Who Stole the Ruby Slippers?
Suspicious Munchkins, Hollywood hucksters, and lunatic fans (oh, my): Inside the very weird and not so wonderful search for an American icon
(page 1 of 3)
Because he was carrying valuables, Michael Shaw always preferred to drive—in a long white car, a Lincoln as far as anyone can remember—the 2,100 miles from his home in California to the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids. There, in a conference room, a crowd of 60 or 70 people would assemble, and Shaw would set his brushed-aluminum case on a table. Then he would begin to reminisce, in the melodramatic voice of the child actor that he once was.
Often wearing a gold medallion over a turtleneck and blazer, his beard close-cropped, his long bangs unnaturally dark, he would relate his romps through Hollywood’s Golden Age—how he sat on Judy Garland’s lap to watch movies, how she acted as a kindly den mother to him and the other kids running around the MGM lot. His listeners would ooh and ahh as though he were resurrecting the dead.
And then he would open the case. The ruby slippers—one of four pairs known to remain from the filming of The Wizard of Oz—glittered inside. He would slip on a pair of thin white gloves and gently lift his prize possession out of the case. The crowd would lean forward and gasp.
A gifted storyteller, Shaw had been giving this presentation since the 1980s, when he started taking the slippers on the road—to malls, charity events, and Oz festivals all over the country. Among fans, the pair became known as the Traveling Shoes. Shaw purchased them in 1970, shortly after Garland’s death, and he fancied himself their impresario and protector, the self-appointed ambassador of Garland’s legacy. “I have been given the responsibility of taking care of this pair of shoes,” Shaw told me in 2004. “And I’d like to think that Judy is looking down, smiling, knowing that her famous pumps are being used for such good causes.”
In his presentations, Shaw saved the most touching anecdote for last, a tale that presumed to demonstrate the slippers’ power. In the early 1980s, he would say, he brought the slippers to the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, where a friend, an ardent Judy Garland fan, lay dying, one of the first casualties of AIDS. In a voice verging on tears, Shaw would describe setting the slippers on the man’s skeletal chest, how his friend’s face, once contorted in pain, lit up with joy. A few hours later, the friend was dead.
Shaw had been making this trip to northern Minnesota since 1989. After his presentations, he would secure the shoes in a simple Plexiglas case on the museum floor. In the summer of 2005, however, Shaw loaned the slippers to the Judy Garland Museum for an extended exhibition, just as he had the previous summer. But on the morning of August 28, a week before the exhibit was to close, Shaw received a call at his home in Los Angeles. It was the museum director, John Kelsch, calling from Minnesota.
“We have an emergency,” he told Shaw.
Shortly after 2 o’clock that morning, the window in the rear emergency door of the museum had been shattered, the door opened from outside. The Plexiglas cube housing the slippers was smashed. Missing, of course, were the most valuable shoes in the world—size 5½, burgundy, with an inscription inside: “JUDY GARLAND.” There were no fingerprints, no witnesses. Police believed the thief had entered and left in less than two minutes, like a tornado.
Shortly after the robbery, Shaw created a website to raise awareness and solicit tips about the slippers’ disappearance. Even so, he expressed little doubt about what had happened to the shoes—or where they had gone. As he explained at a press conference in Los Angeles not long after the incident: “Some fanatic has paid to have the slippers stolen,” he said. “People are obsessed with these shoes.”
I arrive at the scene of the crime in the middle of summer, as the annual Judy Garland Festival is getting underway once again. The streets of downtown Grand Rapids are filled with fans adorned in Judy Garland pins and Judy Garland T-shirts, declaring “I haven’t been the same since a house fell on my sister.” The Judy Garland Museum at the edge of town is buzzing with Wizard of Oz memorabilia sellers, who peddle action figures, clocks, banks, books, bobbleheads, even a Toto doorstop. A couple of Munchkins—living totems of Old Hollywood (only six of the original 124 survive)—are throwing down meat and potatoes next door, in the basement banquet room of the Sawmill Inn, where they will later sign and sell reproduction stills from The Wizard of Oz for $10 a pop. As Garland fans skip arm-in-arm along the yellow-brick sidewalk outside the old Central School, construction workers watch with bemusement.
The cult of Judy Garland has always sat a bit strangely in Grand Rapids, a timber town of 7,700 founded as a humble place to haul and slice wood before it’s sent down the Mississippi River. The region’s rough edges are scarcely sanded away: The Blandin paper mill looms large in the center of the city, straddling the rapids, and hotels have signs near their entrances admonishing, “No hockey sticks allowed in the building.”
These days, locals are less likely to talk about Garland than they are to tout their connection to big-time hockey players for the old Minnesota North Stars, the Minnesota Wild, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the St. Louis Blues. Grand Rapids may have raised Judy Garland to age 4, when her family split for California—many older residents still affectionately refer to her as Judy Gumm, a curious amalgamation of her birth name, Frances Ethel Gumm, and her stage one—but the familiarity with which Garland is spoken is like that reserved for a landmark, something that’s just always been around.
The Judy Garland Festival began 34 years ago, established by a Grand Rapids historian as a civic event. Garland hadn’t actually appeared in town since 1938, when she stopped in as a 15-year-old celebrity, her only return home. Yet the Hollywood connection was a good enough excuse for a party. Locals competed to appear in an annual staging of The Wizard of Oz. They crowded downtown streets for parades led by Mickey Rooney and other Garland cohorts. As word of the festival spread, hundreds of fans from around the world descended on the town, and memorabilia merchants set up booths along the parade route. In 1994, sensing the potential for year-round tourism, the city moved the white clapboard home in which Garland was raised to the edge of town and restored it. In 2003, the Judy Garland Museum was built next door. The museum now contains the world’s largest collection of Garland memorabilia: gold records, the carriage (once owned by Abraham Lincoln) that ferried Dorothy and friends into Oz, even the coroner’s note listing Garland’s death as an “incautious self-overdose.”
The festival, however, is not what it once was. AIDS took an outsize bite out of Garland’s fan base. And as gay culture, once closely associated with the cult of Garland, is increasingly assimilated with the mainstream, fewer young gay men are picking up the torch. Internet sites such as eBay have reduced demand for onsite memorabilia dealers. And although the museum has benefited from the generosity of Garland’s Hollywood admirers—Debbie Reynolds, Bob Hope, Barbara Streisand—there’s no getting around the fact that Garland’s friends are dying off. The festival has become less of a community event, say locals, and more of a fundraiser. Gone are the parades, the plays, and Mickey Rooney (not that anyone misses him; Rooney was notoriously stingy with free autographs). What remains are $40 dinners and lectures appealing mostly to hardcore fans. Some locals now feel left out. “It was phenomenal how people once got involved,” says a former resident. “But after the house moved out to the highway, it’s like it wasn’t about us anymore.”
By the time the slippers were stolen, in fact, locals were beginning to wonder how the Judy Garland Museum was keeping its doors open. Attendance had been falling for years before the theft—nearly 19 percent between 2004 and 2005 alone. The humble Plexiglas display of the slippers only added to the impression of destitution. When another pair of ruby slippers, owned by a retired New York printer named Anthony Landini, were displayed at Disney World in the 1990s, they were afforded security worthy of the Hope Diamond: Set on a large revolving pedestal in a locked, climate-controlled case, they were watched 24 hours a day by guards and security cameras. “You couldn’t put your hands on that case without alarms going off,” says Landini.
When the slippers disappeared from the Judy Garland Museum, by contrast, police discovered that the facility featured an almost-comical lack of security. The alarm for the door that was broken open had been disabled, the security camera overlooking the shoes turned off.
Even the Munchkins—though they’re eating and drinking on the museum’s dime when I talk to them—suspect that the museum itself was complicit in the heist. “Inside job,” one of them tells me in a voice straight out of Oz. “No question.”
I saw Shaw’s slippers the year before they were stolen, when I visited the festival out of sheer curiosity. I decided they were the kind of shoes no woman would wear who didn’t need them to leave a land of kindly midgets. They were both gaudier and plainer than I expected, rather squat and completely covered in sequins, like Elvis in his later years. Only the marvel of Technicolor made them dazzle. Without the devotion of their fans, they would fetch no more than $20 at a thrift store.
But much about the ruby slippers has been deceptive, right from their origins in the Hollywood fantasy machine. Dorothy’s shoes were actually silver in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the book that inspired the 1939 movie. In a later version of the screenplay, you can see where a writer crossed out “silver” and wrote “ruby,” supposedly to take advantage of the new wonders of color film.
The movie was a massive hit, of course, but props like the ruby slippers meant no more to anyone at the time than the plywood sets. When a Tennessee girl named Roberta Bauman won a magazine contest regarding the top movies of 1939, MGM studios packed up the ruby slippers in a cardboard box and mailed them to her as a prize. It would be 30 years before anyone realized they weren’t the only pair around. The studio made multiple pairs for stand-ins and close-ups. It’s just that no one knew what had become of them. No one gave a lion’s whisker, really, until a 1970 auction at MGM that marked the collapse of Old Hollywood.
By then, the studio system that created such glamorous stars as Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and, well, Judy Garland had become obsolete. The MGM auction was intended simply to liquidate the vast warehouses of costumes and props on the studio’s lot in Culver City, California. But the sale became a spectacle, a “giant 18-day wake for Hollywood” in the definitive account of the event, the 1989 book The Ruby Slippers of Oz. This was due to the salesmanship of the man that had been hired to sort and display the items for auction, a young costumer named Kent Warner.
Warner had worked with MGM before, and was eager to salvage what history he could from Hollywood’s Golden Age, lest the props be hauled to the dump. He knew where all the best costumes were hiding, too—he’d been helping himself to them for years.
Warner had moved to Hollywood after a troubled childhood in New York. In Los Angeles, he hit the party scene hard with Ron Wind, his partner in life, costuming, and crime. To finance their escapades, Warner and Wind allegedly took old costumes from the studios where they worked and sold them under the table to movie buffs. Warner kept a few of them, however, as tokens of his affection for the fading glamour of Old Hollywood. He especially loved anything related to Judy Garland.