PALMETTO -- Fairgoers can relax when they see Barney of Mayberry on patrol at this year's Manatee County Fair. He even has his own jail set up to curtail the overly zealous and fun loving, but it was Thelma Lou who should have been on the lookout Friday when the character impersonator couldn't resist flirting with Manatee County Sheriff's Deputy Rhonda Ellis.
"I'm more than three miles away from Mayberry, so it don't matter none," said Barney Fife impersonator Scott Epperson. He was in full costume, complete with his fake gun and real single bullet in his pocket. "It gives me a lot of joy just to be able to spread smiles and laughter to so many people throughout the country and to make people feel good. To be able to make people smile and have a good time means a whole lot."
Going with the theme "Manatee Goes Hollywood," other characters joining Barney this year include Steve the Pretty Good, a
magician and comic; Ed & Geraldine Old Time Music; Tall Tex; John Wayne impersonator Cliff Voake; and Rock-It-the-Robot, according to fair manager Dan West.
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"They can expect to see me out there directing some of the fair traffic," warned the Barney impersonator. "I will be funny. I will be issuing fun tickets for things like jaywalking, public smooching, having too much fun. I'll be blowing my whistle at bands playing, Barney knows how to get his groove on."
The lawman job isn't new for Epperson, whose first career was in law enforcement in North Carolina. In fact, he shares the same hometown as Andy Griffith -- Mount Airy, N.C. -- on which the fictional Mayberry was based.
When home, he gets his haircut at Floyd's Barber Shop and on occasion he has acted with many of the original members of the show's actual cast.
"It's been funny because even over the years they would always say if there was a case I was involved in, they would call me that Barney Fife. I started at 19 as a police officer. I did 35 years as a police officer, and my dad was the first one to call me Barney Fife," Epperson recalled. "He used to make me so mad I couldn't hardly stand it, and that was the best compliment in the world."
While the theme of the fair is Hollywood, much of the atmosphere brings a sense of nostalgia for fairgoers. Bayshore High graduates Greg and Laura Lewis had a go at the Manatee County exhibit guessing trivia.
He guessed wrong that the county's softball and baseball programs brought only $200,000 of revenue into the area last year when the true answer was $20 million.
"This fair is a real classic," the Manatee County native said. "It's a lot cleaner and there are a lot more police so it's a nice place to come for our family."
"It sure is different from what it was like 32 years ago," added his wife. Yet she enjoyed the fact that they were able to return to the same place for the same fair with their adult son, Greg Lewis, a Bayshore High and USF grad, and his girlfriend on a double date.
"I love the fair," admitted the visitor from Pittsburgh. "But it's weird to go to the fair in January."