A gem just off I-95; Smithfield N.C.’s Ava Gardner Museum

ava1It has always been just a bit out of the way on my every trek between Fla. and Va., where my family lives. And I always seemed to have people in the car who had no interest in Ava Gardner.

That’s my excuse for never getting around to the Ava Gardner Museum, in Smithfield, N.C., right in the heart of her home stomping grounds.

A great beauty and future star born and raised in Wilson and Smithfield and environs, she was discovered by Hollywood, married to Mickey Rooney and band leader Artie Shaw, “the great love” of Frank Sinatra’s life (and he of hers), she starred in such classics as “Seven Days in May,” “On the Beach” and  “Night of the Iguana” and such epics as “55 Days in Peking” and “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.”

Ava Gardner had a mouth on her, a tough broad back when Hollywood appreciated such. On Sinatra marrying Mia Farrow — “I always knew Frank would end up with a boy.” To a hometown friend overly impressed by her fame, “I’m just some old

broad whose picture gets taken a lot.”


The museum has a few items from her childhood, a lot of Hollywood costumes (“Barefoot Contessa” might be her most famous role), lots of remembrances from the locals who knew her. She came back, frequently, over the years, and this is just the sort of museum you’d hope somebody from humble beginnings would warrant in the small town where she grew up.


She was a star from the days when Hollywood made them larger than life, and in those pre-Twitter days, an image could be forged and preserved. Today? Not so much.

One reason I stopped off was to see if the town was losing interest in maintaining such a memorial. Just a few people in there on a Sat. afternoon. She died in 1990, and was last relevant as a star in the late ’60s. The enthusiasts who run the place, whom I ran into at “An Evening With Gregory Peck” shortly before he died, could be a bit much, as true fans (fanatical ones) often are.


But they keep the fires burning in Avaland, and that’s nice.

Never got to chat with her, but I had lengthy interviews with Rooney, Peck, Roddy McDowell and Charlton Heston, among her co-stars, over the years. There is a grandness to that generation of star that today’s tabloid targets will never be allowed to match.

There’s a festival celebrating her every fall, and this year’s is Oct. 3-5. Worth stopping by if you’re on I-95 heading to or from Florida, Savannah or Charleston.


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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