Grand opening, Giant exhibit

William R. Toler | Daily Journal Brianna Bright, Gabrielle Stephens and Kenneth Stancil check the answers on the Andre the Giant trivia questions.

William R. Toler | Daily Journal A row of Andre’s hats hangs above three cases of memorabilia from the Giant’s wrestling and acting career.

William R. Toler | Daily Journal Daniel Coble, 8, compares the size of his hand to that of the Giant.

William R. Toler | Daily Journal Jonah Shook, 8, of Raleigh, takes in information about Andre’s matches.

William R. Toler | Daily Journal Gail Benson, right, curator of the Rankin Museum of American Heritage, grins with excitement as Jackie McAuley cuts the ribbon on the Andre the Giant exhibit.

William R. Toler | Daily Journal An animation cell of Andre from the ‘80’s cartoon “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” hangs on the wall as part of the exhibit.

William R. Toler | Daily Journal Phillip James Johnson, who is 6 feet tall, stands in front of the 7-foot, 4-inch likeness of Andre the Giant.

ELLERBE — As Rob Reiner’s 1987 film “The Princess Bride” played on a wall-mounted television, about 100 fans and friends of Andre the Giant filed into the Rankin Museum of American Heritage Tuesday night to see a new exhibit on the legendary wrestler.

The exhibit opened following a ribbon-cutting by Jackie McAuley, who donated most of the items to the museum.

McAuley, who lived on Andre’s ranch with her late ex-husband Frenchy Bernard, wanted to memorialize the gentle giant she knew and loved in the place he called home for the last 14 years of his life.

Other items for the exhibit were donated by Randy Ormsbee and by Chris Owens, who maintains the Andre Rousimoff fan page on Facebook.

The exhibit was created by museum curator Gail Benson, who said she loves wrestling now after watching historic matches while researching Andre’s life and career.

The opening was held May 19 to commemorate what would’ve been the Giant’s 69th birthday.

“It was hard work,” she said. “I enjoyed learning the different wrestlers, their names, their different associations with Andre.”

Benson began putting the display together in February and said there were no lights in the cases to protect the fabrics.

As visitors wound their way through the small room, they saw a myriad of memorabilia: a pink ring jacket, two of his signature singlet tights, a pair of size 26 wrestling boots and more.

On the wall, next to the television, is a 7-foot, 4-inch likeness of the wrestler, made by PRG Sign Company in Hamlet.

Benson said there were two items not included because she ran out of time: another get-well card signed by Andre’s fellow wrestlers and drawn by author and illustrator Victor Ramon Mojica in June of ‘91, while the Giant was recovering from knee surgery; and a Christmas card from the family of child actor Fred Savage, who also appeared in “The Princess Bride.”

“I don’t know how she pulled together a whole story out of bits and pieces,” McAuley said, impressed with the work Benson put into the exhibit.

One of the first people to walk through was Nelly Parsons, who used to launder Andre’s clothes at Pate’s Cleaners in Ellerbe.

“I cleaned that coat,” she said as she passed by the tuxedo jacket the Giant wore in the film “Micki and Maud.”

Parsons said his clothes were so large, she had to make custom hangers for his shirts and used draper hangers for his pants.

Children and adults were able to see how their own hands measured up to Andre’s using a shirt that features his handprint.

There were were also several trivia questions on one wall, with the answers revealed by lifting the front flap of the display.

Kenny Boggess drove down from Gibsonville, near Burlington, to the grand opening.

“I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia and saw him do matches at the civic center years ago,” he said, snapping pictures of the items with his smartphone.

Also from the Burlington area was Brad Stutts, who announces and runs shows for Carolina Wrestling Federation Mid-Atlantic.

“The back of the Bret Hart drawing is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Stutts said Andre was “one of those people that transcend (pop culture).”

“That makes him mean a lot to people,” he added. “He meant a lot to the wrestling industry.”

Eric Shook made the trip from Raleigh to bring his 8-year-old son Jonah, who has an “encyclopedic knowledge of wrestling.”

Gail Stephens said she’s been a fan for 47 years.

“I’ve been watching this man my whole life,” she said. “This is wonderful, truly wonderful.”

Belinda King, who lived about a mile away from the wrestler’s AFJ Ranch, remembered being cold while visiting Andre’s house. She said McAuley went upstairs to get a sweater and came back down with one of the Giant’s, which hung down to the floor.

King also said she was able to put both of her feet into Andre’s cowboy boots, one of which is on display.

While none of Andre’s former wrestling cohorts made it to the grand opening, there was another Giant.

Hamlet native Perry Williams, who played for the New York Giants from 1983-94, said he only knew and communicated with Andre through Richmond County attorney Benny Sharpe.

“We never really crossed paths to be able to talk to each other,” he said.

The former cornerback admitted that he’s a wrestling fan.

“I don’t watch Monday Night Football,” he said. “I watch WWE Monday Night Raw.”

The exhibit will be up for at least a year, Benson said, and is included in the museum’s general admission price.

Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 and follow him on Twitter @William_r_Toler.