By Lora Stocker & Beth Nevarez
The first incarnation of the Ava Gardner Museum opened in the summer of 1981. Operating as a seasonal attraction, the museum was housed in a building where Ava once lived in the rural community of Brogden, North Carolina. In the spring of 1991, the collection was relocated to Smithfield and made accessible to visitors year-round. On October 2, 2000, the museum moved into its current location in the heart of historic downtown Smithfield.
The museum has grown substantially since 1981 and so has the scope of our mission. Today, we honor the remarkable professional career, the trailblazing personal life, and the lasting cultural legacy of Ava Gardner through both curatorial preservation and historical interpretation. Our current location provides our visitors with over 5,000 square feet of exhibit space to explore. Our vast repository of Ava’s personal and professional artifacts includes photographs, jewelry, costumes, memorabilia, papers, ephemera, and much more.
While we appreciate and value all of our museum visitors, we have been very fortunate over the years to have celebrities and public figures contribute to the museum, attend our special events, and visit us in Smithfield. Here are just a few of our noted guests and supporters.
In 1992, multi-talented performers Lena Horne and Elaine Stritch along with gossip columnist Liz Smith hosted a special fundraiser in New York to benefit the Ava Gardner Museum shortly after we relocated our collection to Smithfield, NC. These three friends of Ava also willingly served on the museum’s honorary committee. Ava’s devoted friend and one-time director, actor Roddy McDowall also joined the honorary committee.
In August 1990, when the collection was displayed in Ava’s childhood home in Brogden, Virginia Mayo, actress, dancer, and Hollywood contemporary of Ava, visited the museum. While Ava and Mayo never worked together in a film, they were on friendly terms. In the late 1940s, they were both “bat girls” or cheerleaders for Frank Sinatra’s celebrity baseball team called the Swooners.
Gregory Peck, Oscar-winning actor and three-time costar to Ava, visited the museum in spring 1992 while he was in Raleigh, NC filming the made-for-television movie The Portrait costarring Lauren Bacall and his daughter Cecilia Peck.
Author Doris Rollins Cannon shared the story of his visit in her book Grabtown Girl.
“One day, a tall man with a scruffy gray beard and a cap pulled low on his head entered the museum. [Museum docent Marion Grimes Crayton] took the lone man on a tour. ‘In 1949, Ava wore this gown in The Great Sinner with Gregory Peck,’ she said when they came to a black velvet gown [in the museum’s permanent collection]. ‘Oh yes, I remember that gown,’ the man said. Marion said she almost fainted when she heard that distinctive voice. She [realized she] was talking to Gregory Peck.”
While Gregory Peck was at the museum he generously signed several photos and posters in our collection. This lobby card from his last film with Ava, On the Beach (1959), is currently on display in our poster gallery. His inscription reads, “A gloomy film, but Ava at her best.”
In April 2001, Mickey Rooney, famed actor and Ava’s first husband, was touring with his then wife Jan Chamberlain Rooney in their production of “The One Man One Wife Show.” Before their scheduled performance at the Johnston Community College Auditorium in Smithfield, the Rooneys stopped by the Ava Gardner Museum for a private tour.
During his visit, Mickey Rooney walked rather quickly by the various museum displays and exhibit panels, joking with our museum docents, “I’ve seen most of the photos before.” He did stop his brisk walk-through to lovingly admire a large photo from his 1942 wedding to Ava.
Butch Patrick, former child actor best known for his role as Eddie Munster on the CBS comedy series The Munsters, stopped by the museum in January 2020. As part of his visit, he filmed an episode of his new YouTube travel show called “Koach to Koast.” While touring the museum he was taken aback by the physical resemblance between Ava Gardner and Yvonne De Carlo, his onscreen mother on The Munsters.
Special Museum Events
Howard Keel’s wife Judy Keel attended the Ava Gardner Museum Festival in 2005, the year after her husband’s passing. She shared wonderful stories with our visitors during the event and signed copies of Howard’s newly released autobiography, Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business.
Victoria Price, daughter of actor Vincent Price and an author, speaker, and designer, visited the museum in 2017 while on a book tour. Victoria spoke to an excited crowd of event attendees about her father’s illustrious career and his memories of working with Ava on The Bribe (1949). Following her presentation, she signed copies of her father’s books, for which she wrote the forwards.
Fashion designer, Project Runway finalist, contestant on Project Runway All Stars, and NC State Design School graduate Justin LeBlanc visited the museum in 2014. He attended the annual Ava Gardner Museum Festival and displayed one of his Project Runway dress creations.
Frank Sinatra Jr.
In November 2015, Ava Gardner was honored by her home state with a North Carolina historic marker. Frank Sinatra Jr., the son of Ava’s third husband Frank Sinatra and a noted musician in his own right, participated in a museum-sponsored unveiling ceremony for the marker held at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC where he was performing a concert. The following day, the marker was installed and dedicated at its permanent location on West Market Street adjacent to Sunset Memorial Park cemetery where Ava is buried.
During his 30-minute speech, Sinatra recounted his experience first meeting Ava as a child and how she later helped him while he was touring in Spain. He expressed how he thought Ava was “a great star and honest person.” Toward the end of his remarks, he shared the following anecdote, even imitating Ava’s playful way of speaking as he said her words.
“She talked to me honestly about her roots in North Carolina. I said, ‘[Ava], I never knew you were a tar heel.’ She said, ‘Oh yeah baby, I’m a tar heel all down the line.’”
View the full ceremony here.
Cecilia Peck & Elizabeth McGovern
In November 2016, Ava Gardner was honored in her adopted hometown of London with a special Blue Plaque from the English Heritage Trust. In addition to members of Ava Gardner’s family and the museum staff, celebrities Cecilia Peck and Elizabeth McGovern attended the dedication ceremony outside of Ava’s former London residence.
Peck, an actress, director, producer and daughter of Ava’s favorite costar Gregory Peck, spoke at the event about her father’s close friendship with Ava. Actress Elizabeth McGovern, best known for her Emmy-nominated role as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham in the British drama series Downton Abbey, also offered her reflections on Ava’s career and lasting appeal during the ceremony.
Governor Jim Hunt
After attending the wedding of Princess Caroline of Monaco, Grace Kelly’s eldest child, Ava Gardner left the glitz and glamour of the French Rivera for the tranquil countryside of North Carolina to attend her high school reunion. Also in attendance at the event was another noted graduate of Rock Ridge School, the longest serving governor in North Carolina history, Jim Hunt.
In May 2017, Governor Hunt and representatives from the museum were on hand for the unveiling of a special Wilson County historic marker dedicated to Ava Gardner in the small community of Rock Ridge just outside of Wilson, NC.
About the Authors
Beth Nevarez is the collections manager at the Ava Gardner Museum. She has a master’s degree in public history and nearly 10 years’ experience working in museums. A Wilson, North Carolina native, Beth attended UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Wilmington for her studies, focusing on American history. She now operates Beth Nevarez Historical Consulting and specializes in caring for historical collections and sharing history through collections outreach initiatives.
Lora Stocker began volunteering as a social media specialist with the Ava Gardner Museum in 2019 and then joined the Museum’s Board of Directors. She is a professional artist, designer, and illustrator operating her own business Lora Stocker Designs in Johnston County, North Carolina. She received degrees in Studio Art and Visual Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her diverse career in the arts has included commissions from national and international brands as well as those from North Carolina-based businesses and non-profits. When not creating, she likes to spend time traveling and exploring with her husband, visiting the country’s National Parks and sites related to classic film history.