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The Judy Garland Museum marks the icon’s centenary with ‘amazing’ land acquisition in Minnesota – Bemidji Pioneer

GRAND RAPIDS, Minnesota — Judy Garland was already a star and on the verge of becoming an icon when she returned to her hometown in 1938. Here in the Itasca County capital, the 15-year-old wanted to meet the doctor who gave birth to her, reconnect with a childhood friend and see the house where she lived for the first four years of her life.

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Judy Garland in 1938, just getting off the train in Minneapolis to visit her original hometown of Grand Rapids.

Post / Judy Garland Museum

“In an interview later,” John Kelsch said, “she said, ‘You think this house is so big.

It was big enough for Ethel and Francis Gumm to raise three daughters who were already locally renowned artists when the family moved to California in 1926. From an early age, the rising star, who was born under the name Frances Gumm, performed in theaters in Grand Rapids, Hibbing, Virginia and Bemidji. She also performed on the landing in a house that survives today as part of the Judy Garland Museum.

A restored 1920s living room.

The living room of Judy Garland’s childhood home on November 14th. Garland and her two older sisters performed for family and friends on the landing.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

This year marks Judy Garland’s centenary, and it’s been a wild ride for the museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. A summer birthday party for the late Garland was a huge success, but around this time the museum received word that the wooded piece of land on which the party was held would be sold for potential commercial development.

The property was formerly owned by the museum, which had to sell the parcel in 2010 to meet mortgage payments. “It’s very difficult for a nonprofit to make payments,” said CEO Ray Nikkel, noting that fundraising for basic operating expenses can be difficult to sell.

“It had to be done back then,” said Kelsch, the museum’s founding executive director and current curator. The unnamed purchasers of the property, sympathetic to the museum’s plight, allowed the institution to continue using the space freely. The buyers’ decision to sell that year opened up the possibility that a new owner would build on the property, depriving the museum of green space for outdoor events.

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Gary Meader/Duluth News Tribune

Kelsch, Nikkel, current CEO Janie Heitz, and other employees gathered at the museum on the snowy morning of November 14 to collect a large check—literally. They donned their winter coats and stepped outside of Garland’s childhood home to join a delegation from Superior Choice Credit Union carrying a poster-sized check for $45,000.

“Go and get the land!” Read the note on the check.

Breanna Wessberg, the credit union’s community engagement coordinator, was at home on a Friday night, relaxing as she read a News Tribune article about the museum’s urgent appeal to provide funds for a $125,000 bid for the country. “I was like, ‘Oh my God,'” Wessberg said. “We talked all weekend and got together with them on Monday.”

headshot of a man.

Tim Forest.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

“We called and said, ‘Hey, is there any way we can meet you guys real quick?'” said Tim Foster, CEO of Superior Choice. “For us, it was just one of those things where we were like, ‘OK, we can make a difference.'”

Several other major donors and dozens of smaller contributions added up to the total purchase price. Superior Choice “just stepped up to the plate and said, ‘We’ll take you to the last finish line,'” Heitz said. “It was really a shock, just quite amazing.”

Reclaiming the land marks the latest step in a long development of the museum that began in 1975 as “a small room in the old (main) school,” Kelsch said. “Jackie Dingmann had her personal collection.”

At this time, Garland’s childhood home was still privately owned, a family home as it had been since it was built in 1892. In 1991, local Garland fan Jon Miner purchased the home, and in 1994 it was moved to its current location on a commercial stretch of South Pokegama Avenue, also known as US Highway 169.

When Kelsch ran the Judy Garland Museum as a newly formed non-profit organization, the home was restored to its 1920’s appearance and opened to the public. In 2003, the museum opened a new $2.2 million building, giving it additional exhibition space and a jointly operated Children’s Discovery Museum.

A children's playground.

Part of the Children’s Discovery Museum.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

Speaking to the News Tribune ahead of the opening of this facility, Kelsch told the News Tribune that a rare pair of ruby ​​red slippers Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz would not be on display. “They’re just too expensive to have here,” Kelsch said at the time.

He wasn’t wrong. Two years later, the slippers were loaned to the museum when they were stolen in a crime that made international headlines. The slippers were eventually recovered in 2018, but the culprits remain unknown.

Today, the mystery of the slipper heist is part of what draws visitors to Grand Rapids. “It certainly got more publicity than anything else,” Kelsch said.

“They were on this white pedestal,” Kelsch explained last week while standing at the Judy Garland Gallery and charting the trajectory of the slipper thieves. “That’s the door they broke into.”

Kelsch has not given up hope that private collector Michael Shaw’s ruby ​​red slippers will return home as their wearer once did. “We’d love to bring her back for Minnesota,” he said.

Exhibitions at the Judy Garland Museum.

A Wizard of Oz poster, photos from the films, and the carriage used in the film are among the exhibits at the Judy Garland Museum.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

The museum’s most striking artifact is the four-wheeled carriage that Garland and her ragtag crew rode through the Emerald City in the film. Said to have once been a form of transportation for Abraham Lincoln, the carriage whirls on a mirrored platform. Nearby crates contain items including a spear being wielded by one of the Wicked Witch’s on-screen guards and a dress worn by Garland during an “Oz” costume test.

Over the generations, receptionist Sue Plagemann said, it’s Garland’s role as 1939’s Dorothy Gale that increasingly dominates her legacy. Older fans remember Garland’s extensive filmography, including Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and A Star is Born (1954), but for “the new generation, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was their claim to fame” . said Plagemann.

Plagemann has been hard at work last week taking stock of the shirts for sale in the museum’s gift shop. Items commemorating the centenary sell well, she said, but a lasting souvenir is a rectangular magnet with a picture of the house and the “Oz” quote, “There’s no place like home.”

An exhibition at the Judy Garland Museum.

A Wizard of Oz movie poster is reflected on a suitcase containing a test dress worn by Judy Garland during the film’s production and a test photo of her. The ruby ​​slippers are reproductions.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

The gift shop also sells costumes, including some worn at a 2014 photo shoot that broke the Guinness World Record for largest single group of costumed Wizard of Oz characters; 1,093 cosplayers of all ages crowded into the recording.

“It was quite an undertaking,” Nikkel recalls. “If (people) weren’t in costume we couldn’t let them in because if one person wasn’t right Guinness would disqualify the whole thing. So we had a gatekeeper and (your costume) had to be good enough.”

Nikkel proudly walked through the Children’s Discovery Center, an expansive indoor play area with a whole city of tiny storefronts for imaginative play. There’s a grocery store, a doctor’s office, a fire station, a theater — and a flower shop that will soon be showcasing a new clapboard.

“That’s going to be the credit union,” Nikkel said. The new theme recognizes Superior Choice’s substantial donation. “I said to Tim, ‘You’re going to have 6-year-olds doing business with you!'”

Interior of the museum.

The Children’s Discovery Museum is operated jointly with the Judy Garland Museum.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

Katie Ryan, who has served on the museum’s board of directors for two years, came to the check presentation with one of her children. As Ryan spoke to a reporter, her child licked a lollipop in proper munchkin fashion.

“It’s just a great place for our small community,” Ryan said. “Especially for the winter months, which are so long here so that our children have space to play, grow and learn.”

Growing up in Grand Rapids, Ryan recalls coming to Garland’s birthday parties, which were attended by actors who played Munchkins in the film. Losing the country would have been “a huge loss,” she said. “For Judy’s birthday it would have been a smash hit for us (take away). And besides, we had plans to develop it.”

headshot of a woman.

Janie Heitz.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

Before sharing details of what this development might look like, Nikkel looked around the room at his colleagues. “Should I say?” Heitz encouraged him to do so.

“We were thinking about a Wizard of Oz themed mini-golf course,” Nikkel continued. “Judy Garland is interspersed in there, child-rearing material is interspersed as part of it.”

The miniature golf course would also act as a showcase for the museum. It would be “lit up,” Nikkel said, “so if you drove down (highway) 169 you would see it, and it might also help create a cash flow that would support (fund) the museum.”

Heitz added that a miniature golf course could help bring the two sides of the museum together. “We have a lot of group tours that come here for the Judy side and the kids side. Many grandparents come here with their grandchildren. It’s something anyone can participate in. Our community just needs to do more.”

Little Frances Gumm, who entertained her own congregation in Grand Rapids by standing on her steps and singing to her neighbors, might have agreed. A hundred years after her birth, her spirit still brings this community together.

As Judy Garland stood at the house, coming all the way back from Hollywood to revisit, Kelsch paused to think. “It was Frank Sinatra who said, ‘We will all be forgotten, but never Judy.'”

Man holding framed photos in a dining room.

John Kelsch, senior advisor and curator of the Judy Garland Museum, holds a picture of Judy Garland and her older sisters in the dining room of Garland’s childhood home on November 14.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

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