No, there aren't any beautiful young women running barefoot through the tobacco fields around here these days. That was a long time ago. And Ava Gardner was, well, special. Always.
But there is a brand new Ava Gardner Museum, on the main street of this well-kept town of 11,000 people. Opened last fall, it replaces a smaller museum on a side street that was hard to find.
This one has 6,400 square feet of space to house what has been called the nation's largest collection of memorabilia for a single movie star. The new museum has Gardner scripts, posters, clothing, photos, books, family albums, videotapes, a portrait gallery, a mini-theater and a well-stocked gift shop.
Nor is there is skimping on what many fans remember about Gardner.
"Yes, some people come in and they don't know who she is. But by the time they leave, they love her," says Billie Stevens, the director of the museum and one of the principal keepers of what is still a major flame.
As the museum's guidebook notes, Gardner had the courage to face up to such fearsome directors as John Huston "without breaking out in hives or collapsing in tears or running home to mama." She also had strong views on her need to separate the demands of her glamorous public life from her longings for quiet times, out of the public eye.
"There should be a little more quality in this life, a little more delicacy, a little more love, gentleness and kindness. That goes for just about everything. And it must begin with ourselves," Gardner once said. "I live my life according to my own standards. I like to live out of the public eye. Being a film star is a big damn bore.
"But there's the loot, honey," she went on, "always the loot."
'LITTLE OLD COUNTRY GIRL'
Gardner was born just outside of Smithfield, a 40-minute drive southeast of Raleigh along U.S. Highway 70 in North Carolina's rolling Piedmont region. Her father was a sharecropper. Her mother ran a boarding house for teachers.
She liked to describe herself as "a little old country girl."
But from the time she performed in a 1st-grade operetta, "A Rose Dream," she was, as they say, tabbed for stardom. As a long hall of exhibits -- and a video documentary -- make clear, she grew up a beauty, with green eyes, perfectly arched eyebrows, a delicately cleft chin and flawless skin.
Ava went North not long after high school to visit her older sister, Beatrice, known as Bappie, and Bappie's husband, Larry Tarr, a photographer in New York City.
That led to some portraits of the kid sister-in-law. They were spotted by a mail room clerk for MGM. That led to a screen test and a contract. And that led -- after Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw -- to husband Frank Sinatra.
As author Kitty Kelley related in "His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra," Gardner was the only person in Sinatra's weight class (150 pounds and under) who ever fought the feisty singer to a draw. Though they remained enchanted with each other for the rest of their lives, their turbulent marriage didn't last long.
In Kelley's 1986 tome, Gardner describes a typical evening at home.
"I hadn't been there more than 10 minutes," she says, "when the door bursts open and in storms Frank looking like Al Capone and the Boston Strangler rolled into one, and starts to abuse everyone present, mostly me. He called Lana [Turner] 'that two-bit whore,' and she burst into tears and got very small and said, 'I'm not going to be talked about like that' in a very little-girl voice just like we were all in a Shirley Temple movie."
Her movie career, meanwhile, was doing very nicely.
After 15 small walk-ons in MGM movies, she was loaned out to Universal to play the femme fatale Kitty Collins in "The Killers." She played opposite Clark Gable in "The Hucksters," then again with Gable in "Mogambo," filmed in the heat of Africa with cast and crew housed in 300 tents and the film shipped out daily packed in dry ice.
The museum's screening-room documentary has clips from most of her triumphs, including "Show Boat," "One Touch of Venus" and "The Night of the Iguana," a film shot in Mexico where she defied the pleas of friends (and the insurance company) by water-skiing to the film's location shootings across shark-infested waters.
Like many stars, including Sinatra, she regularly mixed sex appeal with a sense of danger.
On the other hand, this museum was born -- one might say -- with a kiss.
It was built around a collection of memorabilia put together by Tom Banks, a psychologist, and his wife, Lorraine, a school librarian. At the age of 12, Banks was kissed on the cheek by a young girl, Gardner, who was attending secretarial school in Wilson, N.C. He never forgot it. For years, he collected Gardner-related material as a hobby.
In their later years, after settling in Florida, the couple had planned to donate their collection to a university in New York state. But after talking with a Smithfield reporter in 1978, they decided on Ava's native territory.
In 1980, Banks opened a museum in Ava's childhood home near Smithfield. He ran it for nine summers. In 1989, he suffered a stroke at the museum and died a few days later. Gardner died six months later in January of 1990.
Later that year, Lorraine Banks donated the collection to the Town of Smithfield -- and the following January she died.
Some said that Gardner's raucous private life caught up with her.
Through most of her 30s, she lived in Spain, with an agenda built around bullfighters, gypsies and long excursions into the night.
In her late 40s, "when the nights and the gypsies were no longer the same," she moved on to London, drinking with "chums," as she called them, and continuing to work, "always trying to do my best."
In 1986 she suffered a stroke. She lingered on for four more years. She was 68 when she died and was buried at home, in North Carolina, in Sunset Memorial Park. That's about 7 miles from where her museum now stands.
The Ava Gardner Museum, wheelchair accessible, is at 325 E. Market St. in Smithfield, N.C. It is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 2-5 p.m. Sunday. Adults: $4. Telephone is 919-934-5830. For directions, consult www.avagardner.org.