Eighty years ago today (can you believe it?), The Wizard of Oz premiered in theaters. The focal point of the movie is of course, a certain pair of ruby red slippers.
The number of slippers made for the film is unknown, and at least five pairs still exist. Discovered in one of MGM’s storehouses by costumer Kent Warner, they are the most recognizable pieces of film memorabilia in history. Even those who haven’t seen The Wizard of Oz are familiar with the ruby slippers.
Of course, as a little kid, I had no idea about Kent Warner, or how many pairs of slippers there are, or that there was all this intrigue surrounding them. None of that would have mattered much anyway.
The ruby slippers might be costume pieces, but they are also magic. They really are. They turned me into a classic film lover.
I’ve always enjoyed The Wizard of Oz. Even before I saw the movie, I would act out an audio version I had on cassette. Embarassing, I know, but I was a kid. When my parents took me shopping for dress-up shoes, I picked out a shiny white patent leather pair with grosgrain bows because I thought they looked just like the silver shoes.
Of course, seeing the movie was a revelation. I was six. It was the eighties, so the first time I saw Oz was on TV. I was so excited, I taped the whole thing, including commercials, on blank cassette tapes so I could relive it later.
Naturally, I was captivated by the ruby slippers. What little girl wouldn’t be? They were bright, shiny, beautiful, and real. A girl named Judy wore them, and they still existed somewhere. Maybe I could even see them someday. They seemed unattainable, like the Holy Grail.
Or…maybe not. When I was almost eight, the news was all over the Bay Area that Dorothy’s ruby slippers were stolen from a store in San Francisco called Humpty-Dumpty and Sons. I remember feeling conflicted. How did I not know the ruby slippers were so close? Did this mean I would never see them? And yeah, I was a pretty dramatic eight-year old.
As it turned out, the stolen slippers–if they were stolen at all–were fakes, and the story died down as quickly as it broke. The real ruby slippers were safely ensconced at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Humpty-Dumpty and Sons died soon after too, and as of October of 2017 the space stands empty.
It wasn’t until I was seventeen, a little older than Judy was when she made Oz, that I had the chance to see the ruby slippers. My parents and I took a trip to New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., which of course included the National Museum of American History.
I could barely contain myself. I knew what it was like to see the slippers from friends who had gone, but that was nothing to being there. Imagine my shock when I went up to a dark, somewhat shabby case in what amounted to a doorway to see a pair of…
Old, frayed, almost muddy brown shoes. Sequins missing. A bit of fuzzy stuff sticking out from under one of the bows.
Were these the ruby slippers? They had to be. Judy had worn them. The plate under them said so. But they couldn’t be. Maybe their magic was only temporary.
Welp, there went that dream.
Funny thing, though, a surprise was in store when we got home and developed our pictures: The ruby slippers looked perfect. Ruby red. Sparkly. Nothing missing. Their magic hadn’t gone away after all.
Now I was intrigued. I had to find out what made it possible for the shoes could look one way in person and another way in a photo.
Since it was the mid-nineties the answers weren’t as readily available, my questions had to germinate. I found little tiny bits of information in books such as Aljean Harmetz’s classic, The Making of the Wizard of Oz, but it wasn’t until I bought Rhys Thomas’s The Ruby Slippers of Oz that I was really able to satisfy my curiosity. It’s well worth a read, although the editing in my edition is a bit sloppy, with duplicate print and spelling errors, but the information it contains is gold, er, ruby.
First of all, the slippers were much darker than ruby red in order to photograph that way in the Technicolor of the time, which required intense, hot light that washed colors out. If the slippers had been ruby red in real life, they would have photographed orange. Even white, such as in Dorothy’s blouse, had to be overdyed pink in order to look the proper color.
The shoes went through some design changes during pre-production. It was screenwriter Noel Langley’s idea to change the shoes to ruby in the first place, and no one argued with him, because red shoes are going to show up infinitely better in Technicolor than silver ones.
Initially, the ruby slippers resembled those in W.W. Denslow’s original illustrations, which had pointed toes and curled uppers, except that they were more elaborately jeweled. However, this design was jettisoned in favor of a simple pump with a French heel, as it was cheaper and faster to make over a lot of ready-made shoes instead of building them from scratch. At first, the newer shoes were covered in bugle beads and sequins, but a leather bow was soon added, and presto! The Ruby Slippers were born. All of the shoes, which were bought from the Innes Shoe Company of Los Angeles, were a size 6. All but one pair had orange felt on the bottoms to muffle the sound they made on the Yellow Brick Road.
Once the movie wrapped, the ruby slippers were put in what Rhys Thomas called “deep storage.” This was the fate of any costumes that were easily recognizable and therefore couldn’t be used in other films. That included the majority of the Oz costumes, as well as costumes from such films as Ziegfeld Follies. There they stayed until 1970, when Kirk Kerkorian bought MGM and liquidated the majority of its assets.
Kerkorian and his creditors saw the studio’s vast collections of costumes and props as junk to be sold or destroyed, and they unloaded them to the David Weisz Company for $1.5 million dollars. Weisz employee Richard Carroll hired costumer Kent Warner to search out the best pieces for their upcoming auction. The rest would be sold at a rummage sale.
Many of the studios were selling off their costumes, and Kent was heartsick at the cavalier way in which these movie factories were handling their history. RKO, for instance, stored costumes in the commissary, where patrons were wiping their hands on them. 20th Century Fox threw its entire history of special effects into a dumpster, and a rainstorm ruined all of it before it could be saved. Warner Bros. costumes were routinely sent to the incinerator. Paramount was one of the few studios that cared about its history and had everything catalogued, but they were the anomaly.
Kent went to work. He devised ways of smuggling costumes out of studio lots, like hiding layers of costumes on dress forms, or maybe stuffing a duffel full of clothes. He didn’t get much resistance, as he was known around the industry, and many of his fellow costumers just looked the other way. His efforts spawned an underground market of Hollywood memorabilia.
When it came to MGM and the ruby slippers, the details are a little fuzzy. Some say Kent was told to save one pair of slippers, and others say Kent only told the auctioneer he found one pair, but either way, the thinking was that the slippers would seem more valuable if people thought only one pair existed. It’s agreed that Kent found the shoes in a bin under layers of dust, where they had reposed for decades.
Five pairs may be in existence today, but again, no one knows exactly how many were made at the time Oz was in production. It was necessary to have multiples of costumes in case something broke or tore or otherwise couldn’t be used. Since the ruby slippers were such a focal point, not to mention Judy danced in them, there had to be lots of backups. Some have speculated there were as many as ten pairs, or possibly more.
We’ll never know for sure, though, because the records have been destroyed or lost, and pretty much anyone who could have given exact figures has passed on. We don’t even know how many pairs Kent Warner found when he discovered them in MGM’s costume vaults, because he never gave anyone a straight answer. When he died of AIDS in 1984, the secret died with him.
The pair that was sold at auction was what Rhys Thomas nicknamed, “The People’s Shoes.” They went to an anonymous buyer for $15,000 and were donated to the Smithsonian in 1979. These shoes are the most worn-out of any of the existing pairs, which probably means that both Judy and her stand-in may have worn them. Also, apparently, Judy was hard on shoes. Recently, a successful Kickstarter campaign was mounted to fund vital restoration work on the slippers, as they have slowly deteriorated over the years.
Another pair is “Dorothy’s Shoes.” These shoes are the most unusual of the five remaining pairs because they were sent out as a prize in a contest in 1940. Memphis teenager Roberta Bauman won them and kept them for forty-eight years. They were bought and cherished in 1988 by Anthony Landini for $165,000, who then sold them to David Elkouby in 2000 for $666,000.
A third pair has been nicknamed “The Traveling Shoes.” Michael Shaw bought them directly from Kent Warner for $2,500 and occasionally exhibited them in shopping malls around the United States. This pair has a few lost years to its credit, as they were famously stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 2005. Amazingly enough, the FBI was able to recover them thirteen years later, but the motive of the perpetrators has still not been revealed to the public. It’s unknown if Shaw took these shoes back, and as of this writing, their fate is up in the air (I vote for donating them to the Smithsonian, but that’s just me).
The fourth pair to surface is “The Witch’s Shoes.” This was Kent Warner’s personal pair, and he displayed them in a Lucite case in his living room. The condition of these shoes is pristine, except for a few circular scuff marks on the inside heel area, and the heels are higher than that of the other pairs. These shoes have no orange felt on the bottoms, which indicates that they were worn by the deceased Witch of the East in Munchkinland. It’s also likely Judy donned them for closeups. The pair was sold in 1981 to an anonymous collector for $12,000. Then in 1988 Phillip Samuels bought them for $165,000 at a private auction arranged by Christie’s East. In 2012, Samuels sold the slippers at an estimated two to three million dollars to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The fifth pair is ‘The Arabian Test Shoes.” They were never used in the movie, but according to Debbie Reynolds, Judy liked them best. Reynolds bought the shoes at the MGM auction and held on to them until she sold off her vast memorabilia collection in 2011. The pair went for over half a million dollars and it’s said they have been sold to a Middle Eastern collector.
Hollywood is also replete with apparent slipper sightings. It’s almost like seeing Elvis. Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli, and Mervyn LeRoy have all been rumored to have a pair. A costumer named Bill Thomas bragged to Rhys Thomas about having a pair in a safe deposit box. All of these rumors have been disproven or are unsubstantiated. There are also numerous convincing replicas around, such as the pair made for the second Night At the Museum film.
Another idea that gets slipper aficionados’ radars beeping is the possible existence of the “Bugle Bead Shoes,” the bow-less pair of Ruby Slippers which were briefly worn by Judy when Richard Thorpe was directing Oz. Again, however, no concrete information exists, and the shoes have yet to publically surface.
Why are these shoes so intriguing to people after so many years? Everyone seems to have their own answers. The slippers could symbolize a desire to be lifted out of the everyday. Or they might mean a longing to go home. Or they might see the slippers as the vehicle by which Judy Garland was cemented as a star and a legend. Or they could be relics of a Hollywood that will never exist again.
Or they could be part of a secret hope that somehow the magic of Oz is real.
A little girl once wrote to the Smithsonian and asked if the Ruby Slippers are still magic. She was told that no one wears the shoes anymore because they are very delicate and could fall apart, but as far as being magic, the magic was always in her.
For me, seeing the shoes opened up a world of reality turned into illusion, and inspired the wish to walk the bridge between the two. Over twenty-five years later, I’m still walking that bridge, and it gets more interesting the farther it goes.
More Oz can be found here. Thanks for reading, all…
Thomas, Rhys. The Ruby Slippers of Oz. Los Angeles: Tale Weaver Publishing. 1989
Treasure! The Search For the Ruby Slippers. Written and produced by Rhys Thomas. Narrated by Stuart Nelson. A&E, 1998.