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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

He probably found the shoes, along with other treasures from "The Wizard of Oz," including four of Dorothy's gingham dresses, early in the spring of 1970, just before his 27th birthday. It was a propitious discovery not just for him, but for his friends. He probably thought nothing of giving away small things like Munchkin hats and distinctive "Oz" T-shirts worn by residents of the Emerald City; even Warner didn't realize how immensely popular--and valuable--Oz memorabilia would become. What, for instance, might someone pay today for the Witch's broom?

But Warner seemed to have been wary--he didn't exactly own the stuff. He couldn't openly measure public demand in the free marketplace. His find had to remain an underground secret (he opened up to the press more than seven years after the MGM auction, possibly believing that the statute of limitations for theft had expired).

Warner was born on March 8, 1943, and reared in New York City. The profile by Hendrix indicated an unhappy childhood. His parents divorced when he was a baby; Warner lived with grandparents until he was 10. Unlike many neighborhood kids, he preferred private fantasy games to playing ball in the streets.

"When LPs came out in the 1950s," Hendrix wrote, "Warner would buy the LP from a show he had seen, build a miniature set and figures, costume them, 'do the lights, then move the figures around as the record went on. 'I'd relive the show in my mind,' Warner said.

"He spent one of the best rainy Saturdays of his life in the attic of a huge estate on Long Island going through clothes . . . bought in Paris from the turn of the century to the '30s--Lanvin, Patou, Worth, Chanel.

" 'I dragged them home,' Warner said, 'and my mother said, "What the hell are you going to do with all that?" I enjoyed looking at them, feeling them. I never wore them! I know a lot of people will think that's what I did.' "

'Not the Same Meaning To Me Anymore'

Warner moved to Los Angeles when he was about 20 and worked his way into the Hollywood costuming trade. By 1966, he had a job at Warner Bros., and started rummaging. He later worked for Desilu Studios, the company owned by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, which had purchased the old RKO Studios for its production headquarters. Most of the RKO star wardrobe was lost--but for a few choice items Kent Warner quietly saved. There he apparantly rescued many costumes belonging to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

(One notable item was the ostrich feather dress worn by Rogers in "Top Hat," 1935, her famous film with Astaire. Astaire hated the dress because the plumes kept flying underfoot on the dance floor, coming apart as she danced the "Cheek to Cheek" number. Today, that dress is at the Smithsonian Institution, allegedly donated, a friend of Warner's said, by the family after his death.)

He first worked at MGM in 1967 and later in 1969, becomming acquainted with the studio long before the 1970 auction. During the late 1960s and through the 1970s, Warner established his reputation as a serious collector of star wardrobe and other assorted entertainment memorabilia, acquiring not just costumes but old radios, televisions and classic cars.

But Warner grew less interested in his material possessions in the early 1980s, possibly because of his failing health. He began to give things to friends, even attempting to publicly sell his favorite pair of the ruby shoes. At one point he told a buddy, "They just don't have the same meaning to me anymore."

He first put them up for sale at a movie memorabilia auction at the Ambassador Hotel in December, 1980, estimating their value at between $20,000 and $75,000. When nobody bid his lowest asking price, Warner kept the shoes.

The following summer, he consigned them to Christie's East auction house in New York, where on Oct. 1, 1981, they were auctioned for $12,000, plus commission. The highest bid came by phone from a Californian who wanted them for his family.

Julie Collier, the head of Christie's Collectibles Department, was responsible for authenticating Warner's ruby slippers. Although she would not confirm in an interview that Warner was the seller, she described the shoes as being marked "7 Judy Garland" and said they had no orange felt on the soles. Rightful ownership, she said, was something Christie's "generally assumed."

Warner undoubtedly didn't get as much as he hoped from the auction, probably because his were the third pair to publicly surface. With multiple pairs turning up, collectors were becoming wary.

Ironically, serious collectors may have missed their chance. For $12,000, the anonymous buyer at Christie's purchased what Warner called the "Witch's shoes." The next time this pair comes up for auction, they could bring six figures. To understand the value of this pair, I had to learn the whereabouts of others.

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