The mysterious case of Dorothy’s ruby slippers stolen in Grand Rapids, Minn. – Twin Cities
On a rainy afternoon in September 2018, the FBI gathered national media in its Minnesota headquarters for an important announcement. Jill Sanborn, special agent in charge of the Minneapolis division, stood in front of a packed room and said, “We’re here today to share with you the recovery of one of the most significant and cherished pieces of movie memorabilia in American history: Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the 1939 movie ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ ”
When the ruby slippers were stolen in August 2005 from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, it made international news. Someone had broken in, smashed a plexiglass case and escaped with the shoes. David Letterman joked in a monologue that week that “a pair of ruby red slippers worn by Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ have been stolen. The thief is described as being armed and fabulous.”
The crime, though, was no joke to this northern timber and mining community of about 10,000 people with a yellow brick sidewalk winding through its historic downtown. Judy Garland was born here in 1922, and “the theft devastated us,” says John Kelsch, senior director of the museum.
Off to the side of the FBI news conference, away from the crush of curious reporters, stood three of the police officers from Grand Rapids who had worked the ruby slippers case: investigator Brian Mattson, patrol Sgt. Andy Morgan and Sgt. of Investigations Bob Stein. Missing from the group was Gene Bennett, the investigator who first handled the case in 2005. Bennett retired in 2009, and today he tells me that he’s tired of talking about the slippers. Over the years, articles sometimes “made him look bad,” according to Stein, “even though he did everything with the resources he had in 2005.”
The shoes, Sanborn explained to the reporters, had been recovered during a sting operation in Minneapolis earlier that summer involving the bureau’s art crime team. Now, in a theatrical twist, the FBI had placed a green velvet throw over a case, with the shoes underneath. The Grand Rapids officers couldn’t see the slippers through the crowd, but they’d already spent a quiet moment alone with them before the media had arrived.
The news conference had been announced only hours before, so in Grand Rapids there had been no time to plan proper viewing parties. At the Itasca County Historical Society downtown, the small staff huddled around a computer screen and live-streamed it. For years, Lilah Crowe, the executive director, felt she had to answer for the stolen shoes. “I would go to museum conferences and I’d say, ‘Yes, I’m from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, birthplace of Judy Garland, and no, they have not found the slippers yet,’ ” Crowe recalls.
But now they had been found. The staff watched as Sanborn removed the cover to reveal a clear case with the slippers inside. The red shoes were cushioned on a bed of blue velvet with the American flag strategically placed to appear in any photo. Photographers swelled in for their shots, and an FBI press agent could be heard saying, “Folks, this is valuable evidence. If you could keep some distance here.”
Jody Hane, a writer and researcher at the historical society, says her colleagues were impressed – at first. But as the event unfolded, another sentiment soon seeped in. “They didn’t say who took them,” Hane marveled.
Joining Sanford that day was Christopher Myers, a U.S. attorney who was introduced as the federal prosecutor in charge of the case. “This is an ongoing investigation, so we will not talk about the facts,” he told the reporters.
“A press conference without facts,” Hane thought. “Well, that’s odd.” The event ended with the FBI calling upon the public to help identify those involved in the theft. “We were left with a lot of questions,” Hane says. Such as: Where had the shoes been all these years, and who had been caught with them during the FBI sting?
More than the return of the shoes, people in Grand Rapids wanted answers for a crime that had haunted their town for 13 years. In that time, thousands of tips from across the country and Europe had flooded the Grand Rapids Police Department – from psychics claiming the shoes were buried in a house mere blocks from their station, to countless people believing they’d stumbled onto them at a flea market or in the home of a “Wizard of Oz” fan.
But it was the rumor and innuendo swirling through town that garnered the most attention. “Everyone was a suspect,” Stein says. The burglary stirred up accusations among residents and captivated some to the point of obsession. A few weeks after the theft, Crowe says, one of the board members at the historical society wrote down who he believed had committed the crime, sealed it in an envelope and put it in a safe-deposit box at the bank. He told her that he had left explicit instructions in his will to open the envelope only after the crime had been solved.
“When we didn’t find out the person responsible, well, it’s just hard to believe this is all still a mystery,” Crowe says. But Andy Morgan – who took over the case in 2009 and spent the next seven years chasing leads all over town and the country – was not at all surprised that questions remained even after the shoes’ recovery. “The ruby slippers are an absolute mystery,” he says. “There’s just something mystical about them.”
At least five sets of ruby slippers are known to have survived the original film production, yet instead of detracting from their value, the existence of multiple pairs “only enhances the magic,” says John Fricke, a historian of “The Wizard of Oz” who co-wrote Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s official 50th anniversary history of the film. “For the small handful of people who have the financial wherewithal to own a pair of slippers, there are hundreds of others who are sitting at home with their glue guns and their sequins and their beads creating duplicates of the shoes.”
Fricke was not shocked that someone resorted to theft. He chalks it up to “the magic of the ruby slippers and how that manifests itself in wonderful and bizarre and sometimes disturbing ways.”
“The Wizard of Oz” has taken many forms over the years – from its original 1900 book by L. Frank Baum, to a popular vaudeville show, to a silent film where Dorothy was portrayed as a Kansas flapper and lost princess – but it was always about a search: a winding journey toward figuring out something about yourself. Like Dorothy, the investigators – and even the average citizens – of Grand Rapids had been taken down an unlikely, meandering path. After watching the FBI news conference, I couldn’t get the question of what had happened to the ruby slippers out of my mind. Soon, I was pulled into the mystery, too.
When it wrapped in 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” was one of the most expensive movies ever made. Advertisements that year claimed the movie had used 9,200 actors, 30 sound stages on the MGM lot and 65 sets. The production required so much electricity to run the lights for the Technicolor film that a fire marshal stood by to make sure rising temperatures on set wouldn’t spark the thatched roofs of Munchkinland into flames. While the rest of the country crawled its way out of the Great Depression, MGM spent $3 million on creating the fictional world of Oz.
In the 1930s, “the entire nation’s attention was on Hollywood because this had become such an American industry,” says Ryan Lintelman, entertainment curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Hollywood became the narrative-making center for the entire world.”
From conception, “The Wizard of Oz” “was planned to feature the fantasy of Oz in color and the reality of Kansas in black and white,” Fricke wrote in “The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History.” The drabness of real life vs. the sparkle of Oz was highlighted the moment Dorothy landed among the Munchkins. The lyricist for the movie, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, hit upon this contrast in “Over the Rainbow.” His lyrics were “built around his reaction to the ‘grayness’ of Kansas,” according to Fricke, because he “felt the only color in Dorothy’s life would have been a rainbow.”
“The Wizard of Oz” endures, Fricke says, despite the fact that “it doesn’t have car chases or guns or sexual allusion. It doesn’t have CGI effects. It is a great story, performed by great people in a state-of-the-art 1939 fashion that is still pretty astounding. Even more so when you consider that there were no computers and everything you’re seeing had to be made out of whole cloth.” Including the ruby slippers. Initial versions of the script kept Dorothy’s slippers the color they had been in Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”: silver. In the spring of 1938 on Page 26, Scene 113, you can see where someone scratched out “silver” and wrote “ruby.” The shoes, the script read, “appear on Dorothy’s feet, glittering and sparkling in the sun.”
On Dirty Roulette set, multiples of the same costume were made for continuity, and since Garland was wearing through her size 5 sequined shoes while dancing across a wood-painted prop resembling a yellow brick road, numerous pairs were required. (Pairs were also made for Garland’s body double, who stood in for marking purposes on set when Garland, age 16, had to leave for activities like tutoring.)
Several pairs of white pumps were bought from the Innes Shoe Co. in Los Angeles and painted or dyed red. Hundreds of small sequins were then hand-sewn with silk thread onto netting that was overlaid onto the shoes. The bows were made of stiff cotton and adorned with three types of red faux gems: thin, tubular bugle beads; rectangular beads; and rhinestones. In real life, the ruby slippers are darker than in the movie, more of a burgundy. (Many of the costumes are also darker than they appear on screen, owing to the Technicolor process.) A few of the shoes also had pieces of felt glued to the bottom to minimize the noise of Garland’s dancing.
“The Wizard of Oz” got rave reviews when it premiered in August 1939 (though New Yorker critic Russell Maloney sniffed, “I sat cringing before M-G-M’s Technicolor production of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ which displays no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity. . . . I say it’s a stinkeroo.”) “Gone With the Wind” won that year’s Academy Award for best film, but it would be “The Wizard of Oz” that went on to become one of the most beloved movies of all time.
While “The Wizard of Oz” lives on, the studio system that created it does not. By the mid-1960s the golden era of Hollywood – built by tycoons such as Louis B. Mayer at MGM through stars like Garland – was fading, and a new generation of cutthroat executives were in charge. In 1969, a wealthy businessman with the very cinematic name of Kirk Kerkorian took over at MGM. He was more interested in the land that MGM owned in Culver City, Calif., than the history of Hollywood. Kerkorian put the land up for sale to underwrite his developments in Las Vegas, but first he had to liquidate decades of props, costumes, furniture and sets. A viable market for Hollywood memorabilia “had yet to emerge,” wrote Rhys Thomas in his book “The Ruby Slippers of Oz: Thirty Years Later,” “and it wasn’t a concept about which Kerkorian cared.”