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Ava Gardner Museum, Downtown Smithfield, NC

SMITHFIELD, N.C. (January 20, '08)-- It has been eight years since the Ava Gardner Museum moved to a permanent home after 20 years of wandering about Johnston County and Smithfield.

A dedicated board of directors worked more than a year and spent $500,000 to renovate a 1930s vintage building to establish a new home for the museum in downtown Smithfield. Now, the collection honoring Johnston County's favorite daughter can finally rest, after four less-than-ideal locations.

The new home is open 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM Monday through Saturday and 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM Sunday. Current staff is Ms. Angela Lawson, Museum Director, Ms. Eunice Norton, hostess, and others. Call 919-934-5830 (or e-mail) for information and arrangements for group visits. The Internet address for the official Ava Gardner Museum web site is http://avagardner.org Monthly attendance averages 1200 and much appreciation is shown by visitors for the presentation of memorabilia related to Ava Gardner's personal life and movie career. An introductory video is shown to visitors. Repeat visitors appreciate the additions, changes, and rotation of items from the vast collection. A glass enclosed display containing life size mannequins and portraits of clothing from Ava's varioius movie wardrobes is a popular attraction. Ava Gardner's last remaining sister, Myra Pearce, has died and a number of personal items belonging to Ava have been added to the museum collection and are on display.

Like the actress who grew up the daughter of a tenant farmer and a mother who operated a teacherage, the Ava Gardner Museum also has come a long way, as locals and return visitors will agree.

The museum opened in 1981, the result of a Dr. Tom Banks' lifelong hobby. As a 12-year-old, Tom Banks used to ride his bike around the campus of Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College) in Wilson, N.C., where he and his buddies would pick on pretty female day students waiting on a street corner for their rides home. One day, perhaps the prettiest girl of all chased him down and kissed him on the cheek.

Banks never forgot the kiss, or the girl.

Two years later, in 1941, he opened the newspaper and learned who she was. Her name was Ava Gardner, and she had gone to Hollywood as a starlet under contract by MGM.

Banks clipped the story and put it in a shoebox. As time passed, he graduated from college, served in the Navy, moved to Florida and started a career as a psychologist. He never stopped looking for images of Gardner -- though he married happily in the meantime -- collecting posters, magazines, photos, clothing, and everything else he could find related to her.

Banks eventually decided to display his collection in the boarding house where Gardner grew up, a few miles from Smithfield, an area known as "Grabtown". The "museum" began as a homespun affair, with thumb tacks and tape holding up posters and other items. It was open four days a week only during summers. No road signs pointed to the museum; Banks thought true fans would find it through word-of-mouth.

After Banks died in 1989, his widow, Lorraine, donated the collection to the town of Smithfield.

The collection increased over the years, but the settings didn't improve. The museum had two other homes after leaving the boarding house, which was falling apart and the roof had leaked at both previous locations. Volunteers would dash over during storms to set out buckets to catch the drips.

The new museum is a different story. The museum board bought the building for $105,000 and spent close to $400,000 on renovations. It includes a library, a 50-seat theater, a small kitchen and new interpretive panels providing a storyline of Gardner's life. Ongoing fund-raising events, and admissions continue to support the museum and staff. Funds received from the closing of Ava Gardner's estate retired the museum's loan for it's renovation.

Some in Johnston County remember Gardner as a young tomboy, running around barefoot, though by her early teens she was lovely.

Some say Gardner's humble beginnings and her down-to-earth ways only added to her appeal. She often returned here to visit her family, even at the peak of her stardom.

On remembering her movies...

"She was excellent without removing her clothes on screen, without performing in lurid scenes that left little to the imagination. She was part of the true golden age of Hollywood, when stories were of the heart, when a face could tell of joy or disappointment or sorrow or fear or anger or failure or determination to succeed. She was a product of a Hollywood age that is unfortunately gone."

...wrote Doris Cannon, former Museum committee chairman and/or Ava biographer.

Gardner died in 1990 and is buried in her family's plot in Sunset Memorial Park.

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