4 Small Towns that Raised Big Movie Stars

by  Karen Gardiner | Feb 7, 2014
Bristol, UK
Bristol, UK / NXiao/iStock

Although they shine bright on Hollywood Boulevard, some of the biggest movie stars had distinctly humbler beginnings. With less than a month to go until the Academy Awards, here are the small towns where some famous classic movie stars were born and raised. 

The Ava Gardner Museum: Smithfield, North Carolina 
The small town of Smithfield, in Johnston County, North Carolina, is about 30 minutes from Raleigh. It's the birthplace of one of America's most glamorous actresses, Ava Gardner. The youngest of seven children, Gardner was born in 1922, and left for Hollywood in 1941, going on to star in The Killers, Show Boat, and Mogambo, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award.

The Ava Gardner Museum, on East Market Street in downtown Smithfield, has officially operated as a museum since 1996, but its founder had been collecting Gardner-related memorabilia since 1941. Entrance to the Ava Gardner Museum costs $8 for adults, and visitors can take a self-guided tour through more than 5,000 square-feet of exhibit space. Displays include costumes, movie posters, and awards from Ava’s 50-year career, as well as personal items such as jewelry and clothes. There are even some items belonging to her third and final husband, Frank Sinatra. The tour also includes a screening of a short biography of Ava that features information about her early life in Johnston County, and you can follow the museum's Heritage Trail and visit sites in and around Smithfield that were significant in her life.

Dean Martin Festival: Steubenville, Ohio
Rat Pack member, rumored friend of the Mob, and "King of Cool," you would perhaps expect Dean Martin to have sprung from the mean streets of New York or Jersey, but Martin was a Midwesterner by birth. Born Dino Crocetti on June 7, 1917, in Steubenville, Ohio, Martin dropped out of high school in the 10th grade, ran bootleg liquor, dealt cards in an illegal casino, served in the army during World War II, then moved to New York where he met Jerry Lewis in 1946.

Every year, the city of Steubenville celebrates its most famous son with the Dean Martin Festival. This three-day event takes place in June, close to Martin's birthday, in several different venues around town. Much of the action is centered around The Spot Bar, which hosts karaoke contests and Dean Martin impersonator competitions. Entrance is $10 for each night of the festival. While in Steubenville, you can make a self-guided tour of notable Martin-associated locations by following the town's Dean Martin Map.

The Jimmy Stewart Museum: Indiana, Pennsylvania
The small town of Indiana, Pennsylvania was the birthplace of  "Ordinary Hero" Jimmy Stewart. Born in 1908, Stewart worked often with Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock, starring in two of Hitchcock's greatest movies, Vertigo and Rear Window, and starred in some of the 20th century's best-known American films such as It's a Wonderful Life, The Philadelphia Story, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  He also served in both World War II and the Vietnam War.

Located on the third floor of the Indiana Public Library, the Jimmy Stewart Museum highlights both his movie career and military service and displays artifacts from Stewart's childhood and home life alongside movie posters and memorabilia.  Entrance costs $7 for adults and visitors can also view film clips and career retrospectives in a 1930′s vintage movie theater with plush velvet drapes and wine-colored seats.

Cary Grant Festival: Bristol, England
In Bristol, two hours west of London, one of Hitchcock's other favorite leading men will be honored this year with the first-ever Cary Grant Festival in October. The festival will take place at Bristol's Hippodrome but there are few details yet. Check Visit Bristol's website for updates. If you can't make it to the festival, be sure to at least visit the Cary Grant statue in the city's Millennium Square.

Archibald Alexander Leach was born in the Bristol suburb of Horfield in 1904. He left for the United States in 1920 to tour the country as a stilt walker and eventually became an American citizen in 1942, changing his name to Cary Grant at the same time. Besides his work with Hitchcock in To Catch a Thief, Notorious, and North by Northwest, he starred alongside Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby.

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