It started when James Tumblin, saw a dress from “Gone with the Wind” lying on the floor at Universal Studios in 1962.
It was the dress Scarlett O’Hara wore while riding through the shanty town in the 1939 film.
“My mother always taught me to be respectful of belongings. Even if I’m walking through K-Mart I pick up clothing that’s on the floor,” said the former Universal Studios hair and make-up department head. “I picked up the dress and realized it was a dress from ‘Gone with the Wind.’”
Tumblin asked why the dress was on the floor and was told the dress was going to be thrown away.
“I asked if I could buy it and was told $20 for the dress and a whole other rack of clothes,” he said. “I casually accepted. I knew if I was too excited they would go up on the price. The rack of clothes didn’t include other Gone with the Wind costumes but had costumes that Judy Garland wore in ‘Easter Parade.’”
After that, Tumblin began getting phone calls from people who had items from “Gone with the Wind.”
Now, Tumblin owns the largest “Gone with the Wind” collection in the world. He owns at least 300,000 pieces of film memorabilia. Part of his collection has been displayed in the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh in the Real to Reel: The Making of Gone with the Wind exhibit. The exhibit started in Aug. 2012 and was originally supposed to end in January. It has been so successful, it was extended until April 14.
Tumblin’s collection is stored at his home in Oregon. The latest item he bought was a coat worn by a Munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939).
I traveled from Shelby, N.C. with my parents to see the exhibit on Saturday, April 6.
The exhibit included costumes worn by Viven Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Wilkes, Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes, Ona Munson as Belle Watling and Cammie King as Bonnie Blue Butler.
It also had the script used by Hattie McDaniel who played Mammy, furniture used in the film and Vivien Leigh’s Academy Award for Best Actress as Scarlett O’Hara.
While walking in, one of the museum workers told us Tumblin, the owner of the exhibit, was inside.
I kicked myself for not bringing along a reporter’s notebook and scrambled to find paper in the museum so I could interview Tumblin. I settled for the back of several museum volunteer fliers.
Tumblin was sitting on a bench with his 27-year-old son Josh when I introduced myself as a reporter for the Shelby Star. The two scooted down and let me sit with them for about a 45 minute interview.
“Are you going to click your heels three times and go back to Kansas?” he joked, glancing down at my bright orange flats.
Born in Denver, Colorado, Tumblin began working at Universal Studios in the late-1950s and retired in 1982.
“I wanted to make a lot of money and buy my mother a house,” he said. “I guess I was too naïve to realize rejection. But I kept going back and wore them down, and they finally gave me a job sweeping hair in the costume department.”
Every night, he would stay and comb the wigs. One day his boss, Larry Germain, asked him if he had been combing the wigs.
“He told me that Debbie Reynolds liked the way I had combed her wig and said she wanted me to come out to her house and comb her wigs,” Tumblin said. “She paid me $200 to do it. It was the first time I rode in a limousine. They realized I had talent and that’s how it all started.”
He got along with many of the stars and it was a happy time. The only downside was when he found a favorite actor to be unpleasant.
Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Mae West are just a few people he worked with.
“Marilyn Monroe was lovely and child-like. Cary Grant was a lovely man. Garbo had already retired, but she would have me up to her apartment in New York to cut her hair,” Tumblin said. “Mae West was a hoot. She would have me up to her beach house and I did 30 wigs for her.”
Katharine Hepburn was another close friend who Tumblin frequently had as a house guest after he retired.
“She loved to drive my truck and always lectured me about my posture,” he said.
Another friend was Doris Day. He had an ongoing joke with Day where he threw her into a swimming pool.
“I worked for a year and a half on Lawrence of Arabia. I hadn’t seen it for 40 years when I saw it again at a film festival,” he said. “I started crying and my son asked me what was wrong. I worked on this film for a year and a half of my life and so many of these people are gone now.”
The dissolve of the studio system didn’t affect the costume department, but Tumblin didn’t like the situation.
“It was sad to see all of these people go. I used to see Fred Astaire coming in his convertible. Doris Day and Rock Hudson had dressing rooms next to each other,” he said. “Universal was the first studio to lease out a sound studio to television with shows like ‘Leave It To Beaver.’ Universal survived while other studios died when they turned their noses up to television.”
I even found that Tumblin and I share the same favorite classic film: “Since You Went Away” (1944).
“It was a job,” he said. “What’s nice to know is that I did it well enough that people still want to see my work in films.”
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