Tom wondered about Ava when she did not return to school the next year. In the late summer of 1941, he saw her picture in the paper and learned she signed a movie contract with MGM. Tom was overwhelmed that he knew someone who had “gone to Hollywood.” His fascination began!
Whenever he read an article about Ava, he cut it out and saved it. Tom contacted Ava during his college days at William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA, and asked her to become the sweetheart of his college fraternity, Phi Kappa Tau. Ava accepted, and she sent autographed pictures to all the new pledges.
After graduating college, Tom headed to Hollywood (his graduation present to himself) and watched Ava on the set of Show Boat. After completing service in the US Navy and a brief career as a publicist for Columbia Pictures, Tom earned a PhD in psychology. In 1960, he married Lorraine, and they moved to Florida, where the couple worked for the Broward County School System.
Tom & Lorraine traveled the world collecting Ava memorabilia, and amassed an extensive collection. While visiting Ava in London in 1978, they discussed donating the collection to an institution such as Columbia University, but Ava suggested the collection belonged in her home state. The very next year, the first exhibit of the collection was held in downtown Smithfield.
The Museum Begins
In the early 1980s Dr. Banks purchased the house where Ava lived from age 2 to 13, and operated his own Ava Museum during the summers for nine years. Dr. Banks suffered a stroke at the museum in August of 1989 and died a few days later. Ava died 5 months later on January 25, 1990. In the summer of 1990, Mrs. Banks donated the collection to the Town of Smithfield, being assured that a permanent museum would be maintained in Johnston County, Ava's birthplace and final resting place.
The Ava Gardner Museum was incorporated in 1996 as a 501(c)3 organization to manage and care for the Museum's collection of personal items and movie memorabilia gifted to the Town of Smithfield by Tom and Lorraine Banks. Since that time the Ava Gardner Museum Foundation has continued to acquire artifacts related to Ava's life and is committed to preserving theses items and displaying them in an educational manner.
In August of 1999, the Museum’s board made an investment in downtown Smithfield by purchasing and renovating a 6,400 square foot building that became the permanent home for the Museum’s vast collection. In October 2000, the new Ava Gardner Museum opened its doors and has continued to draw national and even worldwide attention with approximately 12,000 visitors each year.
The museum most recent project was building library bookcases to house both Ava's personal collection, as well as, Tom's vast collection on Hollywood's Golden Age. The museum directors have named the Ava Garner Museum Library, the Tom Banks Library and an exhibit panel honors him as the founder of the museum and his lifelong commitment to Ava's memory.