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Judy Garland: I’m a ‘plain American girl from Grand Rapids, Minnesota’

Somewhere in the Midwest was a land called Oz. A little girl in a blue-checked dress danced her way there from another land called Kansas. But the little girl, whom the whole world knows as Judy Garland, really came from Grand Rapids, Minnesota. It is where she spent her earliest years, in a comfortable, nicely furnished house, which she was to remember fondly. She recalled snowball fights, making snow angels, painful ear surgery, and sitting on the back porch watching her sisters offer neighborhood kids a bite of fresh whipped cream which turned out to be Ivory soap suds!

“I do remember it was terribly happy, the only kind of normal, carefree time in my life.” she recalled.

Publicity picture of the Gumm sisters, Mary Jane, Virginia and Frances. Frances became a star, better known as Judy Garland. Photo by Eric Edstrom

Frances Ethel Gumm, who was to become Judy Garland, was born on June 10,1922, at Itasca Hospital in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. She and her older sisters, Mary Jane and Virginia, were troupers from childhood. Their parents, Frank and Ethel Gumm, owned the New Grand Theatre, a movie house which, like many of its time, was equipped to present live entertainment. As a family, they performed song-and-dance shows all over the Iron Range. When the parents performed, the girls sat out front and applauded loudly, and the elders returned the favor for their act; it was their first practical training in “the show business.” Little Frances made her debut at age 2 1/2, singing with such determination and at such length that her father had to throw her over his shoulder and carry her off.

In 1926 the family moved to California from the comfortable, white clapboard house they had bought in 1917. It had been built in 1892 by a steamboat captain, which probably accounts for its “widow’s walk.” The house has since been moved twice to arrive at last on the grounds of the Judy Garland Museum and Children’s Discovery Center in Grand Rapids.

Museum visitors see photographs of the many stars, including Mickey Rooney, June Alyson, and Margaret Hamilton, the original Wicked Witch of the West, who performed at the annual Judy Garland Festival. They learn that George Jessel turned Gumm into Garland, after audiences laughed when the family was introduced in Lake Tahoe, and that Judy took her first name from the Hoagy Carmichael hit song Judy.

The museum features endless memorabilia, including a photograph of Judy’s fifth-grade class at Lancaster Grammar School, Baby Gumm’s early dancing shoes, her sterling silver inkstand and serving tray, costumes real and re-created, and an actual spear which The Wizard of Oz fans immediately recognize as one carried by a Winkie as he guarded the witch’s castle.

The star of the collection is the carriage which carried Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow to the Wash and Brush Up Company before meeting the mighty Wizard. Mounted on a glass turntable, it is an actual barouche once owned by Abraham Lincoln. The carriage’s enormous whiffletree is also on display.

Near the front entrance once was displayed a pair of the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy as she ventured into Oz. Sadly, there are only replicas in their place, since the originals were stolen in 2005. Thieves broke a window, and “the most iconic footwear in American history” was gone, leaving one lone sequin and baffled police. A search involved two dives into abandoned iron mine pits, a visit from the crew of TV’s Expedition Unknown, and the taped confession of a prison snitch, none of which revealed the truth. Then in July 2018, the FBI found the slippers unharmed in a hotel room and are holding them for evidence until the thief or thieves are found.

Visitors who dare go past the witch as she cackles and screams threats involving “Your little dog, too!” find themselves in Judy’s childhood home. The original furniture is long gone, but the house is furnished with an authentic re-imagining of a baby grand, elaborate buffet, fringed lamp shades, kitchenware, toys, and the sewing machine with which Ethel sewed clothing and costumes. Mary Jane and Virginia had a room of their own; their young sister slept with their parents. They see the staircase up and down which Ethel ran, singing at the top of her lungs, and the stair landing where the girls rehearsed, effectively their first stage.

In 1958, to mark Minnesota’s centennial, Judy Garland came to Minneapolis to perform at the University’s Memorial Stadium. She had a bit of stage fright as she launched into her opening number and then asked the band, consisting of 32 hand-picked members of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, to start over. “I missed the lyric. Isn’t this terrible? I was trying so hard to be good.”

Her glitch was understandable—the day was broiling hot, she was recovering from laryngitis, and her audience consisted of over 20,000 spectators, including U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and assorted representatives and royalty from all over Europe. A glass of orange juice revived her, and she was note-perfect as she sang her standards: You Made Me Love You, Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody, For Me and My Gal, and of course Somewhere Over the Rainbow. She finished up misty-eyed, and probably many of her listeners did as well.

Judy Garland’s career is well-documented, from girlhood successes to worldwide fame, to addiction, to her death at age 47, delicately described by a London coroner as “an incautious overdose of sleeping pills.” But her hometown remained close to her heart all of her life. In 1958 she wrote in a letter to a film magazine, “Basically, I am still Judy Garland, a plain American girl from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, who’s had a lot of good breaks, a lot of tough breaks and who loves you with all her heart.” As visitors to her museum can attest, many people love her with all their hearts, too.

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