Wizard of Oz

Dorothy’s ruby slippers remain the holy grail of Hollywood memorabilia

The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., displays a pair of Dorothy’s slippers.
The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., displays a pair of Dorothy’s slippers. Associated Press file photo

This could happen only in Hollywood: The guy who died on the “Titanic” helps save Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

It happened two years ago, when Leonardo DiCaprio spearheaded an effort to buy an authentic pair of the iconic “The Wizard of Oz” shoes, considered the holy grail of Hollywood memorabilia.

Though Dorothy’s shoes were silver in L. Frank Baum’s novel, MGM’s chief costume designer, Gilbert Adrian, famously changed them to sequined ruby heels for the movie to take full advantage of Technicolor, then a new technology.

Four pairs worn by Judy Garland and her stunt double are known to still exist, though no records show how many pairs were actually made for the film. The whereabouts of three pairs are known; the location of the fourth is a cloak-and-dagger mystery.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — the Oscars folks — owns one pair now thanks to DiCaprio. Those slippers, considered the best-maintained and most valuable of all, are thought to be the ones Garland wore for close-ups and in that famous scene where she clicks her heels to return to Kansas.

All the slippers were reportedly stored on MGM’s Culver City, Calif., lot for three decades after the movie was made. Then in 1970, costume designer Kent Warner found four pairs while preparing for a now-historic auction of MGM costumes and props.

In 2012, DiCaprio led a group of investors, including Steven Spielberg, that bought a pair for the academy. That organization plans to display them at its yet-to-be-completed museum. What the group paid was kept secret, but the sparkly red shoes are considered to be worth about $3 million.

“The ruby slippers occupy an extraordinary place in the hearts of movie audiences the world over,” said Bob Iger, chief executive officer at Walt Disney, calling the shoes a “transformative acquisition” for the academy’s museum.

Indeed, visitors to the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., inevitably make a beeline for the ruby slippers displayed there, one of the museum’s most-asked-about artifacts.

That pair was anonymously donated in 1979. According to the museum’s website, the shoes were worn by Garland in dance scenes. The telltale sign? The felt on the soles that muffled her footfall on the yellow brick road.

Kansas City native Keith Holman, a costume designer in Los Angeles, has a special connection to the scarlet footwear. His friend David Elkouby has owned a pair of the genuine slippers since 2000.

And Holman spent time learning the craft of costume beading from Stella Ruata, whose late mother, Aurora, worked for MGM and hand-sewed beads onto some of the slippers used in the movie.

The women told him slipper stories, like how some of the first versions had to be redesigned because they were too heavy for Garland to dance in.

In 1989, during the movie’s 50th anniversary year, Holman considered obtaining a license to replicate the slippers — “because that’s as close as most people will get” — but he never finished the process.

Like any other lover of Oz, he’d love to own a pair, but few people can afford the million dollar-plus price tag. So he has started collecting other movie memorabilia, including one of the oil cans Jack Haley used as the Tin Man.

Holman is now in discussions with Union Station and the American Jazz Museum to display part of his collection in his hometown in coming months.

People remain fascinated by Dorothy’s shoes “because those slippers represent hope, they represent home, they kept her safe throughout the movie,” Holman said. “They’re beautiful to look at. And they were coveted by everybody. Even the witch wanted them.”

The shoes have inflamed larceny in the hearts of non-green-skinned villains, too.

On Aug. 28, 2005, someone stole a pair of the movie slippers from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minn. They were on loan at the time from owner Michael Shaw and have never been found.

Cue the dramatic music: The museum’s security camera was not working that night.

Earlier this year, Los Angeles documentary filmmaker Theodore James raised nearly $13,000 on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to finance a movie called “Who Stole the Ruby Slippers?”

“I’ll be submitting the finished short film to festivals across the country in hope of starting a nationwide conversation about the stolen shoes,” James promised his backers.

Wouldn’t want to be in the bad guy’s shoes.

To reach Lisa Gutierrez, call 816-234-4987 or send email to lgutierrez@kcstar.com.

A tale of two slippers

Dorothy’s slippers were silver in L. Frank Baum’s book. The filmmakers changed them to ruby red to take advantage of then-new film technology.

One pair is among the Smithsonian Museum’s most-visited exhibits.

The whereabouts of one of the four pairs of slippers are unknown.