Playing the Lovable Goof
Local Resident Impersonates Barney Fife
Photography Provided by Amy Payne & the Varvel Family
In the mid-90s, Terry Varvel was asked by Paul Strychalski, a member of his church, if he would be willing to dress up like a security guard as part of a comedy/drama performance the church was doing for the community. Varvel agreed and then Strychalski threw out an idea.
“I want you to do it as Barney Fife,” he suggested.
Varvel, 35 at the time, had been a longtime fan of the “Andy Griffith Show” so he was all in. A police officer friend, Bill Wright, hooked him up with a uniform for the performance. A few months later, Clermont was having a parade that included the Mayberry car from Danville’s Mayberry Cafe. Once again Varvel was asked to play the part of bumbling and loveable Barney Fife, a character that was brought to life by the late Don Knotts. For the parade, Varvel wore a hat, a Mayberry badge, and a new tan uniform that Wright got for him. He quickly settled into character.
“I was pretty shy in high school so I never had the nerve to try out for school plays,” Varvel says. By his mid-20s, however, he enjoyed entertaining friends with his Jack Nicholson and George H.W. Bush impersonations. When he was in his 30s, he saw a comedian do a Don Knotts impersonation, soon thereafter, Strychalski asked him to perform in the church show.
“Because I’m four inches taller than Don Knotts was and don’t particularly look like him, I try to mimic his voice and his mannerisms,” says Varvel, who continues to work on his craft each time he dons the uniform.
For the past three years, he has participated in Danville’s Mayberry in the Midwest, a three-day event that started in 2014 and includes live music as well as tribute artists who mingle with the crowd and reenact scenes from the show. David Browning, who is known as The Mayberry Deputy, played Fife the first three years. Browning and Allan Newsome (who has played Floyd for 27 years) are the two guys who got the tribute artists up and running. One of the tributes is Dixie Griffith, Andy’s daughter, who plays one of the “Fun Girls,” along with Michelle Bryson.
“Michelle told me recently that I’ve come a long way in the past three years and that made me feel good because I’m always trying to improve what I’m doing,” says Varvel, a lifelong Hendricks County resident, who grew up in Danville.
Before his first Mayberry in the Midwest, Varvel reached out to Browning for advice.
“He was supportive and told me to just have fun,” Varvel recalls. “‘When you have fun, everyone else will, too. And besides, everyone wants to see Barney.’”
At Mayberry in the Midwest, Varvel writes fake citations from his ticket book that includes his photo, email address and phone number so that fans can reach him. Last year as Varvel and his wife, Tonya, were leaving the event, they found a car parked illegally so Varvel wrote out a ticket that said, “You’ve been ticketed by Deputy Barney Fife” and stuck it on the vehicle’s windshield. A few days later, he received an email from the owner who asked if the citation was real. Varvel wrote back and explained that he’s a Barney Fife impersonator.
“But I added, ‘P.S. You were illegally parked, though!’” Varvel says.
For the past 25 years, Varvel has transformed himself into Fife for various parties, festivals, parades and community events. There’s an annual festival in Mount Airy, North Carolina, called Mayberry Days that lasts an entire week. Varvel has participated in the event for the past two years when Kenneth Junkin (Otis) invited him to join the fun. According to Varvel, in total there are about a dozen Mayberry shows and festivals across the country, most of which occur in the south and Midwest.
Though most teenagers have no clue who Barney Fife is, a good number of preschoolers are familiar with the character thanks to babysitting grandparents who watch the “Andy Griffith Show” in reruns. There is the occasional 20-something who geeks out to Barney Fife, however. For instance, last September when Varvel was working Mayberry Days, a group of college students told him that they had traveled to North Carolina from Minnesota to attend the festival. Varvel was shocked that they would come from such a distance.
“We love the Andy Griffith Show!” they said. “We watch it all the time!”
Earlier this fall, Varvel was dressed as Fife for a two-day car show at Conner Prairie. While there, Varvel issued a speeding ticket to “The Munsters” Eddie Munster (Butch Patrick) that was shown on WTHR 13 Sunday Morning News. On the way home, Varvel and his wife decided to grab a meal at the Mayberry Cafe in Danville.
Still in uniform, Varvel walked around to a few of the tables, cutting up with the customers.
“It was fun, and hey — I got a free meal out of it!” says Varvel with a chuckle.
Tracy Whetstone of Visit Hendricks County has asked Varvel to perform as Fife when they have groups meeting at the Mayberry Cafe or a tour bus comes through town with a group of seniors. The owners of the Mayberry Cafe, Brad and Christine Borne, are also big fans of Varvel’s Barney.
“They’ve been so supportive of me. I don’t think any of this would have happened if it wasn’t for the Mayberry Cafe,” says Varvel, who this year was also asked to travel to Kentucky to play Fife for a car show.
“It was an organization that was raising money for a search-and-rescue team in their town,” says Varvel, who plans to go back in June when they pair the car show with a town celebration.
Avon Police Deputy Chief Brian Nugent asked Varvel to entertain at Avon’s National Night Out Against Crime for the past two years. It was there that Varvel issued a citation for vagrancy to WTHR 13’s Kelly Greene during one of her location spots.
Browning and the Mayberry tribute artists do a big fundraiser every year in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for an organization called Eagle’s Wings that helps adults with special needs.
“Those folks are so loving,” Varvel says. “They just love when the tributes come in and do their thing.”
Varvel, at 59, is relatively new to the Mayberry community. Several of the other tribute actors were fortunate enough to meet Don Knotts, Andy Griffith and some of the other cast members. Browning even opened Don Knotts’ show in Branson, Missouri, dressed as Barney Fife.
“Don Knotts gave the okay for David to be Barney Fife. That’s incredible to me,” says Varvel, who would have loved to have met those guys. He did, however, meet Betty Lynn, the actress who played Thelma Lou. He also met Knotts’ daughter Karen, a comedian who performs a one-act show called “The Deputy’s Daughter.”
Varvel does get compensated for some of these appearances, however, it’s not enough to pay the rent so he works as a graphic specialist for 5MetaCom, an ad agency in Indianapolis. Varvel and his wife have two grown children: Alec, who married Natalie in 2018, and Alivia, a recent graduate of Ball State.
“It’s been amazing becoming part of the Mayberry community,” says Varvel, who hopes to continue to score more gigs as Fife simply because it makes his heart happy. “It really is a fun job.”
This year Mayberry in the Midwest will take place May 15-17. For more information about Varvel or to hire him for a party or event, call 317-460-2768 or email email@example.com.