The Ruby Slippers: A Journey to the Land of Oz
Dorothy’s ruby slippers may represent the single most beloved memories of Hollywood movies, residing in that category with Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat, Charles Foster Kane’s Rosebud and Sam Spade’s Maltese Falcon.
At the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the slippers are on perpetual display in a simple, black box, the display card proclaiming . . . “The ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland (Francis Gumm) in 1939 MGM film ‘The Wizard of Oz.”’
Carl Scheele, the now-retired veteran Smithsonian curator who acquired the slippers in 1979, estimates that every year upwards of 5 million people are attracted to the exhibit. The crush of people has caused the rug in front of the display to be patched many times and replaced twice.
Hordes of visitors bypass other fascinating historical items--a lion’s harness from “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Irving Berlin’s upright piano, Edgar Bergen’s puppet pal Charlie McCarthy--but most are inexplicably drawn to the shoes that carried lost Dorothy along the Yellow Brick Road in search of the fearsome Wizard. He would help her get home to Kansas.
Children in particular press up against the glass as if caught in some kind of spell cast by the slippers.
During the writer’s visit to the museum, he saw one little girl put her hand against the display case, trying to touch the shoes. “Magic,” she said softly.
Magic--if you believe.
First you have to believe that they really are Judy Garland’s shoes.
Curator Scheele, an expert in American entertainment memorabilia, knows better. “We backed away from the original claim that Judy Garland wore the shoes,” he said. “But we do claim they are from the production and she starred in it.”
The Smithsonian’s problem is part of a complicated mystery about the real ruby slippers--and how many pairs there might be. It has preoccupied countless people who followed the story into the underworld of Hollywood memorabilia, aswirl with intrigue, theft, half-truths, untruths, secrets, fake shoes and feuds.
What is now known--based on research that took a year and a half, covered more than 100 interviews--is that the Smithsonian does not have the best pair of ruby slippers. There are at least four, maybe six other pairs.
All but one are in the hands of several ruby slipper fanatics who acquired them, one way or another, from a lone and remarkable supplier named Kent Warner, a costumer who worked in Hollywood on various assignments from the movie studios before he died in 1984.
Warner’s fascination with the shoes--and countless other pieces of Hollywood memorabilia--took on bizarre dimensions--of questionable legality. He apparently lavished more love and attention on a nearly flawless pair of the ruby slippers displayed in his living room than on almost anything else in his life. He held special screenings of famous films in his home in which he paraded in vintage dresses from the very movies he was showing--costumes acquired from dusty studio storage vaults or rescued from dumpsters and incinerators.
Warner, whose everyday work took him in search of clothes for movie stars, almost single-handedly started a shady memorabilia market in Hollywood by mastering the art of what he might have thought of as rescuing the forgotten treasures from the studios. Sources say he walked onto the MGM lot one spring day in 1970 with an empty, seemingly innocent duffle bag--and left with it full of sequinned red shoes.
That began the legend of the missing ruby slippers.
The Silver Standard
I was visiting a basement storage room at MGM in September, 1986, to get background on the dismantling of the MGM script vault for a segment of “Hollywood Closeup.” Employees of Ted Turner were busily packing scripts for shipment off the lot. There existed untold treasures: a rare, once-published story by William Faulkner called “Manservant” remained on the shelves while Turner’s people stuffed valuable scripts into boxes, including one from “The Women” (1939) that had been worked over and then signed by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I decided to focus my story on the “The Wizard of Oz.” I met former MGM script librarian Susie Battle, who, though excluded from the script-packing process, was allowed to show me around the vault. I asked her if I could see the oldest existing script for the film.
She gave me Noel Langley’s 1938 screen adaptation of L. Frank Baums’s fin de siecle fairy tale, “The Wizard of Oz.” It was the credited screenwriter’s early working script. I opened it up and perused its age-yellowed pages. There I found history.
Page 26. Scene No. 113. Right where Glinda the Good Witch of the North waves her wand and a pair of shoes belonging to the recently squished Wicked Witch of the East magically appear on Dorothy’s feet. The directorial cue read: CLOSE UP SILVER SHOES.
In Baum’s book, one of the Munchkins said to Dorothy, “The Witch of the East was proud of those silver shoes . . . and there is some charm connected with them; but what it is we never knew.”
We never knew either, because the silver shoes were never seen on the silver screen. “The Wizard of Oz” was going to be big in every Hollywood sense of the word. Louis B. Mayer spent $3 million in the Depression to produce a movie using Kodak’s expensive three-strip Technicolor film. He wasn’t going to tolerate black-and-white shoes.
Sometime between May 14 and June 4 of 1938--the last recorded revision date marked on the cover of Langley’s script--a Hollywood decision was made: The typed word silver was rubbed out and ruby written in. By the stroke of a hand, Dorothy Gale’s silver shoes became Judy Garland’s ruby slippers.
History has never been well served by Hollywood. When the producers of “The Wizard of Oz” changed Baum’s silver to ruby, they probably didn’t care that they were tampering with a literary metaphor. Typical of their generation, they were men more interested in storytelling than proselytizing. They probably didn’t think about Baum’s Oz being a political parable on turn-of-the-century Populism because they didn’t recognize the historical importance of the silver shoes that they re-souled (see article on Page 7). Nor did they understand that the ruby slippers they created would assume a mysterious, material “charm” of their own.
Which Were the Fakes?
Imagine the surprise that Roberta Jeffries Bauman must have felt on May 18, 1970. She picked up her copy of her local Memphis (Tenn.) Press-Scimitar newspaper and read an article from Los Angeles that “the ruby red slippers . . . fetched $15,000” at an historic MGM auction!
Bauman had her own ruby slippers in her closet. She had won the pair in a 1940 contest.
“It was real exciting,” said Bauman, now 64. “I called the paper right away and said, ‘I have a pair of the ruby red slippers’ and that’s when all the commotion started.”
Her story flashed across the country on the news wire: 30 years before, as a junior at Humes High School in Memphis, Roberta Jeffries had placed second in a contest sponsored by the National Four Star Club to pick the 10 best pictures of 1939, a year many film buffs consider Hollywood’s finest. Her “Hollywood prize,” as reported by the Memphis Commercial Appeal on Feb. 24, 1940, was “the red shoes worn by Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ ”
The slippers, part of a promotional display in New York, were sent to Memphis and presented to Bauman. For the next 30 years, Bauman said, “I kept showing the shoes at schools and libraries saying all the time that I was told these were from the film and Judy also had worn them.” Today she keeps them safely in a bank security box.
Bauman was perplexed by the MGM auction in 1970: Who owned the real pair? Who had the fakes? She sent a certified letter to MGM asking about the authenticity of her shoes, and inquiring about the pair purchased by Richard Wonder, the representative of an anonymous “Southern California millionaire,” at the auction.
She wrote: “Since Mr. Wonder paid such a price for the pair he got at the auction, I wanted to establish the fact if he had the original or do I have the original? To seek an honest answer would clarify the fact if I have been misled for these 30 years.”
Ten days later the letter was returned, unanswered.
Last week, Bauman finally decided to sell her pair of ruby slippers. She signed a contract with Christie’s East in New York, where they will be auctioned on June 21.
Why was she selling? “I have had them all these many years and I find it is time to pass them on to others to enjoy. . . . I have shown them to many school children, including my own. They have served my purpose.”
Bauman’s shoes are now in Christie’s possession. The auction reserve--her lowest asking price--is not finalized. A Christie’s representative expects the Size 6B slippers to sell for between $15,000 and $20,000, but when the auctioneers gavel falls, the going price could be considerably higher.
In a Turkish Towel
“I would guess she had to have six pairs of shoes.”
--Billy Curtis, Lord High Mayor of Munchkinland
Judy Garland starred in “The Wizard of Oz” when she was 16. “I was a chubby little girl,” she told UPI’s Vernon Scott in a 1968 interview, a year before her death. “So they’d truss me up in a corset so I couldn’t sing very well. They put caps on my teeth. They starved me to lose weight. They even put stuff in my nose to make it look different.
“I played little Dorothy Gale of Kansas in that picture, but I was tortured little Tillie during the whole damned thing. I don’t know why they didn’t go out and find a girl that looked like Dorothy instead of bending me out of shape for the part.”
Bent worst were her feet. For most of her long, 10- to 16-hour production days, she spent time walking, standing and dancing around on a plywood “road” painted to look like yellow brick, wearing shoes that carried the odious burden of the movie’s central theme. They had to photograph perfectly in every scene.
In 1977, Aljean Harmetz, today the Hollywood correspondent for the New York Times, published her book on “The Making of the Wizard of Oz.” Considered the definitive study of MGM’s Production No. 1060, it is constantly quoted, with and without attribution, in articles written about the ruby slippers. It contains the only bound account of the making and eventual selling of the shoes.
Harmetz wrote that “Judy Garland’s ruby slippers were found, wrapped in a Turkish towel in a bin in the basement of MGM’s Wardrobe Department sometime during February or March of 1970.”
Dick Carroll, a Beverly Hills clothier who supervised the auctioning of the MGM “star” wardrobe, described the find as “very undramatic.” He told Harmetz, “A guy came up to me and said here are some shoes Judy Garland wore in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ ”
It was very undramatic, unless you were Kent Warner. He was the Hollywood costumer who found the shoes and became the central figure in their ensuing mystery.
Carroll knew Kent Warner very well: “We called him Kentala. He was a very talented young man--maybe too talented for his own good.”
Night of the Auction
The MGM auction during May of 1970 was like an 18-day wake for Hollywood. Surprisingly, the local press gave it little coverage, but did focus on the astounding price paid for a pair of noteworthy slippers.
The auction was conceived by the late Los Angeles businessman and auctioneer David Weisz when he bought the contents of several sound stages--including prop furniture and wardrobe--from MGM for about $1.5 million. In professional parlance, Weisz specialized in liquidating capital assets.
“Everything David ever did was a gamble,” Carroll remembered of Weisz, his friend and father-in-law who died in 1981. “He knew what he could do with the props. The main thrust was props. Furniture, chandeliers, paintings, that’s what he bought. The wardrobe was a stepchild. He called me in Europe and asked me if I would take care of the wardrobe. Do you have any idea how many cowboy outfits there were?”
In fact, there were more than 350,000 separate pieces of clothing. “Believe me,” said Carroll, “we had some amazing pieces of wardrobe, but nothing compared to the slippers. I think they were the most important thing in the auction.”
So did Carroll’s wife, Judy, David Weisz’s daughter. She helped her husband prepare the star wardrobe for the auction, handling most of the details and working closely with Kent Warner, who was hired by Weisz to identify, catalogue and photograph costumes for the big event.
“Kent Warner,” said Judy Carroll, “was the creative genius behind the way we displayed the costumes, and the slippers became the center of our costume display. They were placed in a Lucite case in the center of the auction floor and spotlighted from above with no identification whatsoever.
“Nobody needed to be told what they were. People stopped and stared in awe.”
Warner’s finest hour may have been on that evening of the auction. As a reward for his good work, he was allowed to carry the ruby slippers up to the podium where auctioneer Weisz took the gavel and personally presided over the bidding. Within a minute a winning bid of $15,000 was made on behalf of a mystery millionaire.
Two days later, pandemonium erupted among the auctioneers when Bauman of Tennessee came forward with her 30-year-old shoe box, containing a pair of the red ruby slippers. Size 6B, they appeared absolutely authentic. “It was said,” Bauman recalled, “that the person who got the MGM auction shoes got quite angry at me and said he wished he had never seen the bloody red shoes.”
Dick Carroll said there wasn’t a question about any other pair of ruby slippers. “There was never a duplicate of anything,” he declared. “We had one Clark Gable raincoat, one Garbo dress. We never, never, never heard of another pair of ruby slippers.”
To this day, Carroll maintains adamantly that David Weisz auctioned what he believed to be the one and only, original pair of Judy Garland’s famous red shoes. “If David had known about any other pairs, he would have thrown them into the sea.”
Apparently, Warner gave Weisz one pair, and there was no reason to think there were any more. Then Warner kept the rest. And, as indicated by later research, probably the best.
Preserved for History --And a Copy for Him
Kent Warner was part of a crowd that idolized Judy Garland. In the years following her death, anything associated with her name, especially her film wardrobe, became gold in West Hollywood’s chic boutiques. A thriving black market developed, with emotional people paying wild sums for pieces of star clothing Warner funneled from the studios to the back rooms and boudoirs of various private collectors.
Warner, a nostalgia buff--he was once written up in TV Guide for his collection of vintage TV sets--became a modern day prince in a Machiavellian wardrobe world. Almost by himself, he created a booming underground market by selling movie star clothes that he found during his forays in studio wardrobe departments. According to friends, he called himself “Lana Lift,” but many regard his as more of a Robin Hood.
The new generation of studio bosses didn’t see any special profit potential in their vintage possessions. Sound stages filled with props, sets and costumes were nothing more than huge garages full of junk. Between 1966 and 1980, what they couldn’t sell, they tossed out.
Warner, related friends who knew him well, rummaged through dumpsters at Paramount, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Universal and the Burbank Studios, along with wardrobe storage facilities located outside studio walls. According to one friend, Warner found the trench coat that Humphrey Bogart wore in “Casablanca” at Warner Bros.--in a bin waiting to be burned.
Although Warner routinely checked studio garbage heaps, he didn’t always have to. He was a card-carrying member of Costumer’s Union Local 705, with easy access to literally every studio wardrobe department. During his 18-year career, Warner worked at 10 major TV and movie studios in town. A good costumer, he knew where to find any garment, for any need, in any scene. When Warner rummaged for clothing as part of his job--unsupervised and monitored--he kept his eyes open for valuable star clothing of the past.
Bill Howard, business affairs officer for Costumer’s Local 705 and a 25-year member, said he “doesn’t know of a costumer who didn’t take something.”
Warner took plenty. And why not? It was all being thrown away. With a vast love and knowledge of movies and wardrobe, Warner easily identified Marilyn Monroe’s dresses, Humphrey Bogart’s coats, Fred Astaire’s shoes, slippers and ties, Elizabeth Taylor’s peach-colored silk quilt from “Raintree County,” Clark Gable’s clothes from “Gone With the Wind” and countless other garments worn by Bette Davis, Greta Garbo and other Hollywood legends. But the prized pieces in his collection were worn by Ginger Rogers and Judy Garland, his personal favorites.
Many Hollywood insiders think Kent Warner saved a valuable part of Hollywood’s history from destruction, in addition to the ruby slippers. But there’s some doubt that the slippers were destined for the trash bin. Warner told at least three friends that auctioneer Weisz knew about the other pairs of the red slippers and ordered them destroyed. But they also think that Warner may have tricked Weisz, feeling justified in keeping the extra shoes for himself.
Warner knew the studios kept no inventories of props and clothes that they stored and trashed. And he was aware that doubles and triples existed on every movie set for every important piece of star wardrobe. How easy, he may have thought, to save one piece for history--and consign the others to antique clothing boutiques and auction houses.
He had a list of regular buyers who were fans of particular stars. It was common for Warner to call a specific collector who liked Marilyn Monroe or Clark Gable and quietly offer a certain piece. Sources claim that he sometimes exploited the ignorance of people eager to pay heady prices for vintage star clothing that was presumably unique.
Some recent examples of market value: A blouse worn by Marilyn Monroe in “Bus Stop” was recently auctioned for $12,500. Judy Garland’s red-velvet dress from “Meet Me in St. Louis” was offered for “several thousand dollars,” according to a Garland collector. And unbelievably, someone paid $150,000 for Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat, shoes and cane, auctioned last fall by Sotheby’s of London.
But back in 1970, nobody expected the ruby slippers to sell for $15,000 at the MGM auction, not even Kent Warner. During the next decade of his life, with a high value publicly established, Warner dealt ruby slippers to collectors with care and cunning, as friends told it.
Only AIDS was able to finally silence his enthusiasm. When he died on April 25, 1984, at 41, his role in the ruby slipper story remained clouded by questions.
When the Smithsonian acquired its ruby slippers in December, 1979, the shoes’ background was unclear. The donor demanded anonymity, but several people, including Smithsonian officials, believe it was the same person who purchased the slippers at the 1970 MGM auction.
Former Smithsonian technician Susan Schreiber tried to authenticate the donated shoes. Auctioneer Weisz informed her by letter that “Dick Carroll, who physically handled the presentation of the wardrobe at the MGM sale, is best qualified with details.” Weisz enclosed a copy of Carroll’s own recollections.
“One day,” Carroll wrote, “when the crew was preparing the wardrobe ensemble . . . one of the wardrobe men came to me with a pair of the red slippers. They told me that they had discovered the famous red slippers worn by Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and that these were in fact the actual ones.
“The wardrobe woman who actually worked in that capacity on the original ‘Wizard of Oz,’ was working for us at the same time and authenticated the slippers. She said that six identical pairs had been made for Judy Garland and this was the only pair left. She had no idea where the others were.” Kent Warner’s name was not mentioned.
Carroll closed his letter to Weisz by adding, “I do not think the Smithsonian is interested in anything more than determining authenticity.”
But later, in a letter to Roberta Bauman, the owner of the size 6B shoes, Schreiber wrote that her efforts to learn more from Weisz were “not very successful. The questions I asked remained unanswered, and they basically gave me the same information which appears in Harmetz’s book.”
Sizes 5 to 6, B to D
In the nation’s largest subject card catalogue, located in the Library of Congress, I couldn’t find a single reference to the ruby slippers--no historiography whatsoever. Only the Aljean Harmetz book details their peculiar origin. Numerous newspaper articles only scratch the surface, often repeating the same stories about the background of the shoes.
But at the Smithsonian’s Division of Community Life, inside the ruby slipper file, is what looks like a college term paper. Titled “The Ruby Slippers,” it was written six years ago by Tod Machin, 27, another person so keen on the red shoes that he’s made his own replica--good enough, he feels, that only ruby slippers buffs would recognize them as fakes.
How expert is Machin on the subject? With the coming 50th anniversary of the 1939 release of “The Wizard of Oz,” MGM, in association with the Turner Entertainment Co., has authorized the Franklin Mint to produce and sell a number of celebratory items including an “official portrait doll” of Judy Garland as Dorothy. “She’s completely authentic,” goes an advertisement for the $135 doll, “even her magical Ruby Slippers.” But Tod Machin noticed that the Franklin Mint forgot to put bows on its version of Dorothy’s shoes.
Machin, who purchased a doll, told me that “they shaped her ankles very well, but forgot the bow.”
Machin, who does not own a real pair of the slippers, seems to be an objective authority. He became obsessed with the ruby slippers in 1982 when he saw a pair on display at a shopping mall in Wichita, Kan. He set out on what he called a “quest” to get as much information about them as he could. The result was the college term paper that is loaded with details. Each shoe, for instance, has approximately 2,300 sequins.
(An illustrator for the Kansas City Star, Machin’s passion for the shoes is reflected in the drawing he did for Calendar at left.)
Machin’s research also contradicts the Harmetz book, which reports that “Judy Garland’s Ruby Slippers were made in Mrs. Cluett’s Beading Department,” presumably on the MGM lot in 1938. Machin contends the slippers were made by the venerable Western Costume Co. in Los Angeles.
More recent research revealed the following:
Gilbert Adrian, widely regarded as MGM’s finest costume designer, first sketched pictures of the ruby slippers during the summer of 1938. By Halloween, two styles had been manufactured and were ready to color test on Garland’s feet.
The first was a wildly jeweled, Arabian motif, with curling toes and heels. They looked great on the protruding stubs of the dead Wicked Witch of the East, but didn’t quite fit the Kansas farm-girl image intended for Dorothy. These shoes are called the “Arabian test pair”; Kent Warner reportedly found them along with the other pairs.
The second style was a basic pump, with a bow and a baby French heel, covered with ruby red stones and sequins. The directors and producers approved the design, but this particular test pair proved too heavy because they were covered with red “buggle beads” to simulate rubies. They would have to use sequins.
According to former Western Costume employee Al Depardo, who worked there 39 years, it was a man named Joe Napoli, not the ladies of Mrs. Cluett’s Beading Department, who actually made the shoes. Sally Nelson Harb, Western Costume’s resident historian, recalled that Western president John Golden had attributed the ruby slippers to Napoli.
“I was 21 years old, a cutter, when they were made,” said Depardo. “They were simple to duplicate.” Napoli, according to Depardo, simply bought a pair of name brand pumps in Garland’s size and added sequins.
(It’s possible that the workers in Mrs. Cluett’s Beading Department tried making the shoes, likely producing the “Arabian test pair” and the “buggle bead” shoes. But the sequining process was probably too time consuming for the shorthanded seamstresses, and it was farmed out to Western Costume.)
Wearing Out the Shoes
Nobody knows how many pairs of ruby slippers were ordered--Western Costume has no billings and MGM’s 1939 wardrobe records are long gone--but it is certain that Adrian, known best by his surname, didn’t want to be caught on the production set, MGM’s Stage 27, without a cherry pair of slippers for every scene.
Chances are, Adrian did not anticipate Garland needing as many pairs as Napoli would eventually make. Most productions require doubles, or triples, but Garland apparently wore the shoes out as fast as Napoli could make them. The more slippers Napoli made, the better he became at making them. It is no wonder that certain pairs of existing ruby slippers seem to be in much better shape than others; it stands to reason that the pairs made first were worn the most, and the pair made last should look the best.
Because of the rigors of color-testing and the era in which they were made, the ruby slippers are not easily duplicated today. The materials used are no longer easy to find and the alterations made on the production set complicated. According to experts, the ruby slippers can be authenticated through specific features:
All the ruby slippers are between Size 5 and 6, varying between B and D widths.
The basic pump was purchased from the “Innes Shoe Company of Los Angeles, Pasadena and Hollywood.” Authentic ruby slippers bear the name of the manufacturer inside the right shoe of each pair, either a stitched label or embossed stamp.
Before sequining, the Innes shoes were covered with a rouge-colored silk--a French peaudesoie, or faille. The lining was a cream-colored, kid leather lining.
An overlay of gabardine swatches, covered with rows of hand-stitched sequins, were sewn directly to the shoe.
The bow was rimmed with rhinestones and had three large buggle beads in the middle.
The ruby-colored sequins were dyed a deep crimson red so they wouldn’t appear orange on Technicolor film.
Orange felt was added to the soles of all the shoes Garland wore to muffle the sound of her footsteps on the “road.” Only one known pair is without orange felt.
There is some controversy associated with size. When Roberta Bauman came forward with her ruby slippers after the MGM auction, some people said her pair belonged to a stand-in, because they were Size 6B, supposedly too large for Garland’s feet. But the Smithsonian’s slippers are Size 5C and later I would find slippers Size 5 1/2. The difference isn’t great. There is also documented evidence from a 1978 San Francisco auction in which dozens of Garland’s shoes were sold--Size 6 1/2.
Her feet were apparently within this size range. Adrian also had to consider that Garland’s feet might swell while dancing under hot stage lights. It’s also possible that Joe Napoli, simply bought the Innes Shoe Co. out of Size 5s so he purchased the 6B’s. Bauman’s pair definitely show wear and have the orange felt for dancing; it’s doubtful they, or any of the other pairs, belonged exclusively, to any of Garland’s stand-ins. More likely, Bauman’s slippers were the second pair made and used primarily for dance scenes.
Joe Napoli’s intricate beading, combined with the materials used by the Innes Shoe Co. in 1938, make the ruby slippers genuine period pieces. Once production ended, they were probably consigned to a storage rack, except for Bauman’s, which were used for promotion, then became her prize.
In storage, the shoes would gather dust for 30 years--until Kent Warner found them.
In August, 1977, Kent Warner told reporter Kathleen Hendrix of The Times’ View section: “I’m the only person in the world who knows the story of the ruby slippers,” laughing at his own words.
Warner had on display a beautiful pair of the slippers, Size 5B, in the living room of his old Hollywood garden apartment at the corner of Grace and Franklin. Some sources later said that they were the pair of slippers referred to as “the Witch’s shoes.” Each pair had its own identity, depending on how it was used in the movie; worth varied accordingly.
“It sounds so dramatic,” Warner said about finding the shoes. “Everything was covered with cobwebs. It was hot, smelly, dark. A ray of sunlight picked up the glimmer of a sequin. I walked over. I didn’t touch them. I blew the dust from them, the sequins appeared and I knew they were the ruby slippers.”
Warner had told the story so many times, to so many different people, that he had it down pat. His mind romantically embellished the event, and he had different versions.
He probably found the shoes, along with other treasures from “The Wizard of Oz,” including four of Dorothy’s gingham dresses, early in the spring of 1970, just before his 27th birthday. It was a propitious discovery not just for him, but for his friends. He probably thought nothing of giving away small things like Munchkin hats and distinctive “Oz” T-shirts worn by residents of the Emerald City; even Warner didn’t realize how immensely popular--and valuable--Oz memorabilia would become. What, for instance, might someone pay today for the Witch’s broom?
But Warner seemed to have been wary--he didn’t exactly own the stuff. He couldn’t openly measure public demand in the free marketplace. His find had to remain an underground secret (he opened up to the press more than seven years after the MGM auction, possibly believing that the statute of limitations for theft had expired).
Warner was born on March 8, 1943, and reared in New York City. The profile by Hendrix indicated an unhappy childhood. His parents divorced when he was a baby; Warner lived with grandparents until he was 10. Unlike many neighborhood kids, he preferred private fantasy games to playing ball in the streets.
“When LPs came out in the 1950s,” Hendrix wrote, “Warner would buy the LP from a show he had seen, build a miniature set and figures, costume them, ‘do the lights, then move the figures around as the record went on. ‘I’d relive the show in my mind,’ Warner said.
“He spent one of the best rainy Saturdays of his life in the attic of a huge estate on Long Island going through clothes . . . bought in Paris from the turn of the century to the ‘30s--Lanvin, Patou, Worth, Chanel.
“ ‘I dragged them home,’ Warner said, ‘and my mother said, “What the hell are you going to do with all that?” I enjoyed looking at them, feeling them. I never wore them! I know a lot of people will think that’s what I did.’ ”
‘Not the Same Meaning To Me Anymore’
Warner moved to Los Angeles when he was about 20 and worked his way into the Hollywood costuming trade. By 1966, he had a job at Warner Bros., and started rummaging. He later worked for Desilu Studios, the company owned by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, which had purchased the old RKO Studios for its production headquarters. Most of the RKO star wardrobe was lost--but for a few choice items Kent Warner quietly saved. There he apparantly rescued many costumes belonging to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
(One notable item was the ostrich feather dress worn by Rogers in “Top Hat,” 1935, her famous film with Astaire. Astaire hated the dress because the plumes kept flying underfoot on the dance floor, coming apart as she danced the “Cheek to Cheek” number. Today, that dress is at the Smithsonian Institution, allegedly donated, a friend of Warner’s said, by the family after his death.)
He first worked at MGM in 1967 and later in 1969, becomming acquainted with the studio long before the 1970 auction. During the late 1960s and through the 1970s, Warner established his reputation as a serious collector of star wardrobe and other assorted entertainment memorabilia, acquiring not just costumes but old radios, televisions and classic cars.
But Warner grew less interested in his material possessions in the early 1980s, possibly because of his failing health. He began to give things to friends, even attempting to publicly sell his favorite pair of the ruby shoes. At one point he told a buddy, “They just don’t have the same meaning to me anymore.”
He first put them up for sale at a movie memorabilia auction at the Ambassador Hotel in December, 1980, estimating their value at between $20,000 and $75,000. When nobody bid his lowest asking price, Warner kept the shoes.
The following summer, he consigned them to Christie’s East auction house in New York, where on Oct. 1, 1981, they were auctioned for $12,000, plus commission. The highest bid came by phone from a Californian who wanted them for his family.
Julie Collier, the head of Christie’s Collectibles Department, was responsible for authenticating Warner’s ruby slippers. Although she would not confirm in an interview that Warner was the seller, she described the shoes as being marked “7 Judy Garland” and said they had no orange felt on the soles. Rightful ownership, she said, was something Christie’s “generally assumed.”
Warner undoubtedly didn’t get as much as he hoped from the auction, probably because his were the third pair to publicly surface. With multiple pairs turning up, collectors were becoming wary.
Ironically, serious collectors may have missed their chance. For $12,000, the anonymous buyer at Christie’s purchased what Warner called the “Witch’s shoes.” The next time this pair comes up for auction, they could bring six figures. To understand the value of this pair, I had to learn the whereabouts of others.
Warner’s last job was at Stephen J. Cannell Productions, where he worked on “The A-Team” during the winter production days of 1984. Gaunt and weak, he worked until the week before he died. Friends in the business say he fought his illness valiantly, determined to be active and unwilling to acknowledge that he was terminally ill. He was very ambitious, collegues remember, diligent and hard working.
Warner’s mother, now living in Los Angeles, declined to talk about her son, understandably finding questions about the ruby slippers trivial in relation to his death. A number of his closest friends who figured in this article and might have answered important questions about the slippers have also suffered untimely deaths, apparently from AIDS-related illnesses.
I had one phone conversation with Warner’s mother, but it was strained. She claimed that she “knew nothing about his business.” What remained of his collection supposedly was dispensed by his family in “the garage sale of all time,” friends said.
When asked about the ruby slippers, she exclaimed, “Why would anybody be involved with a pair of shoes, a pair of lousy shoes that belonged to a person that did a movie? How absolutely unimportant.”
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