Here's a bit of Colorado entertainment trivia: What four songs does The Andy Griffith Show's Charlene Darling claim "make her cry"? It was a running gag on the handful of appearances made by Colorado-born actress Maggie Peterson, playing the sweet and flirtatious Darling, that some pretty ridiculous songs plucked at her plucky heartstrings: "Slimy River Bottom," "Boil That Cabbage Down," "Keep Your Money in Your Shoes and It Won’t Get Wet" and the classic "Never Hit Your Grandma With a Great Big Stick."
Fans of the Darling family and The Andy Griffith Show are the ones who might be shedding a tear now: Maggie Peterson passed away on May 16. She was 81.
Peterson was arguably best known for that small but recurring role on the much-beloved 1960s series set in Mayberry — she appeared in several episodes alongside actor Denver Pyle, who played her father, Briscoe Darling, and the real-life bluegrass band the Dillards, portraying her brothers in non-speaking roles. Peterson and Pyle did most of the talking, alongside Charlene Darling's beau and eventual husband, Dud Wash, who was played first by Hoke Howell, and later replaced by none other than Bob "Gilligan" Denver. The five Darling Family episodes are some of the most memorable from The Andy Griffith Show canon —and for a show so universally beloved, that's saying something.
Born in Greeley in 1941, Peterson began her career singing with family members in a local group called the Ja-Da Quartet, which was named for an old song from the 1920s. She came from a musical family; her father was a doctor but had worked his way through medical school playing the banjo. Peterson and her siblings played all over Colorado, including at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. "We were a hot little group," Peterson said in a 2020 interview with the fan podcast Two Chairs No Waiting.
She was discovered by Griffith agent Dick Linke when she was performing with the Ja-Das at a record convention, and he invited the group to look him up in New York. Once the members all graduated from high school, they did just that, buying an old Town Car, loading it up and driving to New York City. Peterson had never been east of Omaha. Their first big-time performance was on The Perry Como Show, about a week after they'd arrived.
Peterson's affiliation with Linke led her to take the role of Charlene Darling. "It was the ’60s, and the go-go girls were in," said Peterson in the podcast interview. "That's what they were thinking about — sort of a Daisy Mae sort of character. But that wasn't Dick Linke's idea." The producers ended up going with someone with a little more homespun beauty and a lot of personality. Enter Peterson as the inimitable Charlene Darling.
The Andy Griffith Show wasn't her only acting job, but she did appear in a lot of film and television with her co-stars, including appearances on Gomer Pyle USMC and Mayberry RFD. She also appeared alongside Andy Griffith in the film Angel in My Pocket, and with Don Knotts in The Love God. After a career of guest spots in sitcoms in the 1970s, she married jazz musician Gus Mancuso and retired from acting. She transitioned into location work in Las Vegas, working with the Nevada Film Commission on films such as Mars Attacks! and Casino.
In recent years, Peterson relied on a GoFundMe page organized by her niece Amy Roye and nephew Ben Eaton. "Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife could solve all problems in a single thirty-minute episode," Peterson writes on the GoFundMe page. "But real life is not so easy to fix." Health issues forced her to ask her fans for help with her rehabilitation following a number of injuries due to falls and failing health, and fans responded to the tune of over $47K.
Some might ask how a relatively successful performer could need such financial help, and Peterson addressed that as well. "Residuals, you ask?" she wrote. "The Andy Griffith Show ended in the late sixties before residuals became what they are now. There were some nominal ones in the beginning, but I have not received a residual for The Andy Griffith Show in fifty years."
And so the GoFundMe became necessary for Peterson's financial survival in her final years. That GoFundMe page is no longer accepting donations, but it's still active, as the family is using it to communicate with fans following her passing. "Your love and devotion helped her to not feel alone," the family wrote. "She made many mentions to us about how she couldn't believe how generous you all were. You truly made a positive impact on her life and helped her during some very difficult times."
The over 700 donations on the GoFundMe page also allowed Peterson's family to bring her home to Colorado for her last days, so she could pass surrounded by family in her home state.
"We all have a Mayberry in our background," Peterson said to the TCNW podcast. "And mine was Greeley. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody was friendly. You didn't have to lock your doors at night. I loved growing up there."
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.