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October 21, 2014

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For ‘Andy Griffith Show’ fans, Maggie Mancuso will always be just Darling

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John Katsilometes

Maggie Mancuso, shown with her husband, Gus, performing at Bootlegger Bistro.

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Maggie Mancuso, known then as Maggie Peterson, appears in-character as Charlene Darling with Andy Griffith in a promotional photo from "The Andy Griffith Show."

It’s the night before Independence Day at Bootlegger Bistro. The crowd is thin, and the conversation light, sullen enough that you can hear the tinkling of glasses and silverware from neighboring tables.

In the far-off corner of the dimly lit restaurant, Lorraine Hunt-Bono is singing “Misty.”

“I feel like I'm clinging to a cloud I can't understand,” she sings, smoothly, as pianist Gus Mancuso plays delicately behind her. “I get misty, just holding your hand.”

Maggie Mancuso sits across the room in one of the Bootlegger’s classic burgundy booths. This Old Vegas haunt is where she talks of Mayberry, N.C., and her old friend Andy Griffith, who passed away that morning at age 86.

“One of the fans of the show called me this morning, at about 8 a.m., and told me,” she says. “Andy had some heart problems over the past couple of years, but I didn’t know he was having any serious problems.”

Mancuso is the wife of Gus and, for decades, a dear friend of Hunt-Bono and her husband, Dennis, proprietors of the Bootlegger. Mancuso has lived in Vegas for 32 years and sings at the restaurant when Gus plays on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But she’s most famous for her role as Charlene Darling on “The Andy Griffith Show,” which has made her a popular figure among the show’s still-devoted fans.

Griffith and Mancuso (whose maiden name is Peterson, under which she was credited on the show) knew each other because they shared the same manager, Dick Linke, who spent nearly 40 years with Griffith. Linke had heard Mancuso sing at a Capitol Records convention in the mid-1950s and encouraged her to record in New York. That’s where she met Griffith, who also was with Capitol as a gospel artist and was planning a sitcom pilot under his name. He invited Mancuso to audition — but not for the role she eventually landed.

Mancuso originally read for the role of Andy Taylor’s girlfriend, Ellie, a role that went to Elinore Donahue. She was a better fit for the role of Charlene Darling, the female singer in the bluegrass band that rolled into town about once per season in the show’s early 1960s heyday. Charlene had a crush on Andy, and the community’s redneck wacko, Ernest T. Bass, had a crush on Charlene. His way of showing his devotion was to toss a brick wrapped in a dopily scrawled love note through the window of the Mayberry courthouse or the Taylor residence whenever the Darlings were in town.

The unflappably genuine lawman usually served as a steady rudder for the madness unfolding around him.

“Andy had a lot of charisma, and he was also a very generous actor,” Mancuso says. “He was an excellent actor who made everyone in the scene important and the other actors working with him look good, which is a real talent.”

Griffith’s legacy might well be the selfless manner in which he plied his craft.

“That’s what I would say people will remember, his generosity as an actor,” Mancuso says. “He was normal in the center of all those crazy people. He was the anchor for all of that chaos.”

Originally from Greeley, Colo., Mancuso was one of the few non-Southerners to inhabit the town of Mayberry, which held similar small-town qualities and quirks as Griffith’s own hometown of Mt. Airy, N.C. (Griffith long said the show was not specifically based on his birthplace.)

“I tell you, it was so much fun. It was my first experience in making any kind of TV,” she said. “Andy surrounded himself with a lot of people from the South, so he felt comfortable. Everyone was really terrific, lots of fun, just like the show.”

Mancuso hadn’t spent any time around Griffith since October 2008, when TV Land (which still airs “The Andy Griffith Show” reruns) commissioned a statue of Griffith and a boyish Ronnie Howard at the Andy Griffith Museum in Raleigh, N.C.

“We all went to that, and that’s the last time I saw him,” Mancuso says. She says she is still a popular draw for reunion gatherings simply because, still active as ever at age 70, she is among the few cast members still alive.

“I wasn’t one of the major stars, but they are thinning out,” she says. “Jim Nabors (who gained fame and his own popular show as Gomer Pyle) is still with us. Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou, is still alive. We’re all that’s left.”

Mancuso is supposed to sing once more, to close the night. She’ll take the mic again, reluctantly. It’s not a night to perform happy songs.

“This is a big loss for me,” she says almost in a whisper, as her friend Lorraine finishes her number with the line, “I’m too misty, and too much in love.”

It’s a misty night in Vegas for Charlene Darling, and a misty night in Mayberry, too.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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