Nashville. But he kept his Andy Griffith Show club going. It was more than just watching tapes of old episodes.
“When a station takes it off the air, we write them,” the 23-year-old explained. He also published a newsletter titled The Bullet three times each year. Clark claimed some famous members of his club, including cable magnate Ted Turner, country rockers the Oak Ridge Boys, the governor of North Carolina — and even castmembers Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, and Jack Dodson.
At that time, in 1983, Clark’s faction was one of 15 chapters of the Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club nationwide. The AGSRWC counted 1,000 members. There was a “Kerosene Cucumbers” branch run by preachers in North Carolina. The Otis Campbell Chapter — named after the town drunk of Mayberry — in Mississippi touted 300 members. A woman named Debbie in Ohio paid a dollar to join her local chapter. It was a no-brainer for her. She named her dog Opie Taylor and her parrot Barney Fife.
In 1986, fellows from the Mayberry Union High chapter in Longview, Texas, spoke to the AP about their fandom.
“I saw a story about the fan club in The Dallas Morning News,” Mayberry Union High founder Ronnie Morrison said. “We then got a charter.” Morrison had 25 tapes of the show, recorded on a VCR.
This was the state of TV fandom before the internet — word of mouth, newspaper profiles, and lots of dubbing with VHS tapes. Morrison had a goal of grabbing every single episode off the airwaves. “My family gives me a hard time with where I’m going to store all my Andy Griffith tapes,” Morrison joked. Ah, the storage conundrums of pre-streaming.
In just three years, the AGSRWC has ballooned to 12,000 members around the world. The mission remained clear — keep Mayberry on the air. (Well, and watch The Andy Griffith Show as frequently as possible.)
“Our purpose is to keep it on the air,” Morrison said. His chapter took a kind approach, like the folks in Mayberry might. They wrote stations thanking them for airing the sitcom, and sent letters to sponsors, expressing their gratitude.
Morrison credited Jim Clark, that kid from Vanderbilt, for convincing networks to reunite the cast of The Andy Griffith Show for a reunion movie.
“I’m convinced the actions of Jim Clark and this club is what got NBC interested in the reunion show,” Morrison said of Return to Mayberry, which premiered in 1986. “It was the driving force of the movie and its success. They’re supposedly making a second one.”
Well, they never did make a second one. But The Andy Griffith Show remains a cherished part of American television viewing to this day. Thanks to the dedication of its fans.