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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

Who Stole the Ruby Slippers?
Photo by Todd Buchanan

(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.

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

Old to new | New to old
Mar 9, 2009 09:23 pm
 Posted by  JudyGarland.com

My name is Michael Siewert and I suppose I am one of those weird, fanatical collectors that you speak of. I do, after all, own the worlds largest collection of Judy Garland memorabilia. Only thing is....I actually have a life. You have no idea what it costs to acquire and preserve such a collection. (Take a look at www.JudyGarland.com). If I were not a successful businessman I could certainly not afford the artifacts that I own, which include 15 iconic original costume gowns that Garland wore throughout her career. If I were as kooky as you would like your readers to think I am, I certainly would not have been as successful in life as I have been. Between the comparisons of some of the fans thinking my complete identity is proclaimed by my collection and your fantasy of me being some gay freak of nature, it is wonder how I could survive a single day. Collecting is a hobby like many others. Some people simply have the means to acquire more rare artifacts. As your article seems to uncover some sub culture of fantasy, the article, itself is just that. I feel that most of what you have reported has been taken out of context for the purpose to have an interesting story. As someone who knows so many of the details which you tried to convey, I was bored with your style. I was even one of the suspected collectors who had stolen the slippers. I spoke with both local and Federal agents to clear my name. More than anything I would like to clarify one thing. The Judy Garland Festival is still a popular event. Since the slippers were stolen, I have been a guest of the festival and have exhibited my rare collection every year since. Of course you failed to give that flattering and uplifting report. The fans have asked the director of the museum to ask me back every year. I would be curious to know what hobbies you might have and how that might be conceived by the public. Quite possibly I could write a story about what a strange man you are.
Michael SIewert, www.JudyGarland.com

Feb 23, 2010 09:41 pm
 Posted by  whocares

If I am to understand Tim Gihring correctly, Kent Warner stole items, including the shoes from MGM?

If so, why is nobody pointing out how illegal and shady that is?

This article also says Michael Shaw got his shoes by lying to Warner about them being for Miss Reynolds...also shady and dishonest, if true.

Why would anyone want to be associated with these guys if what is said in this article is accurate?

Liars, thieves, and crooks...oh my!

Jun 14, 2010 02:41 pm
 Posted by  JudyFan

I just returned from the Judy Garland Festival in Minnesota. I traveled from out of state for 3 days of pure Garland fun. Not sure why the writer feels the festival is getting smaller and people are losing interest because there were more people this year than the last time I attended five years ago. I think this guy needs to check his facts with actual attendance records.

For those of you out there have have an interest in Judy, the festival is very informative and the folks that attend are a lot of fun. Of course there are always a few odd balls in attendance but in my mind it only adds to the fun.

Jun 1, 2011 07:07 am
 Posted by  BlondeJohn

As an attendee of the "Wizard of Oz Festival" in Chesterton
Indiana, I see the wonder in the eyes of the children who love
the classic movie as much as me. I think we all have a soft spot for our past, and it is certainly wonderful to have some
good things in our lives... One of the all-time bestselling ornaments, in Hallmarks collection, are the Ruby Slippers...In fact, they have already designed and sold two styles of the glam pumps... As long as there is facination in the world, we
will always love Judy, her movies and the pumps that helped her along the way!
Blonde John in Holy Toledo

Aug 3, 2011 02:39 am
 Posted by  andypetes2011

Michael is outraged and I believe he has every right to be.

Like Michael, I am a huge fan of the Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland, and when I found out that one of the best pairs of Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland that we know of to exist were stolen, it broke my heart.

It seems to me that in light of when the slippers were stolen (the night of Hurricane Katrina) the case has not gotten the attention it deserves. I also think the media (as represented in this article) and the police department's failure to treat this issue seriously (making 'tongue-n-cheek' jokes and so forth) has also depleted momentum in the case immensely.

Why should it matter? Its just an old dusty pair of shoes. Yes, they maybe old and dusty. But they are a national treasure, a treasure that has become intricately engraved in our American fabric. They are more then just a "dusty pair of shoes," they are a symbol and a significant part of American History, and the American public deserves them back.

I think something needs to be done to put pressure on law officials to at least bring what happened to the slippers to light. I think the American public deserves that much.

Also, in response to the post made by "WHOCARES"- MGM and Warner Brothers were selling off everything they could on the studio lots in the 70s and NO ONE cared about these historical costumes. If it wasn't for the efforts of Michael Shaw, the ruby slippers might have never been recovered at all.

Sep 23, 2011 06:44 pm
 Posted by  balinwire

The auction in Culver City was quite a spectacle. I had no money for real bidding so I was able to but a cheap buckle for a two bucks. I remember there was so much stuff and almost a riot. I was most displeasured they sold off all the props but thats Hollywood, it always erases its past and reinvents itself. They really are only $20 thrift store shoes, all the thrift stores then had tons of 1930's Hollywood stuff, I bought a 30-100 Grand Gutiar for 3 bucks and sold it for $30. Long story. Who knew what this stuff would become. I still collect small shards of history and everyone thinks I am a hoarder. My Mom bailed out of South Dakota via Minnesota in 1948 and landed in old Hollywood where I was exposed to the ghosts of a bygone era.

Nov 17, 2011 09:21 pm
 Posted by  Laurabell


"Efforts" ?

Lets get to the facts here babe.

Warner STOLE the slippers and many other items and SOLD THEM out of the back of a car.

NOT his property to sell.

Shaw was asked by Debbie Reynolds to pick up a pair for her and Warner was under the impression he was selling them to Reynolds though Shaw.

Shaw LIED and kept them for himself.

No ifs, and , or buts abut it.

Jun 7, 2014 10:59 pm
 Posted by  f52b

Hmmm. Shaw probably has the slippers and they never made it to the museum. A phony pair were most likely displayed. How do you break Plexiglas? Jk turned off the alarm the evening before the theft. The door alarm was turned off by JK because people were using the door and the noise was annoying. Their were no working cameras and there was only one guard no where nearby at the time. JK's story of the theft told to me is as suspect as the theft itself.

Shaw was paid $800K by Essex insurance company. $250K award by Essex and $50K award by an anonymous donor.

I of course know nothing about this except for those who know everything about what I am saying. For the record, I am not accusing anyone except the true thief...

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