GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. – Glinda the Good Witch warned Dorothy about those shiny red shoes.
“Keep tight inside of them,” Glinda said. “Their magic must be very powerful, or she wouldn’t want them so badly.”
The Wicked Witch of the West never managed to snatch those ruby slippers off Dorothy’s feet. But one dark night, someone smashed a display case, stole the slippers from a Grand Rapids museum and hid them away.
Thirteen years later, the ruby slippers are back and Judy Garland’s hometown is celebrating.
“The two biggest things that ever happened in Grand Rapids were the day the slippers were stolen, and the day when they found them,” said Jon Miner, 80-year-old co-founder of the Judy Garland Museum. Miner’s mother and grandmother used to babysit a little girl named Frances Ethel Gumm, before she changed her name, moved to Hollywood and followed the yellow brick road. “We’re really excited.”
The mystery of the stolen slippers gripped Grand Rapids and haunted this small museum. There have been hundreds of tips, theories, crank calls and rumors since the night of the theft in August 2005.
It was an inside job. It was teen pranksters. The shoes ended up nailed to the wall of a restaurant in Missouri. The shoes were buried in concrete in a building foundation somewhere in Grand Rapids. The shoes are visible in the background of a house-for-sale listing on Zillow. The real shoes had never been in Grand Rapids at all.
A few years back, a dive team scoured the Tioga mine pit, chasing a rumor that the thieves had panicked, stashed the ruby slippers in some Tupperware, and pitched them into the water.
Grand Rapids police and the FBI have given few details about the shoe-leather investigation behind the cold case. But in July, one of those wild tips led investigators to the lost slippers.
For now, the shoes are evidence and the investigation is still ongoing. If there were arrests, they haven’t been made public. Someday soon, Miner hopes, the ruby slippers will find their way back to Grand Rapids and the display case that currently holds a pair of substitute sequined slippers.
For now, he said, he’d like to throw a great big party, and maybe make museum admission free for law enforcement.
If you visit the Judy Garland Museum — and you should — you’ll see wonders. Costumes, props, playbills and mementos. Dorothy’s dress and the gleaming carriage that carried her through the Emerald City, pulled by the Horse of A Different Color.
Next door sits Garland’s relocated childhood home, lovingly restored to 1920s condition and filled with reminiscences about the Gumm family’s time in town. Judy Garland’s name might be on the museum, but here in Grand Rapids, the real star is the 4-year-old girl everyone called Baby. Signs around the museum share stories from neighbors who remember Baby making snow angels in the yard, or running across the street to sing “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” in exchange for a cookie. A pair of Baby Gumm’s tiny dancing shoes sit in a display case.
Miner’s mother remembered Baby, already performing on stage at her father’s theater, showing off how she’d learned to count: “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-jack-queen-king!”
In one room there’s a quote from Judy Garland, looking back on life before fame and pressure, marriages and pills.
“I do remember [Grand Rapids],” she said, “it was terribly happy, and possibly the only kind of normal, carefree time in my life.”
And Grand Rapids remembers her.
“We’re very proud,” said Jamie Coffel, who sits on the museum board. Growing up in Judy Garland’s hometown, he said, was “like growing up in the shadow of the Rockies. It’s there. You see it every day.”
It was a “gut wrench” he said, to have one of Garland’s most iconic symbols, those ruby slippers, stolen from a place that should have been filled with her happiest memories.
As news broke that the ruby slippers were safe again, camera crews descended on Grand Rapids and the museum phone rang with calls from national and international news outlets.
Linda Shannon of Greenfield, Ind., was visiting with her family and happened to swing by the Judy Garland Museum on the biggest news day Grand Rapids had seen in 13 years.
“It really is a historic day,” she said, watching her 2-year-old granddaughter shuffle around the lobby in an oversized pair of ruby slippers that are stationed there for visitors to try on and click together.
Shannon bought a Wizard of Oz pop-up book in the gift shop, along with a handful of ruby slipper postcards. She asked Coffel, who was between interviews, to autograph a few of the postcards as keepsakes.
Coffel obliged with a laugh, signing each one with his name, the date, and the good news: “We found them!”