DATELINE: Morgantown, West Virginia - As part of the 2nd Annual Sunrise to Canton Road Trip for Research, the Not Now Silly Newsroom sent ace investigative reporter Headly Westerfield to Morgantown, West Virginia, for a privately conducted Don Knotts Memorial Nostalgia Tour. Here is his uncensored report: *
I drove into Morgantown after midnight, although I had been expected hours earlier. Because I was running so late, my correspondent had already gone to bed. To make matters worse, due to a faulty GPS and an incredibly dark section of road on the outskirts of town, I passed the driveway of the condo complex several times before I finally gave up and phoned. A teenager I had never spoken to before answered. Even with his help I managed to pass the entrance another two times. Finally he came out to the main road, while still on the phone, and waved a flashlight. To my chagrin, I was in the parking lot right next door. I hoped this would not be an omen for the Don Knotts Memorial Nostalgia Tour.
A quick dip into the WickyWhackyWoo also tells me that Morgantown was named after one of the first homesteaders, Zackquill Morgan. Morgans Town was incorporated as Morgantown by the Virginia General Assembly in 1838. It is best known -- for better or worse -- as being the birthplace of Don Knotts.
Before my editor arranged for the privately conducted Don Knotts Memorial Nostalgia Tour, I didn't know a whole lot about Don Knotts, other than many of his roles. I remember as a kid seeing him on the Steve Allen Show, often playing a nervous man-in-the street. Then, of course, there was Deputy Barney Fife, the role that made him famous. Another of his tee vee roles was that of swinging-single-man-about-town, Ralph Furley. Knotts jumped into the already successful Three's Company after ABC ill-advisedly spun off The Ropers, which barely lasted a season and a half before it was cancelled. And, of course, I knew all those whacky movies from the '60s: The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Reluctant Astronaut, and The Shakiest Gun in the West, among others. I grew up on Don Knotts comedy. He made me laugh.
|Don Knotts with Danny "Hootch" Matador (right)|
Knotts' paternal ancestors had emigrated from England to America in the 17th century, originally settling in Queen Anne's County, Maryland. Knotts' father was a farmer. William Knotts had a nervous breakdown due to the stress of the fourth child, Don, being born so late (Don's mother was 40). Afflicted with schizophrenia and alcoholism, he sometimes terrorized his young son with a knife, causing the boy to turn inward at an early age. Knotts' father died of pneumonia when Don, the youngest son, was 13 years old. Don and his three brothers were then raised by their mother, who ran a boarding house in Morgantown.
More pics: The Don Knotts Memorial Nostalgia Tour on Facebook
|The Metropolitan Theatre in beautiful downtown Morgantown|
When the war was over, Knotts decided to try New York City all over again.This time he used the connections he made during his tour of duty to get a toe-hold in the business called Show. Aside from appearing at some comedy clubs, Knotts started to get a bit of radio work. Tee vee was still in its infancy when, in 1953, Knotts took on the regular role of Wilbur Peterson on Search For Tomorrow, his only dramatic part in a long comedic career. However, it was on Steve Allen's show where he gained his first brush with real fame. While he was appearing on that show, Knotts his Broadway debut in No Time For Sergeants.
No Time For Sergeants has an interesting history, especially since it's the vehicle that brought Don Knotts and Andy Griffith together as an enduring comedy team. It started as a 1954 novel by Mac Hyman, about the antics of an unsophisticated country boy drafted into the Army Air Force during WW2. It was adapted a year later by Ira Levin as a 1-hour segment of The United States Steel Hour, which starred Andy Griffith (and some folks that few people remember). Andy Griffith had become an over-night sensation when his rural comedy monologue, What It Was, Was Football, was released as a single in '53. It was a no-brainer to look at Andy Griffth when a country bumpkin was needed for the No Time role.
|The Don Knotts Childhood Home|
Then Levin adapted the teleplay and Broadway hit into a full-length motion picture, called, not surprsingly, No Time For Sergeants. Both Knotts and Griffith reprised their roles in that 1958 hit movie directed by Mervyn Leroy. This flick is considered the springboard that launched the national careers of Don Knotts and Andy Griffith.
Two years later when Andy was looking for a second banana for The Andy Griffth Show he didn't have to look much farther than Don Knotts. The rest is tee vee history.
|The Morgantown High School auditorium|
The first stop was, fittingly, the Don Knotts Childhood Home, which sadly is unmarked or commemorated in any way. The house presents a very small façade from the street, but because it was built on one of Morgantown's many hills, the land drops away sharply in the back revealing a deep 3-storey structure that could have easily been used as a boarding house. It's a humble beginning for the 5-time Emmy Award winner.
Not very far away, after navigating a few more of Morgantown's hills and one way streets, we come to Morgantown High School, where Don Knotts began his long career as an entertainer. Outside the school's auditorium there is an appropriately moving tribute to those alumni who gave their lives fighting in various wars. However, there was nothing that this reporter could see that commemorated Morgantown High's most famous graduate, Don Knotts, ranked by TV Guide as #27 on its list of 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time.
Bigger disappointment was still to come.
Jumping back into the car, we raced the several blocks to the location, fighting the heavy downtown Morgantown traffic all the way. We were forced to pay for parking at an available meter more than a block away. Walking up to the building, this is what greeted us:
|The scene of the crime against humanity! Where is the brass plaque honoring Don Knotts that was embedded in the sidewalk?|
|And, I made sure I wiped my dirty shoes on their nice rug, too!|
Now, keep in mind that I had already traveled some 2,000 miles on the Sunrise to Canton Road Trip for Research to get this far (not counting several touristy side trips). Why wasn't Don Knotts getting the kudos he deserved, other than a small section of University Avenue renamed Don Knotts Boulevard during a Don Knotts Day held while the comedian was still alive?
There was no way I was going to put up with this bullshit.
I stormed inside and marched right up to the ticket windows. The two women inside the booth cowered as I demanded to know where the Don Knotts Memorial sidewalk plaque was. I made sure they learned some new expletives. I impressed upon them how many thousands of miles I had already traveled. Raising my voice to the highest dudgeon, I informed him that, as an employee of the Not Now Silly Newsroom, I refused to leave unless they gave me satisfactory answers to my questions. As they shuddered under the power of the press and the weight of The First Amendment, I threatened to expose them, the Metropolitan Theatre, and their entire bullshit town, which merely pretends to honour its greatest citizen of all time, but in actuality thumbs its nose at all the rubes who come to Morgantown for the full Don Knotts Experience.
In reality: I walked up to the ticket booth in the lobby and politely asked the two very sweet women if they knew what had happened to the plaque. All they knew for sure is that it had just recently been removed for repairs and they didn't know when would be returned. Just then the manager of the theater came along and suggested I inquire up the street at the Morgantown Visitors Center, where they might know when the plaque would be returning.
|Morgantown Visitors Center|
Taking a picture through the window wouldn't work because of the glare. I was so excited to finally hit pay dirt that I rushed inside and started taking pictures. It's my normal practice to ask permission before taking pictures because it's the polite thing to do. However, I simply forgot my manners and knew I had screwed up mightily when a woman started screaming at me, "STOP! Don't touch it! What are you doing? STOP!" Only my mother has ever yelled at me like that.
That's when she relaxed. To help me get better pictures, she even turned the entire display around, so I could get a better angle. If you look closely at the pic above, you can see why the woman was so protective of the maquette. Just above the knee is a crack that runs right through the leg. It seems that just the week before my arrival someone grabbed the leg and broke it. Now the woman makes sure that Don Knotts doesn't get damaged any further.
|Guarding Don Knotts|
I am always looking for the hidden Easter eggs real life has to offer. Finally, there are two weird pieces of synchronicity on which we'll end the Don Knotts Memorial Nostalgia Tour.
SYNCHRONICITY #1: Almost 300 miles south of Morgantown I was reminded of the enuring legacy of Don Knotts on 'Merkin culture.
Mount Airy, North Carolina.
I didn't realize it until I walked inside, but Mount Airy was the birthplace of Andy Griffith. Inside the rest stop, in a display cabinet given pride of prominence is a tribute to Mount Airy's favourite son. Of course no tribute to Mayberry is complete without a nod to Dan Knotts, second banana extraordinaire.
The Andy Griffith Show to its comedy calvacade, replacing the ever-dreadful Gilligan's Island, starting September 1st, and every weeknight at 8PM Eastern, 7 Central.
* As the Not Now Silly Newsroom Fact-Checkers were preparing this article for print it was discovered that not all events took place as described. We were going to just scrap this travelogue as not worthy of publication, but Headly has already cashed the cheque.