Thursday, June 25, 2009

10,950 Nights at the Museum

Aren’t you forgetting the ruby slippers?” Glinda inquires wryly.

With that, the Wicked Witch’s attention is diverted from a trembling farm girl clutching her little dog to red shoes protruding from beneath a dilapidated farmhouse. Then, magically, the ruby slippers vanish before our eyes only to reappear in dazzling crimson brilliance on the feet of Dorothy Gale. Dorothy gasps in astonishment and in that moment, the Wicked Witch is seduced, mesmerized by the allure of the ruby slippers. And so are we.

Early Oz productions did not include magic slippers, silver, ruby, or otherwise. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum originally gave Dorothy silver slippers, but MGM wanted to take full advantage of the new Technicolor technology. It was thought silver would appear too dull and they desired a more dramatic contrast against the yellow brick road. The task to assign the shoes a different hue fell to scriptwriter Noel Langley. While making numerous revisions to a May 1938 script, Langley crossed out silver and inserted ruby.

Upon viewing an actual pair of ruby slippers for the first time, many people are surprised to find the shoes are actually deep burgundy in color. Again, Technicolor is to blame. Technicolor required the use of very intense lighting so the color of the shoes needed to be darkened to achieve the desired effect on film. True red shoes would’ve given off an orange cast.

Both MGM and Western Costume claim to be the makers of the ruby slippers. Perhaps it was a joint effort. No records survive to verify either claim, but the shoes were designed by MGM costume extraordinaire Adrian, as were all the Oz costumes.

And like many of the costumes, the ruby slippers underwent multiple modifications. A prototype pair of ornately beaded shoes with curled up toes, similar to the silver slippers as illustrated by W. W. Denslow for Baum’s fairytale, were abandoned after Judy Garland modeled them. They were decidedly too elaborate, more suited for flying carpet rides than skipping down a road of yellow bricks. They are now known as the Arabian Test Pair.

A plainer pair of shoes, perhaps too plain, was worn during Richard Thorpe’s brief, ill-fated tenure as director of The Wizard of Oz. After his dismissal, the appearances of the major characters were altered and that included a make over for the ruby slippers.  Finally came the sequined design with jeweled bows, simple in their elegance while simultaneously bewitching with their beauty. They were painstakingly crafted using 2300 sequins, 46 rhinestones, 42 bugle beads, and 3 jewels.

Duplicates were made to don the feet of Judy Garland and her double Bobbie Koshay for dancing, walking, close-ups, and photo ops. The exact number of shoes produced remains a mystery.

The ruby slippers were too identifiable to be re-used in other MGM films. After Production 1060 wrapped in March 1939, one pair was put aside for publicity and later given away in a 1940 film contest. The others were relegated to the Ladies’ Character Wardrobe warehouse where they languished presumably forgotten, gathering dust for 31 years. The public, however, didn’t forget and the ruby slippers would emerge as one of the most enigmatic, beloved icons the world has ever known. Thanks in part to an anonymous donation made to the Smithsonian Institution.

Despite an illustrious career, film behemoth Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had been floundering amid a $35 million loss in 1969, the largest deficit in the studio’s history and the death knell reverberated loud and clear. The last nail in the coffin was pounded with a gavel wielded by the David Weisz Company during an 18 day auction of sets, props, and costumes. Pieces of glamour, Americana, and magic were scattered haphazardly like dust in a tornado.

Allegedly, several pairs of ruby slippers were recovered by costumer Kent Warner, but only one pair, the pair showing the most fatigue, was turned over for the star wardrobe auction. However, the worn condition of the shoes suggested they were relied upon heavily during filming and more than likely used by Judy Garland. The remainder was smuggled out of the studio for clandestine sales.

Coincidentally, and perhaps sadly, the auction commenced on Stage 27 on the MGM lot. The very soundstage where the Munchkinland sequence was filmed. Lot W – 1048 hit the auction block the evening of May 17, 1970. Opening at $1000, the spirited bidding quickly winnowed down to 2 parties. Within 46 seconds a victor was declared with a winning bid of $15,000, a huge sum for a costume piece especially at a time when the average price of a new home was $23,400 and the movie memorabilia market hadn’t yet been established. The ruby slippers were squired away to a man shrouded in anonymity known only as a “California millionaire.” His prize was kept under lock and key until they were delivered into the capable hands of the Smithsonian in December 1979.

The ruby slippers as displayed for the Weisz auction

Their heels hadn’t been tapped together in 40 years, but their luster burned brightly and they still captivated with their spell. The Smithsonian recognized the true value of the ruby slippers lied not in monetary worth, but in film history, American culture, and the dreams we all dare to dream. The ruby slippers shot to stardom once again as one of the Smithsonian’s prized and most popular attractions joining the esteemed ranks of the desk Thomas Jefferson used to pen the Declaration of Independence, the compass that guided the Lewis and Clark expedition, Abraham Lincoln’s hat, and the Star Spangled Banner. An estimated 3 – 5 million visitors each year come specifically to see Dorothy’s magic shoes.

The Smithsonian's original modest display

Their popularity has been put to good use promoting the Smithsonian in advertising and on souvenirs such as t-shirts, mugs, books, and calendars.

"There's No Place Like the Smithsonian": this postcard shows a photo used in national circulars and periodicals

The adventures of the ruby slippers do not end there. Their life post Oz has been just as marvelous. Most of the time they are happily ensconced in the National Museum of American History basking in the admiration of throngs of admirers. On occasion, they are brought out to enchant a broader audience.

In 1994, the shoes from the Land of Oz ventured to the Land of the Rising Sun. Smithsonian’s America: An Exhibition on American History and Culture was comprised of 300 objects chosen from the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum. The slippers were part of the National Popular Culture section for the month and a half long exhibit at American Festival Japan ‘94. While the Smithsonian’s shoes were out, another pair was loaned by Philip Samuels to insure a perpetual presence at the home front.

The Smithsonian entertains millions of visitors a year, but still felt there was a need to reach more people. To celebrate their 150th anniversary in 1996, the Smithsonian mounted the largest traveling exhibition to date. Each of the Smithsonian’s 16 museums was asked to submit a list of their 20 most important treasures. America’s Smithsonian hit the road for 2 years. Ten million visitors were expected to visit the free exhibit. The ruby slippers were one of the artifacts featured on the cover of the companion book.

Red, Hot, and Blue: A Salute to the American Musical was a showcase designed to illustrate the history of the musical in its various incarnations from 19th century vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood films and the influences they still have on present day. Again, Philip Samuels graciously loaned his shoes to represent The Wizard of Oz.

The National Museum of American History closed duration of two years for sorely needed renovations necessitating a relocation of objects the public should not be denied. A Treasures of American History temporary display was put into place in the Air and Space Museum.

During this time, actor Bruce Willis donated memorabilia from the successful Die Hard franchise. He stated that anyone who worked on the films would be thrilled that the artifacts are part of the same museum exhibit as Dorothy’s slippers. Willis then declares “I think the ruby slippers are way cooler.”

Oprah Winfrey caused quite a stir during her January 28, 2008 show focusing on ‘Classic Americana’. Dr. Brent Glass, Director of the National Museum of American History, presented the ruby slippers to be showcased during this episode. In spite of repeated refusals to Winfrey’s request to touch the shoes, and blatantly ignoring Dr. Glass’s explanation of their fragile state, she proceeded to grab them anyway pretending to tap the heels together. It wasn’t just Oz fans that were appalled. Oprah’s regular viewer ship was aghast she would manhandle a delicate American treasure. Their displeasure was apparent via several chastisements on her message board.

Last November, the National Museum of American History threw a grand bash to celebrate its highly anticipated re-opening. Dorothy from the national touring company of The Wizard of Oz played by Cassie Okenka was on hand to welcome the ruby slippers back to their refurbished digs.

Judy Garland wore an array of memorable costumes throughout her extraordinary span of film, concert, and television appearances, but none rival the fascination elicited by the ruby slippers. It’s hard to believe footwear that cost $12 - $15 to manufacture could create enough furor so as to be the subject of two documentaries, a full length “biography”, and a slew of collectibles long before shoe figurines were in vogue. But these are no ordinary shoes. The ruby slippers are a symbol of innocent enchantment and hope that which we long for most is finally within our grasp. They have achieved the same legendary status as any of the principal cast members of The Wizard of Oz.

Over the years they have developed a fervid fan base propelling lifelong Judy Garland/Oz fan Steve Jarrett into action. The Judy Garland Database was one of the first websites Steve found during his early internet explorations. He was amazed at the wealth of information but dismayed to find his favorite Judy era wasn’t represented. Eager to express his reverence and tap into a neglected niche, Steve conceived his own tribute: Judy Garland – The Live Performances.

The Ruby Slippers Fan Club
evolved from a single page featured on his Judy Garland website after it inspired rapturous response from visitors. Whether you are a passionate enthusiast or mildly curious, once you have delved into all the site has to offer, you’ll be passionately enthused whether you want to be or not! There’s truly nothing else like it. The site is a treasure trove for Oz and Judy Garland fans of course, but fans and scholars of Hollywood’s golden age, fashion, and film costuming will find a great deal to appreciate. It’s impossible to describe in words the depth of love and respect Steve has for Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz, but his enthusiasm is infectious and his sincerity garnered him an invitation to Christie’s Auction House in New York City to view and hold the ruby slippers owned by Anthony Landini before they were to be auctioned in 2000.

The Ruby Slippers Fan Club has been referenced and researched for myriad Oz related projects. Still, Steve couldn’t have imagined what his next ruby slipper endeavor would be.

Days before the Oprah Winfrey debacle, Steve received an email from the prop master for the sequel to the Ben Stiller film Night at the Museum. Night at the Museum is a charming, lively film about Larry Daley who takes a job as a night security guard for the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Larry hopes his new occupational venture will bring some much needed stability into his life. However, once the sun goes down, Larry is subjected to one wild romp after another when the museum’s, oftentimes unruly, inhabitants come to life. The sequel takes place at the Smithsonian Institution and has been granted the distinction of being the first Hollywood production permitted to film within its walls.

The film wanted to include cameos of the museum’s hottest properties and naturally that included the ruby slippers. The production team had to decide whether to purchase a pair of slippers or have them specially made. Seeking advice and for the sake of authenticity, they reached out to the ruby slipper community. After a flurry of emails during the first week of February, it was decided Steve Jarrett would make the shoes.

They couldn’t have found a more devoted ruby slipper aficionado to step up to the task. Right away Steve was intrigued by the premise and zestfully seized the opportunity to return the ruby slippers to the silver screen during the 70th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz.

The shoes were needed for shooting the week of June 8th. Despite working two jobs, Steve diligently endured the tedium of sewing sequins during the precious little free time he had. They were completed May 30th and shipped off to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Steve was told director Shawn Levy was happy with the shoes, then Steve anxiously awaited word from the set. His patience was rewarded when he was given a sneak peek of the scene with his slippers.

Hank Azaria as Kahmunrah examining the ruby slippers

The first week of July the production team asked to keep the shoes longer than originally planned. They were mulling over using the shoes during the film’s climax. When the shoes finally returned home, a bow was torn off one shoe and half the sequins on one side were turned in the wrong direction! It appeared they’d survived quite a night at the museum! The finished film shows no evidence explaining the rough condition of the shoes, but there’s always hope for deleted scenes on a forthcoming DVD/Blu Ray release. Steve was glad for the experience and the opportunity to remind modern film makers and audiences of the magic of Oz.

Steve's shoes currently on display at the Marbles Kids Museum, Raleigh N.C.

From MGM’s dingy, bereft loft, the ruby slippers were rescued from oblivion and at last entrusted to the ‘nation’s attic’ where they rest in stability protected from environmental hazards. How exactly the donation occurred is a story still waiting to be told. The Smithsonian itself was something of a donation by James Smithson, a Briton who never set foot on American soil. Has the anonymous winner of Lot W-1048 ever roamed the halls of the Smithsonian? Has he inconspicuously ventured to the Museum of Natural History to thoughtfully gaze at his former property? Does he regret his decision? We’ll probably never know.

Some say Mr. Anonymous was discontented after his shoes were found not to be the only pair in existence. Some say he was in need of the tax write off. Many believe the power of the ruby slippers is too awesome for one person to bear alone. Perhaps Mr. Anonymous grew to feel the same.

Whatever his motivation, whatever led him to conclude the Smithsonian was his answer, he has done a great service to the children of the world, the lovers of Oz and Judy Garland, and the multitudes who still believe three little taps will make their dreams come true.

Thank you.

**Correction: Iman1138 is lman1138. I apologize for the confusion.