Farewell, Mayberry’s Sweetheart
Editor’s Note: Mayberry’s heart is broken. Betty Lynn died peacefully in Surry County, N.C., shortly before midnight on October 16 after a brief illness. She was 95.
The following tribute is drawn from several sources, including a profile in the October 1993 issue of The Bullet, an updated profile in the April 2021 issue of Our America Magazine, recorded conversations with Betty during the past two decades (including interviews for her recently completed autobiography) and remembrances of friends since Betty’s passing.
By Jim Clark
Destined to one day become and forever remain Mayberry’s Sweetheart, Betty Lynn was auspiciously born in the Heart of America, Kansas City, Mo., on August 29, 1926. The third generation Missouri native was raised by her mother, Elizabeth Lynn, a talented mezzo-soprano, organist and choir director, and by grandparents Johanna (aka Josie) and George Lynn, a longtime, revered engineer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
At age 5, Betty began studying dance with renowned dancer Helen Burwell at the Kansas City Conservatory. By age 14, Betty was acting and singing in supper clubs, as well as performing and doing commercial spots for local radio shows. She was on her way to becoming a true Kansas City star.
While working at the iconic Woolf Brothers Clothing Store in her spare time, Betty demonstrated that she also had a real knack for retail sales. She even seriously considered an offer to become a buyer for Woolf Brothers. Fortunately for show business, if not for the fashion industry, USO talent scouts visited Kansas City and discovered Betty. The idea of joining the USO appealed to both Betty’s enthusiasm for performing and her sense of duty to support the war effort.
After she turned 18, Betty began performing in USO shows at military installations up and down the East Coast. Toward the end of 1944, Betty signed up to perform for the USO Camp Shows overseas on its Foxhole Circuit for six months.
Avoiding any chance of receiving demerits for poor style, Betty got fitted for her official military-issue uniform at New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue and then, along with guitarist Tommy Decker, headed overseas–first to Casablanca and then on to Iran, where Betty, a lifelong devout Catholic, celebrated Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Betty and Tommy eventually made their way to the war’s China-Burma-India theater of operations, where they visited and performed for wounded servicemen at military hospitals. When the allies retook Rangoon (aka Yangon) in May 1945, Betty was one of the first Americans to visit American POWs who had been released to a Calcutta hospital after having endured horrible atrocities during their imprisonment. Till the end of her life, Betty would still get emotional even trying to talk about the servicemen that she visited and the torture that many of them had been through.
At one point in her tour of duty, Betty, Tommy Decker, a couple of Marines, and an interpreter traveled by jeep in a remote area “on the road to Mandalay,” not far from the front lines. A U.S. Marines captain had given Betty a loaded Colt revolver and told her, “Take this. You might need to use it.” Betty recalled, “I didn’t know whether he meant for use on the enemy or in desperation on myself, but I took the gun and always kept it close.” (The revolver is now part of a permanent exhibit dedicated to Betty at the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy, North Carolina.)
Betty and Tommy Decker at times had to cross treacherous rope and bamboo bridges during the throes of monsoon season. They were in places so far-flung that very little news, even important bulletins, reached them.
Betty recalled one particularly poignant example of their isolation. “We finally arrived at this military camp in early May, and I noticed that the American flag was at half-staff on the main building. I asked an officer at the camp why that was. He said it was for President Roosevelt, who had died three weeks earlier. We hadn’t heard a thing about it.”
Betty added, “I really loved President Roosevelt. He did so much good for our country.” Betty took special pride in knowing that her grandfather, the train engineer, once had been specially requested for a Midwest leg of a cross-country train trip by President Roosevelt.
After the war, Betty was recognized for her service “above and beyond the call of duty” with a special commendation from the War Department. She was later named Honorary Colonel in the American Legion.
In 2009, Betty joined veterans of World War II on the North Carolina Triad’s inaugural Honor Flight to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. “I was deeply honored to be asked to participate and to have the chance to express my gratitude to the surviving veterans and those memorialized,” Betty said at the time.
Betty returned to New York City after the war and in time found work. In the fall of 1946, she was touring the Northeast with Park Avenue in preparation for that new show’s Broadway run when she caught the attention of Hollywood scouts. She received offers from seven studios, but ultimately decided to do a screen test for Twentieth Century-Fox, whose head, Daryl F. Zanuck, immediately took out an option on Betty and eventually signed her to a multi-year contract with his studio.
Betty returned to Kansas City to pack up and join her mother for their move to Hollywood. (Because Betty was not yet 21, her mother still needed to sign all contracts.) The pair boarded the Super Chief train in Chicago and arrived in Los Angeles on June 20, 1947, the date Betty’s studio contract began.
Betty’s first film for Fox was 1948’s Sitting Pretty with Clifton Webb, Robert Young, and Maureen O’Hara. Betty won a Photoplay Gold Medal for her portrayal of Ginger. Later that year, Betty also was in Apartment for Peggy with William Holden and Jeanne Crain.
A nice career break came when Warner Bros. was able to borrow Betty from Fox in order to have her play the title role in June Bride with Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery. Betty recalls, “As shooting progressed, I felt pretty comfortable with what I was doing. There was one little hitch, though. The crew would call, ‘Bette to the set,’ and every time they did, Bette would march in, and I’d run in, too. Finally, Bette asked me, ‘Would you mind if we call you Boo?’
“I reassuringly replied, ‘I don’t care what you call me.’ She told me I could call her Bette, and she would call me Boo. From then on, everyone working on the picture called me Boo. And everybody that Bette met or knew or introduced me to called me Boo, too. They didn’t know who Betty Lynn was ever again.” She added, “I really liked Bette a lot, and we made good friends. She and I remained friends for many, many years.”
Betty made several more movies for Fox and others, including RKO, MGM, and Universal. Among the films were Mother Is a Freshman, Father Was a Fullback, Cheaper by the Dozen, Payment on Demand (again with Bette Davis), Many Rivers to Cross (look for her wearing a black wig) and Behind the High Wall.
As Hollywood’s “studio system” faded in the 1950s and Betty’s contract with Fox expired, Betty sought work in the blossoming television industry. Her early performances included eight months in “The Egg and I,” which is often considered to be TV’s first comedy serial and was broadcast live from New York five days a week on CBS in 1952.
Back in Hollywood the next year, Betty played the female lead opposite Ray Bolger in “Where’s Raymond?” for a season on ABC-TV. During this time and spanning decades, Betty also performed in theater productions, including the lead role in Peg O’ My Heart and roles in The Moon Is Blue, King of Hearts, Be Your Age, Come Blow Your Horn and Love Letters.
Betty also performed in more than two dozen episodes of “Matinee Theater,” NBC-TV’s hugely popular hour-long anthology series that aired five days a week–usually live and usually in color, which was a brand new innovation for TV in the mid-1950s.
When Betty had time, she continued to work in radio, including episodes of “Lux Radio Theater,” “Stars Over Hollywood” and some installments of “Family Theater,” as either a lead or host.
In a nod to her Cowtown roots, Betty was a fixture in television Westerns during their glory years of the 1950s and 1960s. A partial roundup includes episodes of “Bronco,” “Wagon Train,” “Cheyenne,” “Tales of Wells Fargo,” and “Sugarfoot,” as well as being co-star for two seasons of “Disney Presents: Texas John Slaughter” with Tom Tryon.
“I adored Walt Disney,” Betty once recalled. “We talked about Kansas City,” which was his hometown, too. “He was really nice and so wonderful to be around.” Betty brought a wistful tear to Disney’s eye when she once told him, “You know, L.A. should’ve hired you to design their city. Then it could’ve looked more like Kansas City with all of its beautiful fountains.” Betty often proudly noted that Kansas City has more fountains than Paris. (And the city likely has as many working fountains as even Rome does.)
Betty was still under contract with Disney for “Texas John Slaughter” when producers for TAGS contacted her about playing Barney Fife’s girlfriend, Thelma Lou. Betty recalled, “I told them I’d love to do the part, but I would need to check with Disney.”
Fortunately for Barney, Mayberry and generations of TV viewers, Disney was in the process of winding down its production of “Texas John Slaughter” and therefore agreed to release Betty to work on TAGS.
“I had seen the ‘Griffith’ show twice before I went to read for the part,” Betty recalled. “I remember that I laughed out loud–it was so funny. I didn’t do that very often. I thought, Gee this is really unusual.”
She added, “I loved working on the show. All of it was a thrill. When I was through with my part, I would stay just to watch them work. They were so good. Bob Sweeney was a fantastic director, and [producer/head writer] Aaron Ruben and the whole crew were terrific. I’m very grateful for it.”
Betty always realized that Thelma Lou’s role in Mayberry depended on Barney Fife. When Don Knotts decided to depart the series after five seasons in order to make movies for Universal Studios, Betty knew that meant that she would be leaving Mayberry, too.
Betty made one final appearance on TAGS when Don Knotts returned in the sixth season for the first of his five guest appearances as Barney. In all, Betty appeared in 26 TAGS episodes, which were originally broadcast between 1961 and 1966 and spanned parts of the show’s first six seasons. Of TAGS actors still living at the time of Betty’s death, only Ron Howard appeared in more episodes of the series than Betty.
Fans would have to wait more than 20 years, but all was once again right in the world of Mayberry, when Thelma Lou and Barney finally got married in Return to Mayberry, the made-for-TV movie that was a ratings blockbuster for NBC in 1986. “Once we got there to film the movie, everything fell right into place,” Betty said. “The spark was still there.”
After TAGS, Betty continued to work steadily, mostly in television. She played Fred MacMurray’s secretary on My Three Sons and Brian Keith’s secretary on “Family Affair.”
Betty worked with Andy Griffith again when she played Sarah, Ben Matlock’s secretary during the first season of “Matlock” in 1986. She likewise reunited with Ron Howard in 1971 on ABC-TV’s short-lived Smith Family, starring Henry Fonda.
Betty also appeared in productions ranging widely from Disney’s The Boy Who Stole the Elephant to “The Mod Squad” and from “Little House on the Prairie” to “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
Beginning in 1990, Betty began participating in various TAGS cast reunion events and Mayberry festivals nationwide, but especially in the Midwest and South. Many of these events have also included performances by Betty and her fellow stars. She has brought the house down countless times with her beautiful renditions of favorite tunes from the American songbook.
Lines often stretched down hallways and around buildings with devoted fans eagerly waiting for their chance to visit with Betty, have their photos taken with her and get an autograph. Betty was legendary for her astounding ability to recognize fans from even many years earlier–often calling them by name and asking about other members of their families, also by name.
“The fans are so sweet,” Betty said. “I really love meeting them and having the chance to visit a little bit. They come from all over the country. It’s so touching that they still remember my movies and love ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ like they do. And especially for the ‘Griffith’ show, there are lots of young children who are fans, too. So, I think the show’s popularity is carrying on through the new generations. That makes me happy.”
After several years of attending the annual Mayberry Days festival in Andy Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy, Betty decided the North Carolina town would be a good place for her to live. She made the move away from the stresses of Los Angeles in 2007. She lived a veritable Mayberry life from then on.
In Betty’s honor and echoing Barney Fife’s description of Thelma Lou, the local Surry Arts Council annually presents the “You’re the Cat’s!” Award to recognize individuals who have made especially noteworthy contributions to the Mayberry Days festival.
Betty also had very fond memories of her visits to Marshfield, Mo., both for the annual Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival and at other times. “I always had such a good time there at the festival,” Betty said. “Everyone is so kind to me. I like Marshfield so much that I even paid my own way to go there one Fourth of July just because I wanted to spend some more time there and enjoy the parade and other festivities with everybody there.”
Marshfield clearly had the same deep affection and respect for Betty. She was inducted into the city’s Missouri Walk of Fame in 2006 and was recipient of the Cherry Blossom Medal at the festival the following year.
Along with other members of the cast and crew of TAGS, Betty was a recipient of the TV Land Legend Award in 2004. In 2012, Betty was also an inaugural recipient of a star on the walkway at the entrance of the Andy Griffith Museum.
On the occasion of her 90th birthday in 2016, Gov. Pat McCrory granted and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest presented Betty with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, generally considered to be the State of North Carolina’s highest civilian honor.
Betty didn’t rest on her laurels. Prior to the pandemic, she greeted fans virtually every month at the Andy Griffith Museum. At the time of her death, Betty had been completing revisions on her autobiography, which is expected to be published posthumously.
A lifelong devout Roman Catholic, Betty was a longtime member of St. Timothy Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles. After moving to Mount Airy, she joined the local Holy Angels Roman Catholic Church.
Betty Lynn is survived by several cousins, many cherished friends and countless adoring fans. Betty’s performances as Thelma Lou and in other roles will continue to entertain generations of appreciative audiences. More than that, all who ever encountered Betty are forever grateful to have known such a truly beautiful soul.
A private burial was held at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, Calif., on October 27th. A memorial service will be announced at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Betty’s memory may be made to the Betty Lynn Scholarship Endowment (for students pursuing a career in dance or acting) or the Barbara and Emmett Forrest Endowment Fund (for the Andy Griffith Museum and Mayberry Days), both in care of Surry Arts Council, P.O. Box 141, Mount Airy, NC 27030; or to Holy Angels Roman Catholic Church, 1208 N. Main Street, Mount Airy NC 27030, or a charity of the donor’s choice.
Long ago, Betty began winning hearts–first in Kansas City, then the East Coast, Asia, Hollywood, Mayberry and beyond. Just as Barney Fife loved Thelma Lou, the whole world loved Betty Lynn. And best of all, she always loved us right back!
Statements From A Few Who Knew Betty
* Ron Howard posted this reflection about Betty on Twitter on October 17:
“RIP Betty Lynn. She played Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show and brightened every scene she was in and every shooting day she was on set. I saw her last a few years ago where she still lit up the room with her positivity. It was great to have known and worked with her. She was truly 95 years young.”
* Elinor Donahue said this in a statement:
“Betty was a dear and loving friend to all who knew her. Her talent will continue to bring joy to her fans via The Andy Griffith Show.”
* Karen Knotts, daughter of Don Knotts, tweeted upon learning the news:
“I’m so sad to hear that beloved Mayberry icon and friend Betty Lynn passed away last night. There was no one more devoted to fans than she. Such a loving and kind soul. We’ll remember and love you always, Betty.”
* Tanya Jones, Executive Director of the Surry Arts Council (based in Mount Airy, N.C.):
“It has been my tremendous honor and joy to work with Betty and to be her friend for many years. It was clear from our first encounter that faith, family, friends and–very, very importantly–her fans are the things that meant the most to her. Betty brought so much joy and love to so many people. Betty’s performances onscreen and the memories of her by those who were fortunate to meet her and know her will enable those feelings to continue.”
Here are some links with additional coverage and discussion of Betty’s career and life: