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Kent Bernhardt: Keeping Us Young

A couple of things happened this week that reminded me I’m no spring chicken.

Gene Wilder died at the age of 83, and Betty Lynn, known to Andy Griffith Show fans as Thelma Lou, turned 90. They were two younger stars when I was a child and had no concept of age.

I was in college when I ditched a Wednesday night 15th century European history class to join my friends at a showing of “Blazing Saddles” at a theater just outside of Charlotte. Wilder portrayed The Waco Kid in that Mel Brooks classic, which is on the required viewing list of every student of comedy.

My friends and I howled at every scene like we were college freshmen. Come to think of it, we were college freshmen.

It’s the film you couldn’t make today because it somehow manages to offend just about everyone. If you watch it and you’re not offended, call me and I’ll explain to you why you probably should be.

Still, it ranks as one of the funniest films I’ve seen. It was even funnier when CBS tried to clean it up for a showing on prime time in 1980 and failed miserably. It was too late. We all knew what they were really saying.

Wilder fit right into the craziness in the fictional town of Rock Ridge as the alcoholic gunfighter turned deputy to the town’s black sheriff played by Clevon Little. It was quite different than roles he would take on later in movies like “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, “Young Frankenstein”, and “Silver Streak”.

His presence in the world of comedy is and will remain timeless.

Betty Lynn started out as the freckle-face girl next door in movies in the late forties when she was barely 20, before moving to Mayberry as Thelma Lou in the early 60’s.

I loved what she brought to that role. You could understand why Barney loved her, though he continued his telephone flirtations with Juanita over at the diner.

I used to smile thinking about the earful Sarah, the town’s telephone operator, got on a regular basis just from listening to those two.

I always sensed that Thelma Lou was as smart as she was sweet, and she knew she’d eventually wind up married to her favorite deputy, even though it didn’t happen until the reunion movie in 1986. In the interim, she left Mayberry and married the foreman of a wrecking crew. I never forgave the producers for that.

Lynn lives in Mt. Airy these days where she is revered as not only a star, but a member of the family. At 90, she has found a home in a loving community much like fictional Mayberry, and folks there say she is truly happy.

Wilder’s death and Thelma Lou’s age remind us all that time marches on and nothing remains the same.

We know that, but we need reminding from time to time so we don’t forget to enjoy the here and now, while it’s here right now.

But it’s nice that their contributions to our world of entertainment are so vivid. I can close my eyes and see Wilder hanging upside down from his jail cell bunk giving Clevon Little the once over. And I can see Thelma Lou walking down the street with Barney planning another date.

Those dates might include dinner at Morelli’s, or maybe just a George Raft movie on TV with a pan of fudge between them.

So I feel a little older this week with the passing of one familiar face, and the aging of another. But when you get right down to it, we all age. The trick is to keep the heart young.

And if yours feels young, you can thank in part the memories these two fine performers have given us.

 

Kent Bernhardt lives in Salisbury.

 

 

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