Classics in the Carolinas: A visit to the Ava Gardner Museum

Comet Over Hollywood is doing a mini-series of “Classics in the Carolinas.” I’ll be spotlighting classic movie related topics in South Carolina (my home state) and North Carolina (where I currently live and work).

Actress Ava Gardner in "The Killers" (1946)

Actress Ava Gardner in “The Killers” (1946)

One of the biggest stars to emerge from North Carolina is the actress once called “The Most Beautiful Animal” in the tag line for “The Barefoot Contessa.”

The only other North Carolinian whose fame could be equal is Andy Griffith of the “The Andy Griffith Show,” born in Mount Airy, NC.

Ava Gardner was born in rural Grabtown, NC on Christmas Eve in 1922. Gardner’s family was poor and she was the youngest of seven children.

Gardner made a screen test in 1941 for MGM and signed a seven year contract with the studio. But her career took off after she starred with Burt Lancaster in the 1946 film noir “The Killers.”

Gardner went in to star in “Show Boat” (1951), “Mogambo” (1953) and “The Night of the Iguana” (1964).

The Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, NC celebrates Gardner’s life and career with costumes, personal belongings and film posters that tell her story.

Ava Gardner's grave in Smithfield, NC (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P.)

Ava Gardner’s grave in Smithfield, NC (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P.)

Within a couple miles of the museum is Ava Gardner’s grave site at the Sunset Memorial Park. Though Gardner passed away in London, her wishes were to be buried with her parents, brothers and sisters in Smithfield.

On Sunday, I traveled from Shelby, NC to Smithfield, NC to visit the museum for the first time. It was seven hours round trip, but well worth the drive.

The 5,000 square-foot museum is beautifully kept and Frank Sinatra (one of Gardner’s husbands) is played as you look about.

When you first enter, you watch an 18 minute documentary on Gardner’s life. Interviewees in the documentary include actresses Arlene Dahl, Kathryn Grayson and Janet Leigh; actor and Gardner’s ex-husband Mickey Rooney; actor Howard Keel; Gardner’s maid and friend Mearene Jordan and her niece.

The documentary included such facts as:

-Clark Gable was her favorite star as a child and she loved watching Gable and Jean Harlow in “Red Dust.” Gardner went on to star in the Harlow role in “Mogambo,” the remake of  “Red Dust.” Gardner also stared three times with Grable in films-“The Hucksters,” “Mogambo” and “Lone Star.”

-Rooney remembered that he dressed as Carmen Miranda when he first met Gardner and asked for her phone number. He spoke fondly on their brief marriage. The documentary said Gardner thought their marriage would be like her parents: cooking for Rooney and having children. Rooney preferred the night life.

-During Gardner’s first screen test, the studio could not understand her Southern accent. Her test ended up being a silent test as they took different shots of her face and movements.

-“The Killers” was the first role Gardner enjoyed acting in

-While filming “Show Boat,” actress and fellow North Carolinian Kathryn Grayson said Gardner was fun to work with. Howard Keel said she was up for anything and swore as much as he did.

-Gardner worked hard to do her own singing in the musical “Show Boat” but ended up being dubbed by Annette Warren. Her co-stars were unhappy about the dubbing and she can be heard on the soundtrack.

-Howard Hughes was obsessed with Gardner and the two fought a lot. At one point she hit him over the head with an object. She said she was so mad, she would have killed him had she not been stopped.

-Frank Sinatra was the true love of her life, but they were too much alike. Janet Leigh described them in the documentary as two sticks of dynamite together.

-Gardner didn’t enjoy Hollywood. She spent several years living in Spain and lived the remainder of her life in London.

 Items that can be found in the museum:

 Childhood items:

An odd play pin that Ava (pictured on top) used as a child. It could be rolled around and had a top. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P.)

An odd play pin that Ava (pictured on top) used as a child. It could be rolled around and had a top. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P.)

-The family Bible

-Ava Gardner’s 1939 high school diploma

Ava's college yearbook. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P.)

Ava’s college yearbook. Ava is documented as a Campus Beauty. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P.)

Costumes:

A cape that was used in publicity shots for "Barefoot Contessa" but is not seen in the film. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

A cape that was used in publicity shots for “Barefoot Contessa” but is not seen in the film. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Originally worn by Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight," this jacket was reworked for Gardner to wear in "The Great Sinner" also starring Gregory Peck and Melvyn Douglas (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Originally worn by Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight,” this jacket was reworked for Gardner to wear in “The Great Sinner” also starring Gregory Peck and Melvyn Douglas (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Gardner wore this dress in "The Great Sinner" also starring Gregory Peck and Melvyn Douglas (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Gardner wore this dress in “The Great Sinner” also starring Gregory Peck and Melvyn Douglas (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

A dress Gardner wore in "East Side, West Side" (1949) which also starred Barbara Stanwyck and James Mason. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P.)

A dress Gardner wore in “East Side, West Side” (1949) which also starred Barbara Stanwyck and James Mason. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P.)

A jacket Gardner wore in "Mogambo" also starring Clark Gable and Grace Kelly (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

A jacket Gardner wore in “Mogambo” also starring Clark Gable and Grace Kelly (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

A personal dress of Gardner's (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

A personal dress of Gardner’s (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

A dress Gardner wore in "Show Boat" also starring Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica Pickens)

A dress Gardner wore in “Show Boat” also starring Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica Pickens)

Left to right: Dresses from "Ride Vaquero" starring Robert Taylor and a dress from "My Forbidden Past" starring Robert Mitchum. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Left to right: Dresses from “Ride Vaquero” starring Robert Taylor and a dress from “My Forbidden Past” starring Robert Mitchum. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

A costume from the film "She Went to the Races" (1945) -my personal favorite of the costumes there.  (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

A costume from the film “She Went to the Races” (1945) -my personal favorite of the costumes there.
(Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

A gift to Gardner from Howard Hughes. Silk was hard to come by because of World War II. In an attempt to woo Gardner, Hughes bought her this dress as an expensive and lavish gift. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

A gift to Gardner from Howard Hughes. Silk was hard to come by because of World War II. In an attempt to woo Gardner, Hughes bought her this dress as an expensive and lavish gift. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Portraits of Ava Gardner: 

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Other personal items: 

-Script and contract for “The Night of the Iguana”

A scarf that belonged to Gardner from Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1952. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P.)

A scarf that belonged to Gardner from Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1952. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P.)

-Awards such as the Look Achievement Award for 1948.

-A letter from Grace Kelly. Kelly and Gardner became good friends while filming “Mogambo” and Gardner even attended Kelly’s wedding in Monaco. Gardner said she always received a handwritten Christmas card from Kelly.

-Scripts from films such as “One Touch of Venus

-Bullfighter and bull figurines that she got while living in Spain.

A Tiffany's watch from director John Ford inscribed "To Ava, a Class Act, John Ford."

A Tiffany’s watch from director John Ford inscribed “To Ava, a Class Act, John Ford.”

-Several portraits of Gardner by artist Bert Pfister

-Ava Gardner’s doll collection

-Poems from Gardner’s friend and poet Robert Graves

Jewelry that belonged to Gardner. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Jewelry that belonged to Gardner. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Personal items from Gardner's London apartment. The needle point pillow talks about being an aunt. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

Personal items from Gardner’s London apartment. The needle point pillow talks about being an aunt. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

-A miniature statue of Gardner from “One Touch of Venus

-Gardner enjoyed collecting China. Several glasses and plates that belonged to her were on display

Was it worth it?

Smithfield is three and a half hour away from Shelby. I was exhausted by the time I got home, but it was a worthwhile visit.

I have always been proud to be living in the same state that Gardner was born. However, even though I have seen many of her film, I never knew much about her life.

I left the Ava Gardner Museum with a new appreciation for Ava Gardner. I also left with a bottle of Ava Gardner wine from Hinnant Family Vineyards.

If you are ever in the area, I suggest a visit.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

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8 thoughts on “Classics in the Carolinas: A visit to the Ava Gardner Museum

    • It was very small. Actually the waist on the Mogambo jacket looked bigger than all of the other outfits! It made me wonder how many were cinched on the dress forms or left the way they were supposed to fit.

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      • How funny! I always thought of Ava Gardner as curvy, not tiny. Maybe she did have a small waist, but I could see them cinching things for the dress forms too.

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