|Frances Bavier, Aunt Bee|
July 24, 2010Who woulda thunk it? Aunt Bee. Born in New York City? Well, that's not really true but the Frances Bavier who played one of the most beloved, sweet, familiar actresses ever on television was born in New York City, on January 14, 1902. She became the epitome of the small-town, matriarchal, lovable, aunt in The Andy Griffith Show. Who can forget the fowl-tasting pickles she made that were devoured, reluctantly, by Andy, Opie, and Barney; or the time someone emptied moonshine into the water bottle at Andy's office. Aunt Bee and some of her lady friends got a sip or two of it and wound up at the Taylor home with Aunt Bee pounding away at the piano while she and the ladies sang their hearts out, gleefully--in an inebriated stupor. Still, today, when I see her--short, stocky, and plump--with that ever-present hair bun, on The Andy Griffith Show re-runs, she evokes, in me, heart-warming thoughts and memories of my long-gone grandmothers and aunts.
Bavier studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and attended Columbia University, as well. She traveled the Midwest with stock companies during the 1920s and made her way back to Broadway, debuting, in 1925, in The Poor Nut. Her Broadway success continued throughout the 1930s. During World II, she traveled with the USO. By the 1950s she'd made her way onto television and films. In 1951, she made her screen debut in the sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still and throughout the 1950s, Bavier was a regular on two TV series: It's A Great Life and The Eve Arden Show.
Although her role as Aunt Bee is the role for which she will forever be remembered, it was a role she reportedly despised. Bavier, who had a reputation as being "standoffish and a prima donna" on set, was none to fond of The Andy Griffith Show star Andy Griffith. Many years after the show ended, speaking by phone to Griffith, Bavier expressed her sorrow and regret that the two of them had not gotten along better. [According to some observers who live in or around Manteo, North Carolina, where Griffith now resides, Andy is, allegedly, standoffish and not very friendly to some who've had chance encounters with him. Disappointing revelations]. When the cast reunited, in 1986, for the TV movie Return To Mayberry, Frances refused to appear.
Working little after the show ended in 1970, Bavier retired to Siler City, North Carolina, in 1972, the town that was her home for her last 17 years. Details surrounding her decision to relocate in Siler City are varied. One version is that, after befriending a resident of Siler City during a weight-loss program at Duke University, Frances decided to move there. The following is the version told by Joe McKeever, a visitor in Siler City who wanted to meet the actress:
I asked a man: 'Is there anyone in town who knows her well whom I could talk to?' He thought for a minute and named a local woman who ran a craft store. 'She's the daughter of Miss Bavier's best friend, the one she came out here for.' I found the woman working in the back of her shop. When I said I wanted to learn more about Frances Bavier, she grew silent. You got the impression people had been here before trying this approach. I assured her my interest was only personal, that I loved the show, and figured this would be the closest I would ever get to meeting her. When my mother wrote her a fan letter, she wrote back. They started swapping correspondence and then Mother went out and visited her. She started coming here on vacations, and eventually decided to move here.
'She fell for the Mayberry myth,' she said. 'You know how the show would sometimes mention Siler City. Well, it sounded to her like an idyllic place to live--the perfect small town where everyone knows you and neighbors look out for one another. But it was a mistake,' she said. 'At first, the town welcomed her. She rode in the high school homecoming parade as a grand marshal or something. But pretty soon she grew tired of curiosity seekers walking all over her lawn and peeking in her windows.
School buses would unload in the front yard and people would walk around her house, and it was more than she could take.
She hired a neighborhood boy to cut her grass, and when the kids at school started teasing him, calling him Opie, he quit. That's the sort of thing she has had to put up with. I imagine she has regretted a thousand times moving here. She's up in years now and in poor health, but she has her cats, and a maid to look after her.
McKeever added: "Once my wife and I drove up to Mount Airy, North Carolina, the town where Andy Griffith grew up. He has said repeatedly that 'Mayberry,' of The Andy Griffith Show, was not patterned after his hometown, that it was a composite of a lot of peoples' thinking. But there was Floyd's Barber Shop and the City Cafe running its blue plate special. Out on the highway was Aunt Bee's Restaurant, not far from the billboards erected by the Chamber of Commerce, inviting tourists to stop and visit the real Mayberry. It turns out that even Mayberry is looking for 'Mayberry.'
"Andy Griffith once did an interview with Ralph Emery, and the subject of Frances came up. He said that both he and Ron Howard tried visiting her in Siler City--unannounced. She flipped. Later, a mutual friend of theirs called Andy and said that Frances wanted to talk to him. Andy called her; and she told him that she was sorry they never got along better. She told him that she had two heart attacks and cancer. Andy said in the interview that it wasn't that they didn't get along; it was just that she didn't always feel up to playing the role."
Bavier was admitted to Chatham Hospital the day before Thanksgiving, 1989. She was kept there for two weeks and discharged on Monday, December 4. She died in her home on Wednesday, December 6, 1989, of heart failure. She was 86 years old.
Upon her death, those who entered her home found it reeking of cat urine. The plaster was peeling, the carpets frayed, and the upholstery worn. She had 14 cats and their litter box was the basement shower. "Not in it, it was it."
Supposedly, Frances spent most of her time in a large back room, sparsely furnished with a bed, a desk, a television and an end table. The only mementoes found were a few hats and dresses that she wore on the show. In the garage was a blue 1966 Studebaker with four, flat tires. Reportedly, it was the same car that she drove in Mayberry RFD. The last time she used the car was in 1983--for a trip to the grocery store. In all, her estate was worth $700,000 and her possessions were worth just under $32,000.
Bavier created a $100,000 trust fund providing Siler City police a bonus every Christmas. Interest from the fund ($3,400, in 1992) is divided among the officers. Bavier also set aside $50,000 for the Siler City Rescue Squad and $50,000 for the Siler City Volunteer Fire Department.
She bequeathed $50,000 to her longtime chauffeur/butler. She left her home to the Moore Regional Hospital, where she had been a patient several times. She left the contents of the house, which were auctioned off, raising $120,000 for public TV, to the University of North Carolina for Public Television. The most sought after piece was her 1966 Studebaker Daytona, the green, two door sedan with four, flat tires and a dented fender. It got world attention. Callers came as far as England and Sweden. The old car sold for $20,000 to Stan Bingham and Brown Loflin of Davidson County.
Frances Bavier is buried in Oakwood Cemetery near the home where she lived. On her tombstone are two words: "Aunt Bee."