MOUNT AIRY, N.C. -- His picture is all over town. It's both icon and wanted poster. You come across it more often than the smell of pine needles and sap. It seems impossible that "The Andy Griffith Show" was never actually filmed here. It seems impossible that Andy Griffith was never actually the sheriff.

He has come, some say. During the Autumn Leaves Festival one October he sauntered down his home town streets in disguise -- a beard and mustache, perhaps. This is because, the mythology goes, he was mobbed once -- unbelievably -- in this sweet hill town of 7,000. Nobody remembers the mobbing, though, only the story of the mobbing.

Andy -- here he's known by his first name -- visits kinfolk secretly, according to the Mount Airy News in a controversial article last week: "Residents Ponder Griffith's Absence." It was controversial because, well, it was a little unforgiving. Also, some say, Andy has no close kin left to visit. Also, they explain, he's very busy filming his NBC series, "Matlock." Anyway, most everybody says, the town of Mount Airy still loves Andy Griffith and everything "The Andy Griffith Show" stands for.

Welcome to the real Mayberry.

The moon rises over Mount Airy, over the old schoolhouse, which is now called the Andy Griffith Playhouse. It's Thursday, the night before the big day: the First Annual Mayberry Day, being held in honor of the 30th anniversary of the TV show shaped around Andy Griffith -- his humor, his vision, and the memories of his youth he distilled like moonshine into eight years of sitcom plots.

The bungles and glitches are quickly becoming town lore. Andy Taylor and Barney Fife and the rest of the characters are missing, but the creation of Mayberry Day is starting to seem like an episode from the series. Small time, small scale, small town.

There's a horrible buzz at the beginning of the "Remembering Andy" videotape that somebody's trying to fix. The marquee on the Main Street cinema has a couple things wrong because they ran out of letters. The mayor has called, announcing that he's coming to Mayberry Day "in costume" and "in character," but people seem to think he's enough of a character already. There's a litter of kittens, looking lost and mewing, under the card tables set up for tomorrow's bake sale. There was a brief scare when somebody thought "sheriff" might be misspelled on the side of the 1962 Ford Galaxie the town bought for $1,400 and had restored and detailed to look like Andy Taylor's squad car. And there's a local die-hard Andy Fan sitting inside the playhouse lobby trying to get his stereo equipment and amps hooked up so he can play his collection of 25 Andy Griffith albums tomorrow when all the other Andy Fans come to town. Every time he tries to turn on his stereo, sparks fly, the lights in the playhouse flash and a sonic boom goes off. (He will remain there, flashing and booming, until 10:30 p.m., when he's told to go home.)

"This is a classic small town," says Tanya Jackson, director of Mayberry Day. "We have all the seasons. The leaves turn on cue."

To be precise, Jackson is the director of the Surry Arts Council -- this is Surry County, N.C. -- which has taken over the Andy Griffith Playhouse. She and the council came up with the Mayberry Day idea. Since there was going to be a big gathering of the Andy Griffith Rerun Watchers Club on Saturday in Charlotte, and TBS will be running an anniversary special this Wednesday, the town of Mount Airy -- being the inspiration for Mayberry -- felt it would like to do something, anything, in honor of the show and for any Andy Fans who might be making a pilgrimage to The Birthplace.

"This is like Mecca," Jackson says. "Come walk where he walked."

Jackson is a Mount Airy native, went to Duke University, is in her early forties and shows the occasional irreverence of her generation. She doesn't want it said that she's been exactly "harassed" by Andy Fans, but she has been getting lots of weird calls -- some of them from her own friends. "Don't say anything that suggests I'm not just loving this," she says.

Sitting around in the moonlight with a few people, Jackson says she's mailed tickets to Houston and to Fort Lauderdale, and got a call from Alaska.

Rick White is the first way-out-of-town Andy Fan to appear. He's from Nashville. He's 30. He's in the "automotive-related industry," he says, and this is his first visit to Mount Airy, and he's already pitching in -- setting up tables and chairs, and helping out.

Mayberry Day is the largest event the Surry Arts Council has ever tried to organize. In four weeks they've put together a walking tour of the town, games for kids, a bake sale, a Mayberry cast look-alike contest and a bluegrass concert by Doug Dillard -- who used to play one of the Darling Boys on the series. The "Remembering Andy" tape was made, featuring interviews with Mount Airy natives who grew up with Griffith.

Polly Long turns up. She's just given her first tour of "Mayberry" to a couple from Houston. She looks around at the playhouse lawn, at the card tables and chairs already set up, at the checkered tablecloths and signs that will sit there overnight.

"I'm worried," she says.

"Nothing's going to get stolen," Jackson reassures her.

"Oh, I'm not worried about crime," says Long. "I'm worried about dew."

The Mayberry Mythos It starts with whistling and snapping fingers, a harmonized tonic. Sheriff Andy Taylor and son Opie hold fishing poles over their shoulders. There are patches of sunlight hitting the lane behind them, and the pond lies just beyond. The air must be cool -- Andy's in his long-sleeved sheriff's shirt -- but not cold enough to wear a sweater. A perfect day. The perfect time of year. Forever.

For 30 years now, the town of Mount Airy has watched its legends played out on television. The town drunk became Otis Campbell, the one who let himself in and out of his own jail cell. Andy Griffith's aunt, who partly raised him, became Aunt Bee, who never stopped cooking. The barbershop became Floyd's Barbershop, and the local diner, the Snappy Lunch, even got mentioned by its real name on the ninth episode. The old fishing hole -- which exists no more -- became a hallowed sunlit spot, filmed in Coldwater Canyon on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

And now Mount Airy has more than just its own past, it has Barney Fife and Aunt Bee. It has Ernest T. Bass and Goober Pyle and Gomer Pyle and Thelma Lou and a kid named Opie who'd never grow up.

"I think it's more the out-of-towners who are really more caught up in the Mayberry mythos," says Brack Llewellyn, program director of the Surry Arts Council. "I'm the wrong person to ask this. I'm a realist. It's a TV show, not real life. Still, there seems to be a longing to find that perfect little town as it's depicted in the show. People come, looking. And they are always a little disappointed."

Sipping a Coke The Snappy Lunch was opened in 1923. It sits across from the jade-colored deco movie theater on the old downtown strip, which Barney used to call "The Loop." Edward Hopper could have painted this stretch of storefronts -- some deserted -- along Main Street.

Today the windows are washed, sparkling, and floppy yellow ribbons are tied to the doors in preparation for Mayberry Day.

Charles Dowell is prepared too. He's had 400 Snappy Lunch T-shirts printed up and is selling them for $6 each. Andy, Opie and Aunt Bee stare out from the shirts with full mouths and smiles.

Born and raised in Mount Airy in a family of 15 kids, Dowell got his first job at the Snappy Lunch in 1943. At that time, when Andy Griffith was in high school and used to eat there every day, "you could get a sandwich and a drink for 10 cents plus 1 cent tax," Dowell says. The diner is untouched by time. It has booths and a counter and a big griddle you can see from the sidewalk. Dowell bought the place in '51. The hamburgers are now $1.15.

He remembers, in the late '50s, how Geneva Griffith, Andy's mother, used to stand by the window sipping a Coke, waiting for the matinee of "No Time for Sergeants" -- her son's movie -- to finish.

"She'd just stand there," says Dowell, "then she'd walk over to the lobby and sign autographs. She was as proud of him as she could be."

Stopping by the Snappy Lunch has become a tradition for Andy Fans. Dowell has a guest book he started just four months ago. There are 600 names in it already -- or more -- from as far away as Maine, Canada, Philadelphia.

"I don't know any person," he says, "who inspires as much love and good feeling as Andy Griffith does. People just walk in here and beam when they see his photographs. They look at every single one before they'll sit down."

The Underbelly END NOTES Stuck up on a bulletin board in the Surry Arts Council office, there's a sketch in blue ink, likely the work of a local artist. Tanya Jackson and Brack Llewellyn have probably forgotten it's even there. An underbelly has been improvised: It's a caricature of Andy Griffith as Sheriff Taylor, wearing a black eye patch and brandishing a wolf's-head cane. Deputy Barney Fife -- wearing the expression of a psychotic -- is pictured beside him.

"Dark Andy," it says at the top of the drawing. "And Barney," it says in parentheses underneath, "off his medication."

In the Phone Book "They haven't gone overboard. It's still very much like Mayberry -- people are friendly and down to earth and nice," says Jim Clark in a phone interview from Nashville. He's the president of the Andy Griffith Rerun Watchers Club, which has 20,000 members. He's also organized the Charlotte celebration and is the author of "The Andy Griffith Show Book," a collection of trivia and photographs.

"It's not like when the Hollywood producers came to Mayberry," he says. "It's the episode called 'Mayberry Goes Hollywood,' and these producers came to town to do a story on a small town uninfluenced by Hollywood, and the townspeople got all spruced up and dressed up and changed the names of their businesses to sound more Hollywood-like."

The slim Mount Airy phone book reveals a certain self-consciousness and pride, though:

"Aunt Bee's Family Restaurant."

"Mayberry Express Lube."

"Mayberry Fashions."

"Mayberry Motor Inn."

"Mayberry Pawn & Music Co."

The Aunt Bee Suite Alma Venable is sitting behind her desk at the Mayberry Motor Inn. She has short, ash blond hair and blue eyes. She was born and raised in Mount Airy, and this used to be the Mount Airy Motor Inn until a year and a half ago. It's a red brick semicircle of rooms around a white gazebo. There are two American flags. A swimming pool. A marquee you can read from Highway 52: "Welcome Mayberry Day."

She and her husband, L.P. Venable, have owned the inn since 1967. "We're all proud of Andy," Alma says while L.P. videotapes his wife being interviewed. "He put us on the map."

The Venables didn't really know Griffith personally, but Alma used to be a beautician, "and for many years," she says, "I did Andy's mother's hair. She loved to talk about him."

"Andy was her only son," says L.P. from behind the camera.

"Andy was just about all she had," says Alma. "And I know that he called her every day -- until he moved her out to California with him."

On the television set, the Venables are playing their videotape of "Aunt Bee's Auction," as they call it. Frances Bavier, who played Aunt Bee on the series, was a New York actress who retired to Siler City, N.C. -- a two-hour drive from Mount Airy. She died, at 86 years old, last December, and divided her 15 cats and $700,000 estate among friends and charities.

In May, the contents of Bavier's house were auctioned in Raleigh. The Venables purchased several items: an armchair with ram's-head legs, a Louis XV-style table, a crystal water glass and Louis XVI-style twin beds.

"We are going to put together an Aunt Bee's suite," says Alma. Guests of the motor inn will have the opportunity to sleep surrounded by Bavier's possessions and any other memorabilia the Venables can collect in the meantime. "But I guess," Alma says, "we'll never get the chance to buy some of Andy's things the way we got Aunt Bee's. We were pretty lucky."

No Time "He's not doing any interviews," says Andy Griffith's longtime manager, Richard Linke, from Los Angeles. "He's got a very time-consuming show. I've been besieged all week and last with calls about this thing. He just can't be there, and he doesn't have time to talk about it."

A Few Stories Two hundred people or so gather in the bright Friday sunshine outside the old city hall for the opening ceremony of Mayberry Day. It's mostly townspeople, plus a handful of Andy Fans with video cameras and correspondents from the Associated Press and National Public Radio. Mayor Maynard Beamer, dressed as Mayor Stoner, proclaims the day an annual event, and the Mount Airy High School choral group sings the "Andy Griffith Show" theme song a cappella while snapping fingers:

What a great place to rest your bones, and mighty fine for skippin' stones

You'll feel fresh as a lemonade, a-settin' in the shade

Whether it's hot, whether it's cool, oh what a spot for whistlin' like a fool.

A siren starts up at some point, and the crowd breaks into loud applause when the Ford Galaxie pulls into the parking lot. It's driven by a real Mount Airy policeman, Roger Haymore, who is pretending -- for the ceremony anyway -- to be Barney Fife.

"Drove pretty good for an old car," Haymore says. "Didn't think it'd stop, though. Brakes aren't so good."

Tanya Jackson points out Glenn Thacker. He's Andy Griffith's third cousin and look-alike (same handsome hair and overbite). "No telling," he says with a smile, "how many cousins Andy has."

Thacker hasn't seen Andy in years, but he's got a few stories. "We had good times as children," he says. "It was during the Depression. You had to have a sense of humor then. They were hard times, but you got used to it."

His cousin, Thacker says, was too shy to skinny-dip at the local swimming hole, which the boys called "Little Slippy." He also took to music instead of sports. "Andy wasn't bashful about singing in front of people," he says. "I remember when he got onstage and did 'On the road to Mandalay, where the flyin' fishes play.' You'd break out in chill-bones when he sang. He had a stirring voice."

"They kept Andy in Dora Valentine's third-grade class for two years, you know," he says. "His mother told him that Dora Valentine kept him there because she liked him so much, not because he was as dumb as a post."

Undercover Drug Operation The first walking tour of "Mayberry" is being given. Thirty people have shown up -- including the Houston couple, a Michigan couple, a Winston-Salem couple, the NPR reporter, the town mayor and, yes, the sheriff of Mount Airy. John Meroney has come too. He's the president of the Andy Griffith Appreciation Society, and at 20 years old looks tremendously like Opie, except his front teeth aren't missing.

The first stop is the Andy Griffith Playhouse, where the young Andy first stood on stage and sang "On the Road to Mandalay." Next is the Moody Funeral Home, the old boardinghouses where somebody like Barney might have lived, and then a stop in a parking lot where it is explained that Mount Airy has the largest open-faced granite quarry in existence, which exports tombstones all over the world. There's a stop at the Kasco Market and Holcomb's Hardware, where Andy must have shopped, and then the tour moves to sites along Main Street: Floyd's Barbershop; the old cinema, crammed with memorabilia; the Snappy Lunch; and an empty store that has been done up in Frances Bavier's belongings, courtesy of the Venables. This last is called "The Canton Palace," after an episode in which Aunt Bee opens a Chinese restaurant. The rerun is playing on Tanya Jackson's television set. Tea and fortune cookies are served.

Also along for the tour is Mount Airy's sheriff of 12 years. His name is W.R. "Bill" Hall, and he's up for reelection on Nov 6. He's a big man with big shoes to fill. There's a white bandage on his right hand. "Chainsaw," he says. Eight stitches.

Andy Taylor had only one deputy -- Barney Fife. Hall has 29. Andy and Barney seemed to spend most of the day with their feet up on their desks, reading the Mayberry Gazette with the gun rack remaining undisturbed behind them.

"There's more crime now," says Hall. "We just finished an undercover drug operation and issued 54 people warrants. We rounded them up about two weeks ago. Crack cocaine is our big problem. The homicide rate isn't too great, though. We average two a year in a county of 64,000 people."

The tour ends at the Snappy Lunch, where a crowd has gathered. An adman named Duke Snyder says there should be billboards or something out on the interstate for the diner, or maybe Mount Airy in general. "This town represents a lifestyle," he says, "what we like to think is the true America. They don't know what they've got here."

Doug Dillard and his band turn up for lunch, and Jackson tries to find them a booth. Charles Dowell -- beside himself at the sight of Dillard -- is churning out plates and plates of pork chop sandwiches. The musicians are starving, they say. They haven't had a thing since their continental breakfast at the Mayberry Motor Inn: Fig Newtons and orange juice.

Barney Hosts a Summit John Meroney, of the Appreciation Society, has some thoughts. And he's thought a lot about "The Andy Griffith Show," even moderated a show that TBS will run before its anniversary salute this Wednesday.

"It was a pioneer show," he says. "It was the first rural comedy, the first situation comedy, the first to use close-ups, the first to deal with real issues. Have you seen 'Barney Hosts a Summit Meeting'? It's an episode where Mayberry is picked as a small-town location for a summit with the Russians. ...

"We sent episodes this year to the Kremlin and the White House -- suggesting North Carolina as a summit site for Gorbachev and Bush -- and got responses from both."

Last year, Meroney says, he brought seven Greyhound buses of Andy Fans to Mount Airy. He's shuffling along down Main Street today, taking in the small town again. He says most Andy Fans -- according to "demographics" -- are in their thirties. They are mostly kids from big cities, kids grown up and still living there.

"Of course," he says, "no town could live up to Mayberry -- it's a TV town, like Camelot or Brigadoon. A never-never land."

He passes a picture of Andy Griffith, posted in a store window.

Too bad he couldn't come.

"If you think about it, the main character of the show was never Andy Taylor," he explains. "It was always the town."