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The Ruby Slippers: A Journey to the Land of Oz

In September, 1986, Rhys Thomas was on MGM's Culver City lot (now Lorimar Studios) producing a segment for the "Hollywood Closeup" TV magazine series. His subject was the dismantling of an old script vault in the wake of Ted Turner's takeover of MGM. He happened across an original working draft of "The Wizard of Oz," written 50 years ago this year. As he turned the pages, he began to wonder whatever happened to the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in her curious journey through the Land of Oz. In the ensuing months Thomas talked to more people in an attempt to unravel the twisted history of the legendary shoes. As it turned out, he discovered that there were several pairs of shoes. Calendar learned of Thomas' pursuit of the slippers and commissioned him to write his story, never expecting that his search would become a personal obsession. This is the first of two articles. Next Sunday: The fake shoes and a Ruby Slipper feud. Plus Fred Astaire's shoes, Ginger Rogers' dresses , the haul from Burbank Studios.

March 13, 1988|RHYS THOMAS

Dorothy's ruby slippers may represent the single most beloved memories of Hollywood movies, residing in that category with Charlie Chaplin's bowler hat, Charles Foster Kane's Rosebud and Sam Spade's Maltese Falcon.

At the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the slippers are on perpetual display in a simple, black box, the display card proclaiming . . . "The ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland (Francis Gumm) in 1939 MGM film 'The Wizard of Oz."'

Carl Scheele, the now-retired veteran Smithsonian curator who acquired the slippers in 1979, estimates that every year upwards of 5 million people are attracted to the exhibit. The crush of people has caused the rug in front of the display to be patched many times and replaced twice.

Hordes of visitors bypass other fascinating historical items--a lion's harness from "The Greatest Show on Earth," Irving Berlin's upright piano, Edgar Bergen's puppet pal Charlie McCarthy--but most are inexplicably drawn to the shoes that carried lost Dorothy along the Yellow Brick Road in search of the fearsome Wizard. He would help her get home to Kansas.

Children in particular press up against the glass as if caught in some kind of spell cast by the slippers.

During the writer's visit to the museum, he saw one little girl put her hand against the display case, trying to touch the shoes. "Magic," she said softly.

Magic--if you believe.

First you have to believe that they really are Judy Garland's shoes.

Curator Scheele, an expert in American entertainment memorabilia, knows better. "We backed away from the original claim that Judy Garland wore the shoes," he said. "But we do claim they are from the production and she starred in it."

The Smithsonian's problem is part of a complicated mystery about the real ruby slippers--and how many pairs there might be. It has preoccupied countless people who followed the story into the underworld of Hollywood memorabilia, aswirl with intrigue, theft, half-truths, untruths, secrets, fake shoes and feuds.

What is now known--based on research that took a year and a half, covered more than 100 interviews--is that the Smithsonian does not have the best pair of ruby slippers. There are at least four, maybe six other pairs.

All but one are in the hands of several ruby slipper fanatics who acquired them, one way or another, from a lone and remarkable supplier named Kent Warner, a costumer who worked in Hollywood on various assignments from the movie studios before he died in 1984.

Warner's fascination with the shoes--and countless other pieces of Hollywood memorabilia--took on bizarre dimensions--of questionable legality. He apparently lavished more love and attention on a nearly flawless pair of the ruby slippers displayed in his living room than on almost anything else in his life. He held special screenings of famous films in his home in which he paraded in vintage dresses from the very movies he was showing--costumes acquired from dusty studio storage vaults or rescued from dumpsters and incinerators.

Warner, whose everyday work took him in search of clothes for movie stars, almost single-handedly started a shady memorabilia market in Hollywood by mastering the art of what he might have thought of as rescuing the forgotten treasures from the studios. Sources say he walked onto the MGM lot one spring day in 1970 with an empty, seemingly innocent duffle bag--and left with it full of sequinned red shoes.

That began the legend of the missing ruby slippers.

The Silver Standard

I was visiting a basement storage room at MGM in September, 1986, to get background on the dismantling of the MGM script vault for a segment of "Hollywood Closeup." Employees of Ted Turner were busily packing scripts for shipment off the lot. There existed untold treasures: a rare, once-published story by William Faulkner called "Manservant" remained on the shelves while Turner's people stuffed valuable scripts into boxes, including one from "The Women" (1939) that had been worked over and then signed by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I decided to focus my story on the "The Wizard of Oz." I met former MGM script librarian Susie Battle, who, though excluded from the script-packing process, was allowed to show me around the vault. I asked her if I could see the oldest existing script for the film.

She gave me Noel Langley's 1938 screen adaptation of L. Frank Baums's fin de siecle fairy tale, "The Wizard of Oz." It was the credited screenwriter's early working script. I opened it up and perused its age-yellowed pages. There I found history.

Page 26. Scene No. 113. Right where Glinda the Good Witch of the North waves her wand and a pair of shoes belonging to the recently squished Wicked Witch of the East magically appear on Dorothy's feet. The directorial cue read: CLOSE UP SILVER SHOES.

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