GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — Even after Judy Garland was whisked over the Technicolor rainbow by a house-hoisting twister and landed in the magical land of Hollywood, a small northern Minnesota town continued to be her one and only Kansas.
For Judy, there was no place like home but along the Mesabi Iron Range in rural Grand Rapids.
“I do remember it was terribly happy — and possibly the only kind of normal, carefree time in my life,” she once said of her early childhood there.
And although her time in the town was short lived, the memory of her beginnings remain there — encapsulated in a museum dedicated to a globally renowned icon whose life ended prematurely but whose illustrious performances run through the veins of pop culture.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the legend’s untimely death in 1969 as well as the release of the film “Judy,” a biopic of the actress-singer’s troubled final days.
It’s also been a year since an original pair of Ruby Slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” film were recovered after their theft from the museum catapulted the world into a 13-year-long mystery of their whereabouts and put the tiny town of Grand Rapids on the map.
‘There is no place like home’
Plumes of white smoke welcome visitors to the close-knit paper mill community of Grand Rapids, and along a busy street farther into town, the Judy Garland Museum can be spotted across from an Applebees and Home Depot.
A nonconforming entity, the two-story white clapboard house rests along this modernized strip of consumerism and commercial real estate — as if the twister that blew Judy into the Hollywood spotlight also misplaced her early childhood home.
The late 19th-century house, which was purposely moved from its original location, sits connected by an enclosed walkway to an unassuming building overflowing with memorabilia and artifacts tied to the star’s public and private life.
I arrived at the museum amid this renewed interest and commotion surrounding Judy to find a parking lot full and a ruby red sign perched against the building’s exterior near the entrance. It inquired in bold white letters: Who stole the Ruby Slippers?
As I paid for my ticket, I was instructed to begin my tour in the museum's showcase-filled main room, which houses an array of Judy’s personal belongings and props from “The Wizard of Oz” film.
And, of course, the Ruby Slippers too. Well, a replica of the red sequined kitten heels.
With a police investigation still ongoing, the shoes remain evidence and are locked away from the public. But nowadays, the thievery is more an enduring question of whodunit and occasionally still lures the wannabe crime sleuth to town.
Although intrigued by the crime, I intended to leave the sleuthing to the professionals for this trip. I was far more interested in discovering the life of a woman whose iconic role as Dorothy Gale inspired my childhood self and millions (perhaps billions) of other children — and even adults — to think beyond the rainbow.
I ventured farther into the room to discover an antique carriage once owned by Abraham Lincoln during his presidency, which was used in the film to cart Dorothy and her friends to the Wash and Brush Up Co. before meeting the Wizard of Oz. Many may remember that it was pulled by a white horse that magically turned red.
It’s funny how nostalgia is triggered despite years of not thinking of that particular memory, but upon seeing the carriage, I felt an abundance of it. As a child, I was awe-struck by the Horse of a Different Color (I just recently learned it was covered in a Jell-O powder paste, which explains the licking) and seeing the prop recaptured a memory I had for a time forgotten.
I continued on down a yellow (brick road) path, which led into Judy’s childhood home. The house was restored 25-years-ago and was decorated in a traditional 1920s design and according to those who remembered the interior while the toddler lived there. Currently, the home is showing serious signs of wear and tear from age and weather, so there is a GoFundMe set up for another planned restoration.
As I began to wrap up my tour of the Judy Garland Museum — there is also a Children’s Discovery Museum on the opposite side, but I felt I exceeded the target age — a little girl dashed through the entrance with her grandfather trailing behind her — attempting to keep up with her fervor to enter the encased world of Judy Garland.
“We’re back again,” the grandfather excitedly told the lady at the front desk. “This is where she wants to come every time she visits.”
In “The Wizard of Oz’s” ending, Dorothy wakes up from a concussed fantastical dream and learns the Land of Oz was only delusion. Yet despite Hollywood’s attempt to bring fantasy back to reality, people have still continued to believe Dorothy’s experience was real.
And so did Judy: “I've always taken 'The Wizard of Oz' very seriously, you know. I believe in the idea of the rainbow. And I've spent my entire life trying to get over it.”
So, when a grandfather and granddaughter both eagerly race into a museum they’ve frequented many times before, it’s a special sign that the magic and imagination inspired by Judy has others continuing their search for their own rainbow.
If you go:
What: Judy Garland Museum
Where: 2727 S Pokegama Ave, Grand Rapids
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Fridays and Saturdays: Oct. 1 to May 15
Daily: May 16 to Sept. 30
To donate to the restoration: GoFundMe