- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2000

SMITHFIELD, N.C. The Ava Gardner Museum, which began as homage to a kiss, has moved to a permanent home after years of wandering.

A dedicated cadre of fans worked more than a year and spent $505,000 to establish a new museum in a former karate studio in Smithfield. Now, the collection honoring Johnston County's favorite daughter finally can rest, after three less-than-ideal locations.

The museum's board of directors opened the museum Oct. 1 at 325 E. Market St. in Smithfield. It also has developed its own Web site (www.avagardner.org).

Like the actress who grew up the daughter of a tenant farmer and a boardinghouse cook, the Ava Gardner Museum has come a long way.

The museum opened in 1981, the result of a smitten man's 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 would pick on pretty female students waiting at a campus bus stop. One day, perhaps the prettiest girl of all chased him down and kissed him on the cheek.

Mr. Banks never forgot the kiss, nor 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 to become an actress.

Mr. Banks clipped the story and put it in a shoe box. 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 Miss Gardner though he married happily in the meantime collecting posters, magazines, scripts and everything else he could find related to her.

Mr. Banks eventually decided to display his collection in the boardinghouse where Miss Gardner grew up, a few miles from Smithfield. The "museum" began as a homespun affair, with thumbtacks 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; Mr. Banks thought true fans would find it through word of mouth.

After he 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 boardinghouse, which was deteriorating. The roof leaked at the museum's most recent home. Volunteers would dash over during storms to set out buckets to catch the drips.

The new museum will be a different story. The museum board bought the building for $105,000 and spent nearly $400,000 on renovations. It includes a library, a 50-seat theater, a small kitchen and new interpretive panels showcasing aspects of Miss Gardner's life. A $1 million fund-raising campaign is under way to repay loans and keep the museum going.

Miss Gardner made 61 movies from 1942 to 1983, including "Mogambo," "The Barefoot Contessa" and "Night of the Iguana," becoming one of the nation's most well-known faces. Three famous husbands, Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, added to her celebrity.

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

"They do find it intriguing that she was born in a rural area and that she was not a child of wealth or privilege, and that her discovery was almost like fate," said Deidre Kraft, chairwoman of the museum board. "So I think they really want to try to make the connection, and I think they relate to that part of her life."

Some say Miss 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.

"Ava was a star in an age when Hollywood was really a glamorous place," Miss Kraft said. "Films of that age left more to the imagination, and Ava was a part of that golden age and really was a true movie goddess. She was a glamorous woman in her film roles, and yet she never forgot where she came from."

Miss Gardner died in 1990 and was buried in her family's plot in a Smithfield cemetery.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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