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The Ruby Slippers: The Search for Sole Survivors

Last of a two-part series

March 20, 1988|RHYS THOMAS

\o7 Last week, Calendar ran the first installment of Rhys Thomas' account of his search for the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz." It began when he was in the old MGM script vaults to shoot a TV segment for "Hollywood Closeup" on the dismantling of the MGM script library by Ted Turner. Thomas became fascinated with the magical shoes and where they might be.

Roberta Bauman of Memphis once thought she had the only pair--won in a movie fans' contest nearly half a century ago. Then another pair surfaced in a 1970 auction of MGM artifacts, in which a pair of the ruby shoes sold to a mysterious buyer for $15,000.

Thomas wanted to know more. His obsessive search led him into the underworld of the Hollywood memorabilia black market and the legend of a film costumer, the late Kent Warner. Warner, who salvaged costumes from famous movies from many studios, may have taken several pairs of slippers while assisting with the MGM auction. In 1981, he auctioned his best pair for $12,000--shoes that could be worth six figures today.

But how many pairs are there--and who has them? In his sleuthing, Thomas became more and more entangled in the mystery and its sometimes strange players.

"All you have to do is to knock the heels together three times and command the shoes to carry you wherever you wish to go."

--Glinda, the Good Witch of the North

Ever since that exciting day in May, 1970, when the story hit news wires that Roberta Bauman had owned a pair of ruby slippers long before the MGM auction, her life hasn't been the same. She has received hundreds of inquiries about the fabled shoes and become part of a circle of ruby slipper aficionados.

But a phone call in December, 1981, at her native Memphis home from a man named Ted Smith would stand out from other inquiries. Smith identified himself as "a free-lance writer" and said he wanted to report on the shoes.

She followed the call by writing Smith a letter, telling him "all about my pair of Judy Garland ruby slippers," as she always did with other inquiries she'd gotten over the years. Smith called back. "Ted asked if I wanted to sell my pair of the ruby slippers," Bauman recorded in her notes of the conversation. "Yes," she told him, "I have been considering it if I am offered a reasonable price." But she added, "I cannot put a price on this history-making treasure." (Bauman recently decided to auction her ruby slippers at Christie's East in New York on June 21.)

She did not hear from Smith for a couple of months. Then, he wrote to Bauman in March, 1982, saying he was "picking up where I left off on my ruby slippers article." He asked Bauman for photos of and detailed information about her slippers, including their construction, materials, colors, identifying marks and so on. She complied.

A month later, an article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle about a man who claimed to own a pair of the ruby slippers, Size 6. "A Sign of Hard Times," said the headline, "Oz Ruby Slippers Must Go." Through her network of ruby slipper friends, Bauman received a copy of the article, written by reporter Randy Shilts, who has since gained recognition for his current best seller, "And the Band Played On," a widely praised history of the AIDS epidemic.

The story was about the same Ted Smith who had been corresponding with Bauman, and how badly he felt because he had to sell the ruby slippers.

"I'll have to cry all the way to the bank," he quipped. He said "he bought his pair from a former MGM costume department employee some eight years ago," but Shilts wisely added that "verification of Smith's booty . . . is a sticky issue." Smith said "the authentication is seeing them. Just to think that Judy Garland touched these is amazing."

Roberta Bauman was surprised when she read the article about Smith. "Some gag," she recorded in her own notes. "I wonder if the S.F. newspapers found out (if) it was a stunt?"

Two years later, Smith was interviewed by Stephanie Salter of the San Francisco Examiner for an article published in August, 1984. This time the subject was Smith's unique novelty shop; again, he talked about the red shoes. Apparently, he had not sold them as he had hoped.

According to an advertisement, Smith called his Pine Street boutique "The Greatest Little Shop This Side of Munchkinland!" Complete with a "Happy Hall of Hilarity," Smith's emporium primarily celebrated "The Wizard of Oz." On display were wax figures of the fabled Yellow Brick Four--the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, Cowardly Lion and Dorothy--plus costumes allegedly worn in the movie. And a pair of the ruby slippers. Everything was for sale.

Then . . . on Oct. 16, 1984, Smith called San Francisco police to report that he had been robbed of his ruby shoes.

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