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.
Morgantown is city tucked into a valley, in the crook between Cheat Lake and the Monongahela River. Downtown Morgantown has the appearance of a small town. What is known as Greater Morgantown, these days, is really comprised of several distinct neighbourhoods. Some of these had been separate towns that were annexed into the city proper. The surrounding area is so hilly, and with suburban sprawl occurring wherever they could make the land flat, each neighbourhood is almost a town onto itself, connected by highways and roads which wind up one side of a mountain and down the other.
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)|
But, I have to admit I didn’t know anything about Don Knotts, the person. Imagine my surprise to learn he led an early life of heartbreak and confusion. Again, the WikiWhackyWoo saved me from abject ignorance:
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.
Like so many that have experienced early tragedy, Don Knotts became a comedian. During his teen years Knotts had a successful ventriloquist act, entertaining his Morgantown High School classmates at parties and other paid performances, including appearing occasionally at The Metropolitan Theatre, the big deal theater in town that opened the same year Knotts was born.
More pics: The Don Knotts Memorial Nostalgia Tour on Facebook
|The Metropolitan Theatre in beautiful downtown Morgantown|
After a failed trip to New York City to see if he could make it in the Big Time, Knotts returned home, enrolling in West Virgina University. However, WWII intervened and, like most of his peers, Knotts signed up for duty. Knotts didn’t see much combat. He was assigned to the Special Services Branch, where he and his dummy Danny “Hootch” Matador entertained the troops for the duration.
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|
After Levin adapted No Time For Sergeants for Broadway, Griffith reprised his tee vee role with an up-and-coming Don Knotts playing several parts, the first pairing of this comedy team.
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 Don Knotts Memorial Nostalgia Tour began soon after the crack of noon, because that’s when teenagers wake up.
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.
This reporter heard through the grapevine that there was one place in Morgantown where Don Knotts was commemorated as he so rightly deserved. According to the requisite several confidential sources, I should head over to the Metropolitan Theatre immediately. There, according to urban legend, I would find a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk which honours the location where Don Knotts got his start in Legit Show Biz.
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!|
I was heartbroken!!!
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|
Back into the car, fighting the awful downtown traffic all over again, we finally pitched up at the Morgantown Visitors Center, a mere two blocks away. And, it’s there that the entire Don Knotts Memorial Nostalgia Tour was redeemed because, there, just inside the front window, was an entire display all about Morgantown’s favourite son, Don Knotts.
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.
As if I was answering my mother, it all came out in a torrent: “I’m so sorry, I would never touch a display, but had traveled thousands of miles for the Don Knotts Memorial Nostalgia Tour, and this was the first acknowledgement of Don Knotts I’ve found, and just down the street was supposed to be a huge brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk, but it’s missing, and they sent me down here because you might know about it, and, I’m so sorry, I should have asked, but all I want is get some close up pictures. Honest, lady. Don’t hurt me.”
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|
This maquette is to become a larger-than-life statue of Don Knotts to be erected on the waterfront. Morgantown is hoping to create a whole day of it, whenever it is, with a dedication and unveiling. An entire weekend of Don Knotts Days might include parades, picnics, band concerts, beauty pageants, culminating in a massive fireworks display. I sure hope I’m invited to the event I just created in my head.
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.
After leaving Morgantown, with more than a thousand miles still to go before I get home, the Sunrise to Canton Road Trip for Research was just marking off the miles with no more side trips. The farther south I traveled, the less hilly the terrain. The road began to level out in southern Virginia. Crossing the state line into North Carolina, I was in great need of rest stop. The first one I happened across was not far into the state, just outside of 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.
SYNCHRONICITY #2: As I was editing this into a coherent arrangement of words, sentences, and paragraphs, the tee vee was playing in the background. A noisy commercial distracted me and I looked up to see what it was about. There, on my tee vee tube, was Don Knotts!!! As it turns out, MeTV is bringing 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.