Monday, September 29, 2014

Discovering the Ava Gardner Museum: An Interview with Its Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger

The Ava Gardner Museum opened its doors at its permanent location officially in October 2000 in downtown Smithfield, North Carolina--which is eight miles west of Ava's birthplace. However, the idea for it was conceived much earlier by Thomas M. Banks, who met Ava when he was 12 and she was 18 in Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, NC. When Ava went to Hollywood to pursue acting, Tom became fascinated by her career. He went on to work as a publicist briefly for Columbia Pictures and later earned a Ph.D. in psychology. He married his wife, Lorraine, in 1960 and the couple started collecting Ava Gardner memorabilia. They visited Ava Gardner in 1978 and discussed donating their collection to a university. Ava, however, suggested that they display the memorabilia in her home state. In 1980, Tom and Lorraine bought The Brogden Teacherage where Ava had lived as a child. They operated a museum in the summer months for several years. When Tom died in 1989, Lorraine donated their Ava Gardner collection to the Town of Smithfield. The Ava Gardner Museum Foundation was incorporated in 1996 and the 6,400 square foot museum opened four years later. It now houses over 20,000 pieces of memorabilia and is visited by 10,000 Ava Gardner fans annually.

Deanna Brandenberger, Museum Executive Director of the Ava Gardner Museum, recently spoke with us about the museum and the Ava Gardner Festival that starts this week.

Café: What are some of the most popular items in the museum? Any unique ones that warrant a special mention?

The dress from The Great Sinner.
Deanna Brandenberger: The most popular items are the black velvet dress she wore in the film The Great Sinner, as well as the Bert Pfeiffer paintings. The dress is a sheer work of art and very opulent despite the design’s simplicity. One thing it prompts people to comment upon is how small Ava’s waist was. She actually had an 18-20 inch waist despite having a hearty appetite for down-home Southern cuisine. The Bert Pfeiffer paintings are unique because of his admiration displayed in innovative ways. Despite never meeting her, he certainly seemed to capture various aspects of her personality and visage. He often incorporated oddities (such as a mouse running up her arm or tables without legs) and guests love to browse the gallery to see if they can spot anything whimsical that he may have painted. Even Ava approved of the art. She owned three herself that hung in her London apartment till her death. Those particular three are on display in the theater.

Café: What can you tell us about your upcoming Ava Gardner Festival on October 3-5?

DB: The festival is our 14th annual celebration of the museum’s opening in this location and is also our main fundraiser. As a non-profit, we rely solely upon the income of our visitors and the generous donations to help provide the funding necessary to operate and maintain our facility. Each festival has its own theme; this year’s is “Ava’s Closet: Her Personal Fashion and Style.” On Friday evening, we have a Fashion Fling party which will feature the unveiling of the Ava’s Closet exhibit with never-before-seen wardrobes of her glamor--her everyday--and her intimate-wear; the Sinatra-style entertainment of The Carolina Crooner; and hors d’ouevres and local wines and beers provided by the new downtown restaurant Serendipity Road. Saturday, we will feature a talk by our celebrity guest, Season 12 Project Runway fashion designer and upcoming All-Star Justin LeBlanc, followed by a meet and greet, all from 9-11am. Heritage Tours of significant spots in Ava’s childhood and her gravesite will take place throughout the day. With admission, there will also be free movie screenings of The Killers and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Saturday evening, the festivities will move to the Clayton Center as we team up with the Clayton Piano Festival in their special tribute to Ava in Show Boat and her love of flamenco followed by a meet-and-greet with the artist, and a dessert and coffee reception. On Sunday, the museum will host extended hours from 1-5pm and will show a screening of The African Queen (directed by Ava’s friend John Huston; and following on the Raleigh film festival’s tribute series to him), which is free with admission. Prices and packaging information can be found on our website, or by calling us directly at (919) 934-5830.

Café: Back to Bert Pfeiffer, who was he and why did he add such offbeat embellishments as a mouse on Ava's sleeve?

DB: Bert Pfeiffer was a Dutch artist who saw Ava in One Touch of Venus in 1948 and was captivated by her beauty. Every year for the next 50 years, he painted a different painting of Ava, despite never meeting her. Some of Ava’s traveling friends happened upon his gallery and asked if she would like one of his paintings. She replied that she would purchase three; they are now displayed in the theater.  Pfeiffer’s family donated his collection to the museum after his death in accordance with his wishes. No one is really certain why Pfeiffer chose to display these different embellishments in many of the paintings; although they don’t appear in every one. It is usually chalked up to artist expression. The museum gift shop is honoring Pfeiffer by releasing a limited edition postcard of one of Pfeiffer’s paintings every year, beginning in 2014.

Café: How did Gregory Peck get involved with the Ava Gardner Museum?

DB: Gregory Peck and Ava were lifelong friends after starring together in The Great Sinner (1949). They would go on to star in two other films together and had a wonderful time. After Ava’s death, Peck took in Ava’s housekeeper and friend Carmen Vargas, as well as Ava’s beloved corgi, Morgan. Peck visited the museum before his death while filming in Raleigh. He was a member of the Honorary Advisory Board and held an open position on our Board of Directors to offer his input and support to the museum. His family still maintains ties with us and we are very honored to announce that his daughter Cecilia Peck Voll and Carmen will both continue by sitting on the new Honorary Advisory Board in the future.  

Café: What is the Ava Gardner Heritage Trail?

DB: The Ava Gardner Heritage Trail is a project that was recently finished, thanks to the support of The Winston-Salem Foundation. The trail highlights geographical points of interest regarding Ava’s life and her family history here in Johnston County, North Carolina. The trail map is displayed in the museum and fliers with a brief historical synopsis and directions are provided to guests free of charge.

Café: What are some of your personal favorites of Ava's movies?

Ava in The Barefoot Contessa.
DB: My favorite movie of Ava’s is The Barefoot Contessa. Although the character role was said to be loosely based on Rita Hayworth, I still find many personal parallels to Ava’s own life. There is a beautiful soliloquy where Maria Vargas (Ava’s character) explains to Bogart how she always felt comforted with her feet in the dirt as she grew up in poverty, at least she was grounded by that visceral moment. There is a real-life story of Ava running barefoot through tobacco fields here in Johnston County. Her character went from feet in the dirt to movie star, just like Ava. I love the veracity of Ava’s portrayal. Another favorite film is Mogambo. Ava used to go to the movies here in her hometown and watch Clark Gable in Red Dust. She always thought how wonderful he was and dreamed of starring in a movie with him. Little did she know she would eventually shoot the remake in Mogambo and star opposite Clark Gable. That must have been wonderful kismet for her. I like hearing how dreams come true--she is definitely our country's Cinderella. Ava’s characters were always believable because on some level she could relate to them. That makes her timeless.

Café: Are you working on any new displays for 2015?

DB: We are currently in talks with other institutions who house pieces of Ava memorabilia. Our goal is to get loans for some iconic artifacts which our visitors can see all in one place. There are no specific exhibit plans in place, but we are always brainstorming. Before very long, we will outline something new for the following year. So we will keep you updated!

Café: What advice would you give to an Ava Gardner fan visiting the museum for the first time? 

The entrance to the museum.
DB: Not very long ago, before my dreams of running this museum were realized, I myself was just a visitor. One of the things I was most struck by--and the comment I hear by most of our guests--is how impressive the gallery-style setup is and how professionally the museum is laid out. I honestly expected little more than someone’s living room with a bunch of movie memorabilia tacked on the walls and maybe a dress or two. I was completely blown away by the facility. We have 6400 square feet of space in the building and it houses a diversity of items. Not only do we have items of Ava’s, we have items from family, from husbands (such as Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra), and we even have our own theater and Ava’s personal library. My biggest piece of advice to visitors is to leave enough time to properly see the museum. We recommend no less than an hour. We first introduce you to Ava with an 18-minute biography in the theater and then allow you to peruse the gallery and library. There is so much to see, it is almost impossible without a few hours. But what’s the hurry? Take lunch at a diner, visit our local shops, see a movie at the antique theater where Ava sat, and see what Historical Downtown Smithfield has to offer!

You can learn more about the Ava Gardner Museum by visiting its excellent web site at, "liking" it on Facebook, and following it on Twitter All photos, except for The Barefoot Contessa, are courtesy of the Ava Gardner Museum and the permission to use them is on a project-by-project basis.


  1. Great interview. I have visited the Ava Gardner museum numerous times both with and without my daughter (a young Ava fan in her own right). I agree with the overall impression of a quality museum however, I have also been pleased with those I have encountered who work there. These people have been very friendly, knowledgeable and accommodating every time I've been there. I have also attended a pervious Ava Gardner festival in Smithfield and had a ball!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this interview. It was a wonderful idea to locate the museum in Smithfield, where Miss Gardner's memory will always be cherished. I look forward to visiting one day. Well done, Rick, and thank you for highlighting this wonderful museum!

  3. Great interview - I will definitely try to work in a visit if my travels take me anywhere near it. I love museums like this one. Thanks for telling us about it!

  4. Thank you for this interview. This museum is now on my vacation list.

  5. Someday I hope to visit Ava's museum and the area where she grew up. Great piece, Rick!