Honored celebrity, Ava Gardner, was once just a small-town girl from Grabtown and once she made it to Hollywood as an actress she stayed true to her roots.



People From All Over The World Attracted To Ava Gardner Museum

The Beautiful Actress Known For Her Sensuality Has A  5,000 Square Foot Exhibit Space Dedicated To Her In Her Hometown

The young and beautiful Ava Gardner & Gregory Peck shown together [Photo Credit: Ava Gardner Museum]

If there's one thing Grabtown, North Carolina wants to do, it's celebrate Ava Gardner. Known as a 1950s sex symbol and successful Hollywood actress, the internationally known celebrity was once just a small-town girl from Grabtown, just miles from the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield.

“She grew up seven miles down the road from here,” said Museum Director Lynell Seabold. “It's inspirational because it's such a small town. And this young lady from this small town became one of the most famous people in the world. Yet she kept her roots.”

When Gardner passed, she requested to be buried with her family (“with no big ol' headstone”) in a small memorial park about a mile from the museum, which celebrates her life and career.

Best known for her roles in Showboat, Night of the Iguana, The Sun Also Rises and Knights Of the Round Table throughout the 50s, she was often seen as sophisticated and sensual, often receiving the roles of duchesses, baronesses and other royal roles.

“She was incredibly beautiful. Phenomenally beautiful. She just had this 'thing' that drew people in,” said Seabold. “She was very down to earth, and despite appearing sensual in her roles, she also seemed very approachable. It was a very interesting combination that really made people feel they could truly get to know her.”

In fact, it was her beauty that got her discovered.

Ava was going to school to become a secretary. During her college career, she went up to visit her older sister in New York. Her sister was married to a photographer, Larry Tarr. He took photos of her and put them in his studio. 

Front of the Ava Gardner Museum in North Carolina [Photo Credit: Ava Gardner Museum]
Ava seen sitting at an award show waiting for her party [Photo Credit: Ava Gardner Museum]

One day, a young man came in and presented himself as if he worked for a studio even though he was actually just a runner. He asked for Ava's phone number, infatuated with the photographs. But when Larry heard of the studio asking for Ava, he took it upon himself to contact the studio directly.

And that's what started it. Just a picture.

“They flew her out,” said Seabold. “Her accent was so strong, they told her they were going to do a silent screen test. They couldn't understand her!”

Despite being discovered for her looks, Ava was much more than a pretty face. While auditioning for Mike Nichols' The Graduate in 1967 (a role she eventually didn't get), she said, “All right. Let's talk about your movie. First of all, I strip for nobody.”

It was this realness that kept Ava's hometown hooked on the big star. And it's no surprise that they later opened a 5,000 square foot exhibit space dedicated to her.

While the collection changes every year, they always have a large amount of costumes, jewelry, makeup and other personal items from throughout her life, as well as movie posters and paintings of her.

A lot of the pieces were donated to the museum, but it all started with a man named Tom Banks. He worked for years collecting Ava-related items. Banks was a classmate of Ava's. She had kissed him on the playground one time. And “he was obsessed with her” ever since. Many of the donated paintings were created by Bert Pfeiffer. Every year, said Seabold, the artist would paint a different portrait of the movie star.

It's clear that Ava was someone who captured people's attentions and imaginations, including the residents of her hometown in North Carolina.

“One exhibit I really love,” said Seabold, “is the exhibit we have of her friendship with Gregory Peck. I love it because they had a true lasting friendship. We have a couple of costumes of a movie they did together, A Great Sinner. Her costume has the smallest waist... Her waist was tiny! But what I love about the exhibit is it shows what great friends they were. Getting to know more about her, it shows you how down to earth she was. She had friendships with these people who were so famous. I enjoy that exhibit and it reminds me of the person she was.” 

Ava was often seen as sophisticated and sensual in her career [Photo Credit: Ava Gardner Museum]
The library room of the museum [Photo Credit: Ava Gardner Museum]
Ava & Clark Gable, the once king of Hollywood [Photo Credit: Ava Gardner Museum]

According to Seabold, Ava was never affected by “Hollywood stuff” and stayed humble because of her simple past. She was from a family with seven kids who “didn't have a whole lot.” Her “simple existence” really made her approachable both on screen and off.

Unfortunately, Seabold did not have the chance to meet Ava throughout her two year history at the museum. Although she has met some family members.

“I love this job,” said Seabold. “It's so diverse. There are so many different things to do. But what I love the most is the people. The people that come in here are happy to be here. They are excited to see what we have to offer. That always makes me and my incredible staff feel really good. They appreciate so much the things we are trying to present. I love that feeling. By the end of the day, somebody somehow has given me a feeling of appreciation for what we have here.”

One of those people would have been Ava.

Why are so many people from all over attracted to the small town's museum?

“She's one of those people that really has a story that reaches through generations,” Seabold explained. It’s not easy to stay true to your small town roots with overflowing fame, but Ava did. This is a story that anybody would be interested in. The very next girl that goes to college to be a secretary can tell herself, 'I can do anything I want.' 

Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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