“What I’d like to say about stardom is that it gave me everything I never wanted.” ~ Ava Gardner*

Whenever I read this quote, I think, me too, Ava.

       The quote is often misinterpreted to represent that she was unhappy with the way her life turned out, but as her autobiography closes, she says she would have stayed the course for the most part. I think that is relatable to many of our own experiences as everyday mortals. The relation I feel toward Ava is that her stardom has changed my life. Once again, this doesn’t make me terribly unique. Immortalized on the silver screen, Technicolor, and modern film; she is still the 25th most popular actress of all time according to the American Film Institute.  Her image has evoked emotion and inspiration to many of us the world over. Her wily wit and sultry passion has delighted us for decades.  What does make my situation unique is that my education led me down many unexpected career avenues, combined with my love for vintage film, and it landed me in the lap of Smithfield, North Carolina in November of last year- the home of the legendary silver screen siren herself. I never imagined that Ava’s stardom would give me a dream job I never knew I wanted.  While this blog will mostly focus on Ava and topics having to do with the Ava Gardner Museum, I wanted to introduce myself because it is my voice, my eyes, and my words that you will experience through if you are reading this blog. Therefore, I wanted to share a bit about myself and what I do at the Ava Gardner Museum with all of you.

About Me

     I think back to the first time I heard about her. My grandfather, a WWII pilot and author, told me that if I wanted to see what a real woman was, it was Ava Gardner. “Now there was a woman!” he would reminisce. “Poor little girl grew up in tobacco country. Had to get everything on her own merits.”  I knew just what he meant. She was raw, stimulating, independent- scrappy even. Yet she was gorgeous, gracious, a Southern lady. What an enigma! He would talk about her as a bombshell pinup, and I could easily imagine him drawing her on the side of his plane before taking off on a mission as so many pilots did back then. I don’t think he ever thought his love for her would end up becoming mine.  I read her autobiography at the age of 12 and then I gave it to him. At 91 years old, it is one of the few possessions he still hangs onto.

Ava's autobiography, published 1990.

Ava’s autobiography, published 1990.

A Northern California native, I grew up loving vintage films. My family had a few ties to the movie industry. My grandmother went to school with Judy Garland, my grandfather flew with Robert Taylor, and my great-aunt was a seamstress on the epic Ten Commandments.  Needless to say, vintage film was common in my home growing up. My mother was a fan of Howard Keel, Judy Garland, and Julie Andrews. Some of my most vivid memories are of The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, and her favorite, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. My favorites were Lana Turner, Gene Tierney, Judy Garland and of course, Ava Gardner! Since Ava and Lana were Hollywood chums, I became even more interested in their lives. Dating and/or marrying the same men (Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra), hanging out at the same parties, and friendly box office competition- these women were some of the most glamorous of the age!

Great Basin archaeology September 2013

Great Basin archaeology September 2013

Eventually, I began higher education and working. I gained my Bachelor’s degree in History in Nevada and minored in Archaeology, and this is where my museology experience also began. First, as part of museum studies classes, then internships, then graduate research assistantships, volunteering and actually working in the field for pay. I think very few people go into museum studies and actually get a job right off the bat. That is why so many of us diversify our skills: so that eventually, we land where we belong.  I followed that with a Master’s degree in History. Not even history of film; I concentrated on the history Latin America and Europe.  I became an archaeologist, primarily in the Great Basin; a career which is not as romantic as it sounds. However, I often had amazing experiences that I couldn’t have anywhere else in the world.  I met some of the most unique people who I catch up with every once in a while too. I worked in other fields as well: mining/engineering, water rights, ISO and internal auditing, gambling and entertainment, in addition to cultural resource management. I am a bit of a workaholic I guess you could say. I went on to become a college instructor of history and humanities in the capitol of Carson City at the age of 27. I loved teaching college. That experience of sharing knowledge and gaining perspectives in an academic environment is such a rich one! Yet I never seemed to fit in. It was like I was constantly searching for the glass slipper of careers. That is until the economic recession caused me to move to North Carolina to be near family and leave the rain shadow desert of Reno far behind. I’ve never regretted it. It was one of the very few times gambling ever worked out for me.

How Does One Become a Museum Director?

            It takes confidence in experience, knowledge and credentials but those qualities also belong to the other thousands of qualified historians also out of work or job-hunting. The short answer is that a lot of it comes down to luck and the grace of God.  Right place, right time. Networking.  I volunteered and communicated with anyone in the region in my fields. Then one day, I remembered visiting the Ava Gardner Museum and realized I hadn’t asked to network with the director. Turns out, I had contacted him only a day after he had given his resignation because he was moving on to another position within the county. Serendipity?  Definitely.  I met with him and talked about the museum and his job- and I realized I was hungry for it.  I was impressed at how far the museum had come since its inception in the early 1980s and the developments that still needed to take place galvanized my resolve to be involved.  I knew I could help the museum to develop in new ways if I was given the chance. There was competition, but I proved myself and I also demonstrated that I had a passion for vintage film and a particular devotion to Ava.  Moreover, I had an intense attraction to what I could do with relating her to local as well as world history. What an honor. Then there was grandpa…. How proud he would be! And so he is.

I started my employment on July 1, 2014.  There is an old adage that if you love what you do, you never truly work a day in your life. I always thought that saying was utter hogwash until I became the director here. I love my job. I cannot say that enough. I love selling stardust and introducing such a remarkable woman, actress, and North Carolinian woman to the world. Ava is the archetypal country girl Cinderella. Dreams do come true folks, and they come true in Johnston County.  Not just for Ava, but for a lost California girl like me too.

AGM Board Chairwoman Mary Helen Wyatt (left) and Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger (right) share a smile at the Ava Gardner Festival, October 3, 2014.

AGM Board Chairwoman Mary Helen Wyatt (left) and Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger (right) share a smile at the Ava Gardner Festival, October 3, 2014.

What does a Museum Executive Director do?

         Our museum is small 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization. I am the only full-time staff member. I have three part-time docents, and they take turns on day shifts; I have a part-time bookkeeper as well.  That means everything else is left to me.  Administration, finance, museum curation and conservation, oral history, heritage tours, sales and marketing, exhibit design, public relations, fundraising and grant-writing, community relations and outreach, social media, and a myriad of miscellaneous responsibilities. As you can imagine, these categories are really an umbrella for everything a director does.  I literally change air filters and light bulbs on some days.  There is no job too big or too small for a director. Fortunately, I have wonderful Board members who are willing to roll up their sleeves alongside me.  Everyone involved with this museum cares about it on a personal level and they contribute. Some of them even knew Ava; two are even family members! So if you are interested in the success story of an underdog effort like ours, you have to know that it is because of these people who turn the gears and their efforts are the oil to the machine.

I also became the Trustee of the Ava Gardner Estate. This position is separate from my position as the museum executive director and there is no remuneration. It is a sacred duty for me because I love Ava and what is left of her legacy in her estate deserves the best management it can get. When it comes to the Trust, my obligation has to remain separate from my duties as a museum director.  The trustee is responsible not only for the finances of the estate, but anyone who wishes to utilize the intellectual property, an image or likeness, or copyright of Ava’s must get my approval. It is an honor to serve Ava in this very personal role and to ensure that her name and image are used in an appropriate and beneficial way.

 Why don’t I have 10 arms?

            Everyone has an opinion, and believe it or not, I love to hear every one of them. The most common thing I hear is critiquing on why I don’t do more in one area or another. Simply put, it’s usually because I do not have time or resources. It always comes down to those two things. Would I love to have at least two assistants? Absolutely! Is it possible on a non-profit budget like ours? Not unless I can find a way to fund it. Fundraising, grants, sponsorships, admissions and gift shop sales are the way we do this. Those processes in themselves take time. One project can offset the needs of another and time balance is critical when you are only one person. Are we spread thin here? Yes. However, everything we present is quality and our reviews and feedback show consistently that as a specialized film museum, we are uniquely successful and enjoyable to our visitors. Expansion and development is a long-term goal but it will take years. We depend on our Ava fans and advocates supporting us, giving feedback, and visiting when they can.  In turn, we try to keep refreshing our exhibits and making each experience a pleasant one with new items to see.

As I begin this blog, I want to open up a dialogue with you: the Ava fans and the visitors, no matter where you are in the world. We will discuss the museum, our projects, Ava’s personal life, her career, and her legacy. Write me questions with what you are curious about or your comments and suggestions. I want to hear them! Comment below the blog or write me an email at avainfo@avagardner.org . Thank you for letting me introduce myself to you and I look forward to the conversations about Ava that we are going to have!

~Deanna Brandenberger, AGM Executive Director

*Gardner, Ava. Ava: My Story. United States of America: Bantam Books, 1990. p.198.

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