(WGHP) — The passing of actor Betty Lynn, who played the beloved Thelma Lou on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and her subsequent estate sale in Mount Airy have captured a lot of attention recently.
But this is Christmas week, so let’s turn our attention to an episode of that beloved comedy series that was aired before Lynn’s character joined the show.
That would be the episode we know as “Christmas Story.” This was the only Christmas-related episode of the 249 produced in the series and was No. 11, airing on Dec. 19, 1960. Thelma Lou didn’t meet Deputy Barney Fife until the following March, in Episode 22, “Cyrano Andy.”
“Christmas Story” is among the most popular among fans of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
The venerable movie data site IMBD and the Southern culture site It’s A Southern Thing rate it as the best episode of all time. Wide Open Country ranks it No. 2 (beaten out by “The Pickle Story”).
You probably remember the plot: Crusty businessman Ben Weaver insists that Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Fife jail Sam Muggins for selling moonshine. Despite Andy’s best schemes, Weaver insists, until Andy relents, incarcerates the Mugginses and brings Christmas to the jail. The show has a touch of “A Christmas Carol.”
But what else do you know about these venerable 26 minutes of humanity and comedy?
We bet you didn’t know these five things:
1. He wasn’t really all that old
Will Wright, who played Ben Weaver, made a career of playing generally old and somewhat mean guys in about 100 films and many TV shows. But he really wasn’t as old as he looked. Wright, who had been a newspaper reporter before a switch to acting, was 66 when the Christmas episode aired. Sadly, less than two years later, in June of 1962, Wright died from cancer, just three months after he appeared in “The Merchant of Mayberry,” on March 5, 1962, to complain to Sheriff Taylor that a traveling salesman had set up a stand on a lot near Weaver’s Department Store.
2. If they seem familiar…
Actors Sam Edwards and Margaret Kerry played Sam Muggins, the accused moonshiner, and his wife, Bess, the couple Sheriff Taylor hauls into custody on Christmas Eve under Weaver’s insistence. But Wright, Edwards, Kerry and Joy Ellison, who played the uncredited role of daughter Effie Muggins, also appeared as the Scobey family in Episode 26, “Andy Forecloses,” which aired about four months later. You may recall that Ben Weaver was back to being irascible and wanted to Scobeys kicked out of a house he owned because they were behind in paying their rent. Andy’s creative problem-solving again rescued them, of course. Maybe the repeat casting was because Edwards was a true Southerner, born in Macon, Ga. Wouldn’t it have been much simpler just to keep the characters’ names the same, too?
3. Singing a sweet song
A highlight of “Christmas Story” was a duet sung by Andy Griffith and Elinor Donahue, who played the pharmacist Ellie Walker – they sometimes called her “the lady druggist” – who was Andy Taylor’s first girlfriend on the show. Their relationship endured for only the first season, after which Ellie disappeared and a variety of females then tried to lure widower Andy’s affections before teacher Helen Crump (Aneta Corsaut) succeeded. On Christmas Eve, though, Donahue sang lead on “Away In A Manger” while Andy played the guitar and joined in harmoniously. Both later affirmed that Donahue really did her own singing.
4. They’re still with us
Lynn was nearly the last of the core cast of “The Andy Griffith Show” to pass away, leaving Ron Howard as the only survivor. Donahue and the three children in the episode, Howard, Ellison and actor Kelly Flynn, who played Billy Muggins, are all still living. But so is Kerry, who is 92 and even wrote her own bio on IMBD.com. Kerry didn’t have many lines in her two appearances with Andy and the gang, but she was a voiceover actor for more than 600 roles. She also had one other behind-the-scenes star turn: A dancer by training, she was chosen by Walt Disney to create the fairy Tinker Bell’s dance motions for animators. So when you saw Tink cutting some moves in “Peter Pan,” you actually were watching the woman who spent Christmas Eve in jail in Mayberry.
5. They had careers, too
Ron Howard’s legacy as an actor and director are legendary, but those two other child actors in “Christmas Story” had interesting careers, too. Kelly Flynn was in two very high-profile movies from the 1960s – “A Touch of Blue” and “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” – but he also played a referee in “Valentine’s Day” in 2010. That was Director Garry Marshall’s ensemble movie that featured a host of stars, including Oscar winners Shirley MacLaine, Jamie Foxx and Julia Roberts. Joy Ellison, who played Effie Muggins, didn’t get credit for that part, but she played credited roles in six other episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show,” including as Mary Scobey and as Iris, the girl who jilted Opie Taylor on their date for a party in “Opie’s First Love.” Joy Ellison had a long career as a dialect consultant in dozens of prominent movies and TV series, including the recent “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” She also contributed to the acclaimed “Life of Pi,” had two turns working with Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Chicago” and “The Mark of Zorro”) and was part of several episodes of the renowned “Mad Men” TV series.