Ava Gardner is still a star in Smithfield Attraction: A museum in rural North Carolina is dedicated to the actress who is the area's most famous daughter.

February 23, 1997|By Murray Dubin | Murray Dubin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Everyone was up for the jaunt except our teen-age children, who scrunched their faces. They didn't want to sit in a car for an hour to see a museum dedicated to the life of some actress, even if her name was Ava Gardner.

Well, what could I expect? Their idea of taking a cultural chance was seeing a black-and-white movie. So my wife, Libby, and our two friends from Durham would go without them to the Ava Gardner Museum in downtown Smithfield, N.C.

We had not driven from Philadelphia to North Carolina to visit Smithfield. We had come to Durham for the second time to visit old friends Dennis and Joanie. On the first trip, they had taken us to the lemur center at Duke University. We don't see a lot of lemurs in Philadelphia, so the stop was a treat for everyone, including the kids.

But visiting the Ava Gardner Museum was not Dennis or Joanie's idea. It was Libby's. This museum was her kind of place. It wasn't even listed in the AAA guide. Libby has always had a nose for the offbeat.

Smithfield is about an hour southeast of the Durham-Chapel Hill area, and about 30 minutes from Raleigh -- an easy ride in pretty country.

There's not much going on in Smithfield. It's pleasant, friendly, quiet and small-town Southern. Smithfield hams are known all over, but those hams are from Smithfield, Va. There's good barbecue in Smithfield, but there's good barbecue all over eastern North Carolina. The town's most distinctive feature? It's got to be the museum.

Walk through the door and you will be transported back 50 years into a world of PhotoPlay, starlets and Saturday-afternoon serials. Inside a nondescript, two-story former furniture store is a re-creation of Hollywood's Golden Era with the spotlight on but one star: Ava Lavinia Gardner, born seven miles from Smithfield in 1922 and buried nearby in 1990.

Inside are posters from "Bhowani Junction," still pictures from "Show Boat," "The Blue Bird" and "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman," magazine covers from Filmland and Motion Picture,

a dress from "The Sun Also Rises" and news clippings spanning 40 years. There is a video biography featuring Gregory Peck.

The presentation is simple, with a decided lack of glitz -- more like a family attic with stuff that used to be in boxes now out for all to see. But it's working. Since the museum opened in 1991, 500 to 600 people have visited monthly.

A museum was not what Tom Banks expected in the early 1940s when he began filling a shoe box with newspaper clippings of Hollywood's newest starlet and Smithfield's most famous resident. Banks was just a kid.

The way the story goes is that Banks, a 12-year-old in 1939, was with a group of boys teasing some older girls. One of the older girls, annoyed at the teasing, chased Tommy on his bike, knocked him down, and in front of all his friends, kissed him on the cheek.

The older girl was Ava Gardner, and the embarrassed boy never forgot the incident. Years later, when Banks was in the Navy, his sister kept his Gardner collection going. When he entered college, Ava Gardner became his fraternity's sweetheart. Even when Banks became a psychologist and moved to Florida, he kept adding to the collection. After his death in 1989, his widow donated it all to Smithfield.

Ava Gardner, youngest of seven, was attending a secretarial school when she had her run-in with Banks in 1939. That same year, she visited her older sister in New York and was discovered when her brother-in-law, a photographer, put her photograph in his studio window. In 1940, at the age of 18, she was in Hollywood and soon signed an MGM contract.

She had minor parts in seven films in 1942, but was better known that year as the bride of Mickey Rooney. Their marriage lasted 18 months. She briefly married bandleader Artie Shaw in 1945. The great love in her life was Frank Sinatra. They were married from 1951 to 1957.

A dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty who supplanted Rita Hayworth as filmdom's love goddess of the late '40s, she appeared in 61 films and five television shows during a 44-year career. She won an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress in 1953 for her role in "Mogambo" with Clark Gable, and a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination in 1964 for her role in "The Night of the Iguana" opposite Richard Burton.

You will learn all this inside the museum. And you will see that this big star was a tiny woman -- her dresses were just little things. You will see scrapbooks put together by townspeople, yellowing newspaper stories on sticky paper, the kind of scrapbook you might have at home for a son who played football or a daughter who acted in the school play.

In this touchingly star-struck tribute to a native daughter, visitors can even take home a crossword puzzle all about Ava.

She was a major celebrity never far from the glare of the photographers' lights. Unlike most young men and women who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s in this rural tobacco-growing area, Ava Gardner left town and became a star.

Her life -- the stuff of dreams -- is what the museum is all about.

If you go

The museum, at 205 S. Third St., is open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $2. Call (919) 934-5830. Smithfield is at the crossroads of Interstate 95, U.S. 301 and U.S. 70.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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