With a population of 300, tiny Granville may triple or quadruple its size when it opens the door to its new Mayberry-I Love Lucy Museum on Saturday, June 13.
The big day will star actor-musician Keith Thibodeaux, who portrayed Little Ricky, the son of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, on “I Love Lucy”, and also was Johnny Paul, Opie Taylor’s best pal, on “The Andy Griffith Show”. Also headlining is LeRoy Mack McNees, dobro player for The Country Boys, a.k.a. The Kentucky Colonels, who appeared in two episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” during its first season.
Granville has been promoting itself as Tennessee’s Mayberry town for a while, but the new museum will share half its space with a large batch of “I Love Lucy” souvenirs and merchandise from the collection of super fans Linda and Richard Cox.
The “Lucy” menagerie features photographs, “TV Guide” covers, dolls, plates, coloring books and comic books, along with backdrops of the Ricardo living room and kitchen.
The Mayberry portion of the museum holds a town diorama, trading cards, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts movie posters, personal items from Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee) and George Lindsey (Goober Pyle), a backdrop of Andy Taylor’s front porch, representations of Otis Campbell’s beloved jail cell, Floyd’s Barbershop and Andy’s courthouse desk, plus more Mayberry memorabilia.
The “Lucy” and “Andy Griffith” shows were two of the more popular sitcoms on TV in the 1950s and 1960s, respectively. “Lucy” ran from 1951 to 1957 for 180 episodes, while “Andy Griffith” ran from 1960 to 1968 for 249 episodes. Both were ranked No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings during its final season, and both were filmed at Desilu Studios in Burbank, Calif.
One of the few actors to appear on both “Lucy” and “Griffith” is Thibodeaux (pronounced tib-uh-dough), who worked as a child actor under the name of Richard (Ricky) Keith. He made the trip from Louisiana to Hollywood at the age of 3 after winning a talent show playing drums.
“I was on Horace Heidt’s nighttime TV show and toured with his big band on one-night stands across the U.S. and Canada, and ended up in L.A. We stayed at his ranch and rehearsed, and the interview for ‘I Love Lucy’ came up,” recalled Thibodeaux, 69, who was 5 when he made his debut on the show in 1956.
He described Ball and Arnaz’s Lucy and Ricky as “definitely the anti-characters of ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ They were like the other side of that Hollywood star-kissed glamor. Everything was passionate, and they were very volatile. They had the Rolls-Royces and Lincoln Continentals and the Ferraris, the total opposite of what ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ was. When they filmed, one was high-energy and the other was like laidback.”
After appearing in two dozen episodes of “I Love Lucy,” he made 13 episodes in Mayberry. In between, he worked in a few other TV shows and nearly won roles in two classic films.
“I actually tried out for ‘The Music Man’ and ‘The Sound of Music,’ and almost got that last call for both movies, but when ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ came out, that was my go-to thing,” he said.
As for his best friend in Mayberry, who grew up to be director Ron Howard, Thibodeaux said, “He was a neat kid, very unaffected by his role, very pleasant to be around. We became friends on the set and would hang out and eat together in the commissary and play catch. It was just nice to have another kid to run around with. I probably would have been on more ‘Andy Griffith’ shows if I had stayed, but my parents separated and that basically meant leaving Hollywood.”
He returned to show business in the late 1960s as the drummer for the rock band David and the Giants, an off-and-on gig. While struggling with drugs, feeling miserable and about at the end of his rope, he was invited to a gospel meeting by his mother, which led to a transformation.
“I had a vision of Jesus, and He came into my life, and I was born again, filled with the holy spirit and a different person. I went back to the band and said, ‘Hey, there’s more to God than what we’ve been led to believe. We need to stop this music and glorify God. Let’s just change the lyrics.’ They thought I had taken too many drugs, but I just kept talking to them about Jesus and my-born-again experience.”
Little by little, he said, the other members of the band found their own paths to God and all became Christians. The band switched to playing contemporary Christian rock in 1977.
The drummer later played with another band, the Lively Stones, while his wife was touring with her Christian ballet company, Ballet Magnificat. Then he had another epiphany.
“Our lives were like ships passing in the night, and we had a daughter. Then it was like God told me to leave the band and join my wife and travel with her and be a family. That’s what we did. I transitioned out of music and concentrated on the business side of the company and overseeing operations of our ministry,” he said of the ballet company which has toured the U.S. and also extensively overseas.
He rejoined David and the Giants for some reunion concerts, and the group released “What Are You Waiting For?” last year, which was voted one of the best 10 Christian rock albums of 2019.
“I look back on my life, and I was on one, if not two, of the best sitcoms there ever was,” said Thibodeaux, who still has the drum set that Ball gave him in 1958.
Singing in Mayberry
Granville’s other Mayberry-connected guest, LeRoy Mack McNees, 79, appeared in “The Andy Griffith Show” episodes “Mayberry on Record” and “Quiet Sam” in 1961. Not only did he sing and pick alongside Griffith, but Andy coached him on how to say his line.
McNees recalled, “I said, ‘We appreciate it,’ and Andy said, “No, in Carolina we say ’preciate.’ ”
The musician, who grew up in Southern California, fell in love with bluegrass music as a teenager after hearing a Flatt & Scruggs record.
“I had never heard bluegrass before, and that’s what really piqued my brain about bluegrass music. I tried to find a group but there wasn’t any here in 1959,” he said.
After hearing a bluegrass group playing live on a local radio station, he went to the station to meet them. The band, The Country Boys, invited him to their nightly rehearsals, which led member Roland White to tell him, “We need a dobro player. Why don’t you get one and learn how to play it and join the group?”
McNees found a dobro and began his adventures in bluegrass. As for how he and the Country Boys found their way to TV’s Mayberry, he reminisced, “The way we got on the show came through a booking agent. I was 19, and ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ was my favorite show at the time. When we got the call to go to the Desilu Studios in Hollywood, we were in awe. We went down initially to audition and played for Andy. He said, ‘You’re just right, perfect.’ ”
Later, Griffith asked the band to back him on his album, “Songs, Themes and Laughs From the Andy Griffith Show.”
“We were in the Capitol Records studio where the Kingston Trio had recorded. They had Andy in an isolation booth, and he could see we were nervous. He came down from there and said, ‘Boys, if you don’t do it right the first time, we’ll just do it again,’’
The Country Boys soon changed their name to the Kentucky Colonels and last year were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
McNees left the band in 1964 after making a spiritual decision.
“In the music business, there are a lot of things you can get into. That wasn’t in my upbringing. I felt I needed to go back to my spiritual roots as a Christian. My whole life was revolving around music, and I came back to faith and committed my whole life to Christ,” he said.
McNees’ day job became renting trucks, trailers, construction and high-lift rental equipment, but he couldn’t leave music behind. In 1966 he and Steve Hatfield founded the Born Again Bluegrass Band, which made a dozen albums over 31 years. About three years ago he started another gospel bluegrass group, Gloryland, reuniting with two of the members from Born Again.
This fall the Californian hopes to make his 20th consecutive trip to Mayberry Days in Mount Airy, N.C., Griffith’s hometown, where he will entertain, and wife Janice will make her 10th appearance as the Pickle Queen in the Saturday morning parade.
Of his Granville appearance, McNees said he will be backed on banjo and bass by former Californians Mike and Yvonne Tatar, who live in Hendersonville.
“We’re gonna do ‘Whoa Mule,’ ‘Cripple Creek,’ ‘Cindy,’ ‘New River Train’ and ‘The Crawdad Song,’” he said.
“I Love Lucy” lovers Linda and Richard Cox confess to watching anywhere from six to eight episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” daily. The Sparta residents have about 400 items in their overwhelming “Lucy” collection.
“My wife’s the ‘I Love Lucy’ fan. I’m the hunter,” said Cox. “She is a Lucy fan because Lucy was a comedian who made fun of herself. She started collecting in the 1980s. In fact, we have business cards we passed around that said ‘We Collect Lucy.’ ”
His favorite item in their collection is a 1953 Lucy Ricardo rag doll that he snared for $35 in a Glendale, Ariz., antique shop.
Linda’s favorite is a pair of pencil holders that were personalized Christmas gifts given by Lucy and Desi. Explaining how they were acquired, Richard said, “We went to a flea market in Lexington, Ky. As we were getting ready to leave, we went over to a booth and Linda saw them. She recognized these stick characters of Ricky [Ricardo] and Lucy. We thought they were coffee cups and paid $5 for both of them. When we researched them, we found they were items that were never sold but were gifts to the cast and staff of Desilu Studios and were worth $1,000 each.”
The couple put their collection away for years.
“My wife hit the brakes on it because we had so much stored away. We still look, and I’ve bought stuff she still doesn’t know about,” said Cox, who may have some ’splainin’ to do.
“Granville approached us and said, ‘Let’s do a museum.’ We are so thrilled that Granville has embraced it,” he said. “It’s on extended loan. It’s such a perfect fit. ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and ‘I Love Lucy’ go hand in hand. We’re totally comfortable this is here and home to our ‘I Love Lucy’ collection.”
The historic Cumberland River community of Granville continues its theme as Tennessee’s Mayberry Town with a day of festivities beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 13.
9:30 a.m.: Ribbon cutting at the Mayberry-I Love Lucy Museum; open until 5 p.m.
9:30 a.m.-3 p.m.: Mayberry Automobile Cruise-In
9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.: Pioneer Village with old-time craftsmen
11 a.m. LeRoy Mack McNees performs and shares his experiences on “The Andy Griffith Show”
Noon and 2 p.m.: Keith Thibodeaux (Little Ricky from “I Love Lucy”) performs and shares stories about Lucille Ball and Andy Griffith
Noon-4 p.m.: Cornbread & Moonshine Festival at Pioneer Village and Cornbread Contest
Noon and 3 p.m.: Cornbread & Whiskey musical duo performs
5:30 and 6:30 p.m.: Sutton Ole Time Music House Dinner served
6 p.m.: Sutton Ole Time Music Hour with LeRoy McNees
7 p.m.: Bluegrass show featuring Fredonia Bluegrass Band
Festival admission of $5 includes tours of all museums, historic home and village. Parking is $5. Moonshine Festival tasting is additional $5. For reservations for dinner and shows or for more information, call (931) 653-4151 or go online to granvilletn.com. Historic Granville requires social distancing, encourages wearing of masks and follows State of Tennessee coronavirus safety guidelines.