“Gone With The Wind” aficionados Saundra Voter and Warren Allen discuss the portrait roundel of Olivia de Havilland at the Road To Tara Museum in Jonesboro last week. The one-of-a-kind portrait is one of four “Gone With The Wind” roundels made for the film’s 1939 premiere. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
JONESBORO — Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley and Melanie have arrived in Jonesboro after a nearly 75-year wait.
And Rhett and Scarlett were on hand to greet them last week.
The Road to Tara Museum unveiled a piece of cinema history last Friday when it gave state and local officials, and devoted “Gone With The Wind” fans a first look at a permanent exhibit of four 64-inch roundel portraits used at the film’s 1939 premiere in Atlanta.
The roundels feature Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard, and they were displayed across the street from the old Loews Grand Theater in Atlanta as part of the decorations erected for the premiere.
And for “Gone With the Wind” fans like Columbus resident Saundra Voter, the fact that these portraits have a permanent place to be displayed was like a dream come true.
“This is amazing because this is the closest I’ve ever been able to see them,” said Voter.
The roundels had been obscured from view until the sneak preview, but anyone who now comes to the museum will be able to see them. Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau officials added them to the museum’s collection as part of a renovation commemorating the film’s 75th anniversary and the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Jonesborough next year.
for the anniversaries
The dual anniversaries mean Jonesboro is expected to be a key destination for Civil War and “Gone With The Wind” buffs in the next year, said Beda Johnson, director of Georgia’s tourism division. Jonesboro has special ties to the “Gone With The Wind” and the real Civil War history. The fall of Jonesborough — as the city was known at the time — to Union forces in August 1864 cut off the last rail line into Atlanta, which helped lead to the fall of that city.
And “Gone With The Wind” author Margaret Mitchell’s family was from Clayton County and the fictional Tara plantation was located just outside Jonesboro in the book and the movie.
Jonesboro’s place in the story means the city is a key destination for fans of the book and movie, and the roundels exhibit will likely be popular, said Johnson.
“It is huge, especially for folks who are fans of the movie that come here to be closer to the movie, because that’s what they love to see,” she said.
Tourism is big business in Clayton County, with visitors spending $1.2 billion in the county in 2012, according to figures provided by the convention and visitors bureau. They also generated about $167 million in state and local tax revenues.
Convention and visitors bureau marketing director Beth Bailey said the roundels are a major addition. That’s because the museum can now boast that it is the only place where “Gone With The Wind” fans, known as “Windies,” can see these one-of-a-kind portraits.
“These are four 5-foot tall pieces of history,” said Bailey. “You can’t just walk into an antiques store and find that anywhere.”
And there are a lot of people out there who want to see unique memorabilia tied to the movie or the book. Johnson said there is a large market for “Gone With The Wind” tourism among visitors from foreign countries who expect to find a real-life Tara.
It’s so popular in China, she said, the state includes items from The Road To Tara Museum in its promotional packs for tour operators in the Asian country.
“Visitors from foreign markets look for ‘Gone With The Wind’ when they visit Georgia, and we love there is a place here that they can find it,” said Johnson.
She added that the museum’s proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is a plus because it lets visitors passing through the airport quickly get their fix during a layover.
At the right place
at the right time
What visitors to the museum may not learn during their layovers is how close the roundels came to being lost forever.
It’s a story that, in a way, echoes Scarlett O’Hara’s flight from a burning Atlanta as the city fell to Union forces — complete with an actual fire when the timing of the discovery is taken into consideration.
They were found and rescued from the Loews Grand Theater by “Gone With The Wind” collector Herb Bridges a few years before the old movie palace was engulfed in flames in 1978, said one of Bridge’s friends, John Wiley Jr.
“It was in the late 60s or early 70s and he just went to the Loews and asked them if they had any stuff left from the premiere and they apparently said, “We don’t know but you’re welcome to look around,’” said Wiley. “So, he saw the docks above the stage where the screen was, because it used to be an opera house, and that was where he found them.
“He used to say he had to climb a ladder straight up to the docks and was looking around with a flashlight when he came across them,” Wiley added. “He said they told him he could keep whatever he found as long as he could remove it himself.”
Warren Allen, a “Windie” who’d heard Bridges tell the story, later said the collector was not thrilled by the harrowingexperience. “He used to say it was a scary experience because he had to climb straight up that ladder and then lower them down with a rope,” said Allen.
Bailey said the museum’s collection has been renamed in memory of Bridges, who died in September. The addition of the roundels, as well as the addition of a permanent Battle of Jonesborough exhibit earlier this year, constituted the largest project undertaken by the museum since it opened in 2002, she said.
All of the “Gone With The Wind” memorabilia at the museum is from Bridges’ collection.
“We’re renaming it, ‘Herb Bridges: A Gentleman’s Legacy’ because he was just the quintessential southern gentleman,” said Bailey.
The addition of the roundels and an expanded section devoted to actress Ann Rutherford, who played Careen in “Gone With The Wind,” to the museum’s exhibit had been in the works for months before Bridges died.
Indeed, Bridges boasted about the addition of the roundels when Clayton News Daily interviewed him in August about an Arts Clayton Gallery exhibit of vintage movie posters from the Loew’s Grand Theater. Wiley said Bridges was looking forward to seeing the portraits go on permanent display at the museum.
“He was very excited about about this exhibit,” said Wiley. “They were some of his favorite pieces in his collection, and he was planning to be here for the opening.”
More celebrations in 2014
The museum is planning several activities to commemorate the anniversaries of the battle and the film in 2014. Bailey said the next activity will be “Gone With The Wind” week, with discounted admission and bus tours, during Georgia Tourism Week in May.
The museum is located in the 1867 Historic Train Depot, 104 North Main St. in Jonesboro.
Other planned activities include:
• “3 Deep in the Yard - The Pivotal Battle of Jonesboro” hosted Aug. 30 by local historian Peter Bonner at the Patrick Cleburne Memorial Confederate Cemetery. Bonner will recount the history of the battle.
• The world premiere of Wiley’s book, “The Scarlett Letters: The Making of Gone With the Wind,” will be held at the Road to Tara Museum at an unspecified date in fall 2014.
• “1939-2014: A Cinematic Legend” will be held at an unspecified date in December 2014 as the final event to commemorate the anniversary of “Gone With the Wind.”