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Judy Garland Museum ends icon's centennial year with 'amazing' land acquisition

A piece of land next to Garland's childhood home was at risk of being lost to commercial development. "It was a shocker," the museum's executive director said about the $45,000 Superior Choice Credit Union donation that made the purchase possible.

People walking in the snow.
Breanna Wessberg, community engagement coordinator for Superior Choice Credit Union, carries a large check as she and others from the credit union and Grand Rapids' Judy Garland Museum leave for a check presentation in front of Garland’s childhood home Nov. 14.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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GRAND RAPIDS — Judy Garland was already a star, and on the cusp of becoming an icon, when she returned to her hometown in 1938. Here in the seat of Itasca County, the 15-year-old wanted to meet the doctor who delivered her, reconnect with a childhood friend, and see the house where she lived for the first four years of her life.

JG_Grand Rapids 1938.jpg
Judy Garland in 1938, about to get off the train in Minneapolis on her way to visit her original hometown of Grand Rapids.
Contributed / Judy Garland Museum

"In one interview later," said John Kelsch, "she said, 'You think that house is so big. When you go back to see it, you realize that it wasn't really that big.'"

It was big enough for Ethel and Francis Gumm to raise three daughters, who were already regionally famed performers when the family moved to California in 1926. Even as a small child, the budding star born under the name of Frances Gumm performed at theaters in Grand Rapids, Hibbing, Virginia and Bemidji. She also performed on the staircase landing in a house that's now preserved as part of the Judy Garland Museum.

This year marks the centennial of Judy Garland's birth, and it's been a wild ride for the Grand Rapids museum. A summer birthday celebration for the late Garland was a great success, but around that time the museum received word that the wooded patch of land where the party was taking place would be sold for potential commercial development.

A restored 1920s-era living room.
The living room of Judy Garland’s childhood home Nov. 14. Garland and her two older sisters performed for family and friends on the stairway landing.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The land was formerly owned by the museum, which had to sell the parcel in 2010 to make mortgage payments. "It's very difficult for a nonprofit to make payments," said board chair Ray Nikkel, noting that fundraising appeals for basic operating expenses can be a tough sell.

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"It was what had to be done at that time," said Kelsch, the museum's founding executive director and now its curator. The land's unnamed buyers, sympathetic to the museum's plight, allowed the institution to continue using the space freely. The buyers' decision, this year, to sell opened the possibility that a new owner would build on the land, depriving the museum of green space for outdoor events.

Judy Garland Museum parcel.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Kelsch, Nikkel, current Executive Director Janie Heitz, and other staff gathered at the museum on the snowy morning of Nov. 14 to accept a big check — literally. Donning their winter coats, they stepped out in front of Garland's childhood house to join a delegation from Superior Choice Credit Union bearing a poster-sized check in the amount of $45,000.

The Grand Rapids, Minnesota, museum is hoping to raise $125,000 by Nov. 4 to purchase a plot of land next to the movie legend's childhood home. A cash offer from another buyer is on the table.

"Go get that land!" read the check's memo field.

Breanna Wessberg, the credit union's community engagement coordinator, was home relaxing on a Friday night when she read a News Tribune article about the museum's urgent appeal for funds to match a $125,000 cash offer for the land. "I was like, 'Oh, my gosh,'" said Wessberg. "We talked all weekend, and got with them on Monday."

Headshot of a man.
Tim Foster.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"We called and said, 'Hey, is there a way we can get a meeting real quick with you guys?'" said Superior Choice CEO Tim Foster. "For us, it was just one of those things where we said, 'OK, we can make an impact.'"

Several additional major donors, and dozens of smaller contributions, added up to reach the total purchase price. Superior Choice "just stepped up to the plate and said, 'We'll get you to the final finish line,'" said Heitz. "It was really a shocker, just pretty amazing."

Reclaiming the land marks the latest step in a long evolution for the museum, which started in 1975 as "one little room in the Old (Central) School," said Kelsch. "Jackie Dingmann had her personal collection."

Man holds a framed photos in a dining room.
John Kelsch, senior consultant and curator at the Judy Garland Museum, holds a picture of Judy Garland and her older sisters in the dining room of Garland’s childhood home Nov. 14.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

At that time, Garland's childhood house was still in private hands, a family home just as it had been since its 1892 construction. In 1991, local Garland fan Jon Miner purchased the house, and in 1994 it was moved to its current location on a commercial stretch of South Pokegama Avenue, also known as U.S. Highway 169.

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With Kelsch heading the Judy Garland Museum as a freshly incorporated nonprofit, the house was restored to its 1920s appearance and opened to the public. In 2003, the museum opened a new $2.2 million building that gave it additional display space and a jointly operated Children's Discovery Museum.

A children's play area.
Part of the Children’s Discovery Museum.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Speaking to the News Tribune ahead of that facility's opening, Kelsch told the News Tribune that a rare pair of ruby slippers worn by Garland in "The Wizard of Oz" wouldn't be on display. "They're just too expensive to have them here," Kelsch said at the time.

He wasn't wrong. Two years later, the slippers were on loan to the museum when they were stolen in a crime that drew international headlines. The slippers were finally recovered in 2018, but the culprits remain unknown.

The mystery of who stole the treasured Wizard of Oz ruby red slippers from Judy Garland's childhood home in 2005 consumed the town of Grand Rapids for more than a decade. With the slippers finally found, they still want answers.

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

"They were on that white pedestal," Kelsch explained last week, standing in the Judy Garland Gallery and indicating the slipper thieves' trajectory. "That's the door they broke in."

Kelsch hasn't given up hope that the ruby slippers, owned by private collector Michael Shaw, will return home like their wearer once did. "We'd like to get them back for Minnesota," he said.

Judy Garland Museum displays.
A “Wizard of Oz” poster, photos from the movies, and the carriage used in the movie are among the items on display 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 motley crew rode through the Emerald City in the movie. Believed to have once been a conveyance for Abraham Lincoln, the carriage twirls on a mirrored platform. Cases nearby contain items including a spear wielded onscreen by one of the Wicked Witch's guards, and a dress worn by Garland during an "Oz" costume test.

As the generations pass by, said front desk staffer Sue Plagemann, it's Garland's 1939 role as 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 her claim to fame," said Plagemann.

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Plagemann was hard at work last week, taking an inventory of shirts on sale at the museum's gift shop. Items commemorating the centennial year sell well, she said, but a perennial go-to souvenir is a rectangular magnet with a picture of the house and the "Oz" quote "There's no place like home."

A Judy Garland Museum display.
A “Wizard of Oz” movie poster is reflected on a case holding a test dress worn by Judy Garland during the movie’s production as well as a test photo of her. The ruby slippers are reproductions.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The gift shop also sells costumes, including some that were worn in a 2014 photo shoot that smashed the Guinness World Record for the largest single group of costumed "Wizard of Oz" characters; 1,093 cosplayers of all ages squeezed into the shot.

"That was quite an undertaking," remembered Nikkel. "If (people) weren't in costume, we couldn't let them in, because if you had one person not right, then Guinness would disqualify the whole thing. So we had a gatekeeper, and (your costume) had to be good enough."

Nikkel walked with pride through the Children's Discovery Center, a sprawling indoor play area with an entire town full of small-scale 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 displaying a new shingle.

"This will be the credit union," said Nikkel. The new theme acknowledges Superior Choice's sizable donation. "I said to Tim, 'You'll have 6-year-olds already doing business with you!'"

Museum interior.
The Children’s Discovery Museum is run jointly with the Judy Garland Museum.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Katie Ryan, a museum board member for the past two years, came to the check presentation carrying one of her children. As Ryan spoke with a reporter, her child licked a lollipop in proper Munchkin fashion.

"It's just a great spot for our little community," said Ryan. "Especially for the winter months, which are so long here, to have a space for our kids to play and grow and learn."

Ryan grew up in Grand Rapids, and she remembers coming to Garland birthday celebrations attended by actors who played Munchkins in the movie. Losing the land would have been "a huge loss," she said. "For Judy's birthday, it would have been a huge hit for us (to take). And then also, we had plans to develop it."

Headshot of a woman.
Janie Heitz.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Before sharing any specifics about what that development might look like, Nikkel looked around the room at his colleagues. "Should I say?" Heitz encouraged him to go for it.

"We have a thought about a miniature golf course with a 'Wizard of Oz' theme," Nikkel continued. "Judy Garland sprinkled in there, kids' education stuff sprinkled in there as part of it."

The mini-golf course would also function as an advertisement for the museum. It would be "lit up," said Nikkel, "so when you drove down (Highway) 169 you'd see it, and it would also help, maybe, create some cash flow that would help (fund) the museum."

A for sale sign near a house.
A “For Sale” sign stands on property next to Judy Garland's childhood home in Grand Rapids on Nov. 14.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Heitz added that a mini-golf course could help bring the museum's two sides together. "We have a lot of group trips that come here because of the Judy side, and the children's side. A lot of grandparents come here with grandkids. It's something that everybody can participate in. Our community just needs more to do."

Little Frances Gumm, who entertained her own Grand Rapids community by standing on her staircase and singing for her neighbors, might have agreed. A hundred years after her birth, her spirit is still bringing that community together.

Standing in the house Judy Garland came all the way back from Hollywood to revisit, Kelsch paused to reflect. "It was Frank Sinatra who said, 'We will all be forgotten, but never Judy.'"

Timberlake Lodge has become the site of an annual pilgrimage for Minnesotans who are on the trail of Sasquatch. Numbering in the hundreds, Minnesota Bigfoot Conference attendees are convinced that giant bipeds are afoot in the Northland, just out of sight.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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