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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

Bent worst were her feet. For most of her long, 10- to 16-hour production days, she spent time walking, standing and dancing around on a plywood "road" painted to look like yellow brick, wearing shoes that carried the odious burden of the movie's central theme. They had to photograph perfectly in every scene.

In 1977, Aljean Harmetz, today the Hollywood correspondent for the New York Times, published her book on "The Making of the Wizard of Oz." Considered the definitive study of MGM's Production No. 1060, it is constantly quoted, with and without attribution, in articles written about the ruby slippers. It contains the only bound account of the making and eventual selling of the shoes.

Harmetz wrote that "Judy Garland's ruby slippers were found, wrapped in a Turkish towel in a bin in the basement of MGM's Wardrobe Department sometime during February or March of 1970."

Dick Carroll, a Beverly Hills clothier who supervised the auctioning of the MGM "star" wardrobe, described the find as "very undramatic." He told Harmetz, "A guy came up to me and said here are some shoes Judy Garland wore in 'The Wizard of Oz.' "

It was very undramatic, unless you were Kent Warner. He was the Hollywood costumer who found the shoes and became the central figure in their ensuing mystery.

Carroll knew Kent Warner very well: "We called him Kentala. He was a very talented young man--maybe too talented for his own good."

Night of the Auction

The MGM auction during May of 1970 was like an 18-day wake for Hollywood. Surprisingly, the local press gave it little coverage, but did focus on the astounding price paid for a pair of noteworthy slippers.

The auction was conceived by the late Los Angeles businessman and auctioneer David Weisz when he bought the contents of several sound stages--including prop furniture and wardrobe--from MGM for about $1.5 million. In professional parlance, Weisz specialized in liquidating capital assets.

"Everything David ever did was a gamble," Carroll remembered of Weisz, his friend and father-in-law who died in 1981. "He knew what he could do with the props. The main thrust was props. Furniture, chandeliers, paintings, that's what he bought. The wardrobe was a stepchild. He called me in Europe and asked me if I would take care of the wardrobe. Do you have any idea how many cowboy outfits there were?"

In fact, there were more than 350,000 separate pieces of clothing. "Believe me," said Carroll, "we had some amazing pieces of wardrobe, but nothing compared to the slippers. I think they were the most important thing in the auction."

So did Carroll's wife, Judy, David Weisz's daughter. She helped her husband prepare the star wardrobe for the auction, handling most of the details and working closely with Kent Warner, who was hired by Weisz to identify, catalogue and photograph costumes for the big event.

"Kent Warner," said Judy Carroll, "was the creative genius behind the way we displayed the costumes, and the slippers became the center of our costume display. They were placed in a Lucite case in the center of the auction floor and spotlighted from above with no identification whatsoever.

"Nobody needed to be told what they were. People stopped and stared in awe."

Warner's finest hour may have been on that evening of the auction. As a reward for his good work, he was allowed to carry the ruby slippers up to the podium where auctioneer Weisz took the gavel and personally presided over the bidding. Within a minute a winning bid of $15,000 was made on behalf of a mystery millionaire.

Two days later, pandemonium erupted among the auctioneers when Bauman of Tennessee came forward with her 30-year-old shoe box, containing a pair of the red ruby slippers. Size 6B, they appeared absolutely authentic. "It was said," Bauman recalled, "that the person who got the MGM auction shoes got quite angry at me and said he wished he had never seen the bloody red shoes."

Dick Carroll said there wasn't a question about any other pair of ruby slippers. "There was never a duplicate of anything," he declared. "We had one Clark Gable raincoat, one Garbo dress. We never, never, never heard of another pair of ruby slippers."

To this day, Carroll maintains adamantly that David Weisz auctioned what he believed to be the one and only, original pair of Judy Garland's famous red shoes. "If David had known about any other pairs, he would have thrown them into the sea."

Apparently, Warner gave Weisz one pair, and there was no reason to think there were any more. Then Warner kept the rest. And, as indicated by later research, probably the best.

Preserved for History --And a Copy for Him

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