Minnesota News

Judy Garland’s Minnesota hometown hopes to bring back Dorothy’s ruby slippers

Law enforcement officials recovered the stolen ruby slippers.
One of four known surviving pairs of ruby slippers worn by actress Judy Garland in the 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz," pictured at a press conference after law enforcement officials recovered the shoes.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

This weekend, the city of Grand Rapids, Minn., will honor its best-known former resident — Judy Garland. 

At its annual Judy Garland Days festival, the city will fundraise to bring back a prized prop that the actress made famous. But it won’t be an easy stroll down the Yellow Brick Road.

Minnesota lawmakers set aside $100,000 in Legacy funds this year to help the Judy Garland Museum purchase the coveted ruby slippers of “The Wizard of Oz” fame. Experts expect the shoes could sell for a much higher price point.

“They could sell for $1 million, they could sell for $10 million. They’re priceless,” said Joe Maddalena, Heritage Auctions executive vice president. “Once they’re gone, all the money in the world can’t buy them back.”

The ruby slippers are one of four pairs remaining. Judy Garland, the actress who played Dorothy — the girl swept off to the Land of Oz — donned the sparkling slippers that are central to the film’s plot. 

But the pair that will be sold soon has a unique story of its own.

An exhibit for a museum
The Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids features an exhibit highlighting the theft of the ruby slippers. The slippers are set to come up for auction later this year.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

The shoes were on display at Garland’s namesake museum in Grand Rapids in the summer of 2005 when a burglar struck. John Kelsch was the museum director at the time. He said a burglar broke into the museum through the back door and snatched the slippers.

All that was left behind was a single bright red sequin.

“It was devastating,” Kelsch said. “Unfortunately, local people thought that the museum benefited somehow from it, that we got the insurance money, which was not the case at all.”

Investigators spent years searching for the missing slippers before they recovered them during a sting operation in Minneapolis in 2018.

Curators at the Smithsonian Museum then compared the shoes to another pair on display in Washington D.C. to ensure they were authentic. 

Earlier this year, the slippers were returned to their owner Michael Shaw during a private ceremony at the Judy Garland Museum.

Two people pose for a photo
John Kelsch, left, and Janie Heitz, right, pose with a photo of actress Judy Garland inside her namesake museum in Grand Rapids.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

This fall, the slippers will go on a world tour with stops in Beverly Hills, New York, London and Tokyo before coming up for auction at the end of the year.

Maddalena, with Heritage Auctions, has sold two other pairs of ruby slippers. He convinced actor Leonardo DiCaprio and a group of the actor’s friends to help purchase one set for the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences.

This time around, the advance notice could help venues like the Judy Garland Museum have a stronger shot, he said.

“We wanted to enable places that might not normally be able to raise the funds so quickly to have plenty of time to think about it and work out ways to do that,” Maddalena said. “That’d be an amazing story. I mean, if they ended up back there, that'd be a fantastic story.”

Judy Garland Museum officials, state legislators and the governor say they’re hopeful that a benevolent figure will wave their magic wand to help. 

“Our goal is to get the word out to the world that we need them. They belong here,” Kelsch said. “Somebody out there is going to help us. I just know it.”

A museum
The Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, features the actress' childhood home.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

In a social media post, Gov. Tim Walz noted the state’s effort to buy “the damn slippers to make sure they remain safe at home in Grand Rapids — on display for all to enjoy — under 24/7, ‘Ocean's 11’-proof security.”

Judy Garland museum director Janie Heitz said Garland had fond memories of her hometown. And it would make sense for the Grand Rapids community to have them on display, she said.

“Yes, we’re the place where they were stolen, and yes, we’ll have to get better security. But you know, Judy Garland is the one that made them famous,” Heitz said.

“We just think it would be a really full circle story on the importance of home and that’s exactly what ‘The Wizard of Oz’ represents,” Heitz said. “She was always trying to get home. And so maybe that’s where the slippers should go, is in Judy’s hometown, where her childhood home is.”

A man bends down and points to the floor
Former Judy Garland Museum director John Kelsch bends to point out a red sequin that was left when the ruby slippers of 'The Wizard of Oz' fame were stolen from the Grand Rapids museum in 2005.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

The ruby slippers and a wish got Dorothy back to her home in Kansas in the movie.

For now, Heitz is clicking her heels and hoping that her wish — to bring the slippers back to Grand Rapids — comes true, too.