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MOVIES : The Case of the Missing Mansion : OK, OK, 'Gone With the Wind' fans, we know Twelve Oaks is a memory, but Tara's in Georgia, in pieces--we think

February 27, 1994|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer. and

"The first thing they ask is, 'Where are Tara and Twelve Oaks?' I just tell them, 'They never existed except in the author's mind.' " --Franklin Garrett, Atlanta's official historian

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Betty Talmadge recalls the day in 1979 that she glimpsed Tara, Scarlett O'Hara's antebellum mansion in the film "Gone With the Wind."

Talmadge had taken a drive north out of Atlanta with a businessman named Julian Foster, who had offered to sell her the famous movie facade for $375,000. Talmadge, the former wife of ex-Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), thought a restored Tara would make a fine tourist attraction to complement her plantation-style house in Lovejoy, Ga., where she hosted private parties.

She didn't pay much attention to the route they took that day, but did notice that Foster had turned off the 400 Highway at the Alpharetta exit and "for the next 15 or 20 or 30 minutes we were on country roads."

Foster eventually pulled to a stop in front of a hog barn, swung open the barn door, and there it was--a "terrible looking pile" of lumber, old doors and papier-mache brick that time had just about eaten away.

"This is Tara," Foster said.

To this day, people unfamiliar with its history often wonder whatever happened to Tara.

Mention Tara in print here in Los Angeles and you're likely to still get phone calls from readers saying Scarlett's house can be seen along Highway 138 as you drive toward Lancaster from Lebec. Or, it's this big house in Glendale they seem to think was once used in "Flamingo Road." Or, they hazily recall hearing somewhere that it burned to the ground long ago--not unlike Atlanta itself.

Even MGM itself spread legends.

Former tour guide David Bowen recalled that MGM guides were trained to say that a Southern mansion that existed for years on the old MGM backlot was Twelve Oaks--the Ashley Wilkes homestead from "Gone With the Wind," even though Twelve Oaks never really existed.

"I think they just did it for the tourists," Bowen said. "They wanted to have something interesting to show them."

The legend continued after The Times recently published an old photograph of that Southern mansion being bulldozed, using information given years ago that identified the movie facade as Twelve Oaks. That prompted several readers to note that the mansion in the photograph was, in all likelihood, one seen in the 1962 film "Sweet Bird of Youth."

MGM officials, after conducting several days of research, concluded that the mansion in fact never appeared in "Gone With the Wind."

"It's definitely not Twelve Oaks or Tara," said an MGM spokeswoman. "Twelve Oaks was a false-front facade on the sound stage on the old Selznick lot (it was also shown, in a long shot, as a matte painting). Therefore, this was definitely not Twelve Oaks. Tara was a separate set on the Selznick lot. We think this is one of the sets on Lot 2 on the MGM lot."

As any Hollywood historian knows, the remains of Tara left Hollywood 35 years ago and wound up in Georgia.

They were trucked there in 1959 with all the hoopla the Peach State could muster. Gathered on the steps of the state capitol that day, the governor spoke, a band wearing Confederate uniforms played "Dixie," women stood in hoop skirts and someone read a letter from Vivien Leigh. Even the moving-van drivers got into the act, receiving as partial payment a kiss apiece from the reigning Miss Atlanta.

Julian Foster had brought the disassembled movie set to Georgia with plans to erect a Tara Plantation on a 300-acre site 15 miles south of Atlanta. As he envisioned it, Tara would be a re-creation of a bygone way of life, "absolutely devoid of any carnival atmosphere" and aimed to appeal to students of antebellum Georgia life.

But more than three decades later, his dream has yet to be fulfilled. Although "Gone With the Wind" remains a big part of Atlanta's allure, there is nothing really to see when it comes to the settings and characters made famous in Margaret Mitchell's novel.

"When people go West, they are looking for cowboys," Talmadge said. "When they go to Atlanta, they are looking for Tara and Scarlett and Rhett."

But what they find isn't much.

The front doorpiece of Tara--carefully restored in 1989 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the movie's release--is now at the Atlanta History Center.

"It's dismantled in storage," said Tommy Jones, director of restoration for the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, who worked on the restoration. "I could have it back up in a couple days, but it ruined my back taking it down the last time."

The bricks that made up Tara's columns are said to be owned by an anonymous Los Angeles collector. The rest of the facade is owned by two women--Talmadge, who has some pieces on her property, and Carolyn Ashworth, who owns an upstairs window and two shutters.

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