All things Oz are perennially popular, but the surviving costumes from the 1939 classic film are also worth riches. Film costumes come closest to the skin of the actors, and these iconic costumes from one of the most beloved movies of all times have turned into gold. They are such treasures as the Ruby Slippers, Judy Garland’s gingham pinafore, the Cowardly Lion suit of Bert Lahr, and the vestiges of costumes from the Wicked Witch, the Winkies and the Munchkins. What happened to these costumes after the film wrapped? And what has been their own path down the yellow brick road? Their story is just as fascinating as the movie itself. Fasten your seat-belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The costumes for The Wizard of Oz were designed by Adrian and fabricated at the MGM Studio Wardrobe Department, as will be covered in a future post. The fate of the Oz costumes, as with all the other MGM costumes post-production, was to go into storage in the three-story wardrobe building at the MGM studio lot in Culver City. The intention for virtually all studio costumes was that they could be re-used in another production. Even with very unique costumes like those from Oz, they might be used again in a sequel. The book the film was based on:The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, itself went through several sequels. Occasionally, costumes could be used for publicity, and indeed in 1939 the Ruby Slippers went on a publicity tour, and MGM decided to contribute the pair as a prize for the girl winner of a high school “10 Best Movies of 1939” writing contest. One boy in that contest won the gavel from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and one girl, Roberta Jeffries from Memphis Tennessee won the Ruby Slippers. But the rest of the costumes: Dorothy’s pinafore, the Wicked Witch costume, the Cowardly Lion lion-skin, and others, were hung on Wardrobe’s costume-racks that stretched for hundreds of feet. Some didn’t survive. The Tin-Man costume was just a bunch of made-up parts that were likely just thrown away. The Scarecrow costume, deemed unusable for anything else, was saved by Ray Bolger. And in the end, there were no Oz sequels, thus the costumes languished and were largely forgotten.
When Television became popular, the search for content led quickly to the broadcast of old movies. The first showing of The Wizard of Oz on TV occurred on November 3, 1956. Even in black and white, it produced a tidal wave of viewers, and it has been shown yearly ever since. This eventually resulted in Oz being the most-watched movie in history. But the very popularity of television-viewing, and other factors, led to the demise of the old studio-system. By the late 1960s having gone through several owners and at an all-time low, the assets of MGM were viewed as just properties to be sold off, or if valueless, to be discarded. Thus Ted Turner bought MGM and kept the pre-1970 film library, Kirk Kirkorian bought the name rights of MGM to be used for Las Vegas hotels, and several of the back lots were sold off for future housing developments. The MGM management at the time didn’t think the costumes were worth enough even to sell, but maybe there was some value in the props. David Weisz of the eponymous auction company, knew that Kirkorian was interested in selling off assets, and made MGM an offer of $1.5 million for all the props and costumes, which was accepted, and Weisz held the auction on the MGM lot. It was the biggest bazaar in L.A.’s history. One should bear in mind the context for the rest of the story: the David Weicz company bought all of MGM’s costumes for something like $1 apiece, and originally thought of a bazaar sale direct to the public for prices just above that.
MGM David Weisz Wardrobe catalog Along the way the Weisz Company got some advise to auction the notable costumes separately. The MGM Wardrobe inventory consisted of an estimated 350,000 costumes. How to go about deciding which ones to find and catalog, and which ones to sell as cheap odd lots? One costumer stepped forward to take on the job: Kent Warner. He had worked in wardrobe at several studios and was apparently working for MGM at the time. He was passionate about saving Hollywood’s heritage. Whether MGM delegated him for this job or the auctioneer David Weisz did, nobody seems to know. But Warner set about with diligence to scour MGM’s wardrobe storage and to find the most important costumes in its inventory. In a later newspaper article, Kent Warner was quoted as saying, “I’m the only person in the world that knows the story of the Ruby Slippers…. I discovered the Ruby Slippers.” And so he did, as well as the gingham pinafore that Judy Garland wore as Dorothy. Various stories were born on where and how he found them, all well documented in Rhys Thomas’s book, The Ruby Slippers of Oz. Some of the stories made the search sound like the expedition to find King Tut’s tomb. Nonetheless, the pair of slippers and the Dorothy pinafore were dutifully cataloged among 1000 other costumes (400 others were subsequently added), and went up for sale at the MGM auction in 1970. Also in the auction was the hat from the Wicked Witch, and the lion costume worn by Bert Lahr. Kent Warner himself designed the pre-sale display of many of these classic costumes. When the auction was held, the Ruby Slippers set the modern record for a piece of Hollywood memorabilia: $15,000. This made national news.
Roberta Jeffries Bauman of Memphis read the papers, shocked that her treasured pair of Ruby Slippers were not the only ones. She had been placing them on exhibit at various schools for decades, and was locally famous as their owner. The purchaser of the MGM $15K pair was less than pleased when Roberta’s story made national news as well. He thought his was the only pair. In 1979 he donated his pair to the Smithsonian, where they have been a stellar attraction ever since. But unknown at the time of the MGM auction, Kent Warner had found at least three other pairs of Ruby Slippers, and at least two other Dorothy dresses. These treasures he kept for himself.
MGM ladies wardrobe in the 1930s. The MGM auction opened the public’s eye to the nascent field of Hollywood collectibles. The $15,000 spent on the Ruby Slippers made headlines. Previously, there had virtually been no Hollywood memorabilia collectors because there had been no supply of Hollywood collectibles. But in fact at the low tide of Hollywood studio interest in their material legacy (though it seems that tide was always low), Kent Warner and a few of his collecting colleagues had been running a sort of underground railroad for iconic but nonetheless absconded costumes. As often happens with desired objects hitting high prices, the supply pipeline opened up, and soon other studios like Paramount Pictures started selling their props and costumes. Kent Warner had been selling costumes for several years, and he later decided to sell his treasured Ruby Slippers. These were the pair used for close-ups, the ones the Wicked Witch of the East wore when Dorothy’s house fell on her, which then became Dorothy’s. These had dyed red soles, while others had felt applied to the sole to muffle sound. They were also in better condition than the other two. Warner placed this pair at auction but they never reached his reserve price. In ill health from AIDS, he then consigned them with Christie’s East in 1981, where they only fetched $12,000. Kent Warner thought they were worth as much as $75,000. He never lived long enough to see such prices.
So which Oz costumes had Kent Warner discovered while doing inventory at MGM, costumes that he kept? No one now knows or has publicly stated how many Ruby Slippers had been made for The Wizard of Oz. Roberta had her pair. The anonymous purchaser at the MGM auction had his pair. And Kent Warner had the prize pair that he displayed in his home for years. Plus there was an “Arabian test pair” that Judy Garland modeled but had never worn in the movie. This pair was purchased by Debbie Reynolds, but not at the MGM auction. Collector Michael Shaw had also purchased a pair directly from Kent Warner. There may have been two other pairs found but that were never accounted for. Judy Garland also had several pinafores made for her. Two of these dresses were “test” dresses made of solid blue cotton with polka dot trim, one with a blue blouse, and each one varied by the darkness of the blue. One of these was worn in early shooting but after director Richard Thorpe was fired, George Cukor took over and changed Judy’s hair and used a different Adrian-designed blue and white gingham pinafore with a white blouse. Judy also had a stand-in, and she presumably had her own pinafore.
For the sepia-toned opening of the film, a gingham pinafore without any color was used. This one was gray and white. The only Dorothy dress sold at the MGM auction was the blue and white gingham pinafore, the one everyone remembers. It sold for $1000. The Cowardly Lion costume sold for $2,400. It was missing its front paw mittens and it’s mane wig. The Wicked Witch’s hat sold for $450, and her dress for $350. Frank Morgan’s Wizard suit sold for $650. The main wardrobe auction was held on May 3, 1970 in Stage 27, where much of The Wizard of Oz was filmed. Judy Garland had died the previous June. Several years after Kent Warner died, Roberta Bauman decided to sell her Ruby Slippers at auction. She had treasured them since her youth but then thought they could become someone else’s responsibility. Their sale would also become her retirement money. They sold in October 1988 at Christie’s East for $165,000. Roberta was amazed. Since then, three of the above-mentioned pairs have also come up for auction. One pair was purchased for a major museum soon to be launched, and another pair was stolen from another museum. The Cowardly Lion costume and the Witch’s hat have also been re-sold. Prices for some of these pieces are a million dollars or more. I will continue with these amazing stories in the next post of the Silver Screen Modes. Kent Warner’s own words in a Los Angeles Times interview in 1977 best expresses the magic of the Ruby Slippers: ” I think the film The Wizard of Oz released in 1939 was the ultimate representation of home, family, solidarity, well-being, security – at the same time there was the madness and the fantasy of Oz. All I can think of is the heels clicking and Judy saying, ‘There’s no place like home.’ “ Or as Glinda the Good Witch of the North said to Dorothy, “Keep tight inside of them – their magic must be very powerful, or she wouldn’t want them so badly!”