News Column

New Gastonia exhibit focuses on iconic movie star

July 9, 2013


July 09--GASTONIA -- As a child, Randal Tolbert sat in a movie house awed by the screen presence of Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady."

The iconic actress later became the heart of his large collection of film memorabilia.

In 1991, two years before Hepburn died, Tolbert met her in person. She signed a photo of herself and a poster from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," the 1961 movie in which she played the character Holly Golightly from the Truman Capote novella.

Both items will be in Tolbert's new retrospective exhibit "On How To Be Lovely: Audrey Hepburn in Life and Film," showing throughout July at the Gaston County Public Library in Gastonia.

He hopes to inspire people who don't know her work to discover her films and also learn more about her role as a special ambassador to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.

"She was the perfect movie star," said Tolbert, 57, an interior designer who lives in Gastonia. "She was really a class act."

The Hepburn exhibit is the latest in a series Tolbert has presented at the library over the years.

"Randal Tolbert has been overly generous in sharing his many treasures with Gaston County Public Library visitors, including the Aubrey Hepburn exhibit," said Carol Reinhardt, library program director.

Classic films

A Florida native, Tolbert became an avid movie fan at an early age. He'd sit through multiple showings of a film, soaking in the details.

When his family moved to Gastonia, he saved money from his newspaper route and bought movie posters, still movie photos and lobby cards. The manager/owner of the Webb Theater on South Street let him order the materials through the National Screen Service catalog.

"I had no idea how much that stuff cost," Tolbert said. "I'd give the guy at the theater a list of what I wanted and let him figure it out."

His room at home began to fill up with movie materials.

After graduating from Wofford College in 1978 with a degree in drawing and painting, Tolbert worked at Belk Store Services in New York. Later, he was design director with CBS affiliates in Boston and Dallas, Texas.

As his movie memorabilia collection grew, he also made it a point to meet movie stars and directors when he had the chance.

Tolbert connected with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, Sidney Lumet, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Of all his celebrity encounters, Tolbert ranks his meeting with Hepburn near the top.

She was in Dallas to receive an award at the USA Film Festival. Tolbert contacted Hepburn's assistant and said he'd painted a watercolor portrait of the actress inspired by her work for UNICEF.

To his surprise, Hepburn invited him to her hotel suite.

She liked the portrait Tolbert had done and was generous with her time.

"I was deeply honored," Tolbert said. "She was an incredibly special person."

During the meeting, Tolbert was reminded that Hepburn grew up in Holland and had been in the German-occupied city of Arnhem during the World War II battle depicted in the 1977 movie "A Bridge Too Far."

As a starving child, Hepburn had received food, medicine and clothing from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, forerunner of UNICEF.

As an ambassador for UNICEF, Hepburn traveled to Africa, Asia and South America. When Tolbert met her, she was appearing at a UNICEF fundraiser.

To him, she was more than a movie star; she was a committed humanitarian.

Thousands of items

In 1993, Hepburn died of cancer at age 63.

Tolbert continued collecting movie memorabilia. When he moved back to Gastonia about 10 years ago he began using the materials in library exhibits. Subjects included fantasy director Tim Burton, "Astro Boy," the Belgian cartoon character "Tintin" and Richard Amsel, poster illustrator for such movies as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Sting."

Tolbert has thousands of movie items stored at various locations away from his home. The Aubrey Hepburn part of the collection is so large he can't show it all at a single exhibit.

Still, he lacks a key Hepburn item: a poster from "Roman Holiday," the 1953 romantic comedy that earned the actress an Academy Award.

He expects to find one someday.

Meanwhile, Tolbert hopes the Hepburn materials that made it into the new library exhibit will "entertain and enlighten."


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