THE NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM . . . (SMITHSONIAN, THAT IS!)
by John Fricke
[Above: The Smithsonian’s pair of Ruby Slippers – newly-conserved, protected, and in an environmentally-controlled casing – were revealed and celebrated for the first time at a private reception and party last Thursday night, October 18th. The shoes were an absolute magnet for the two hundred invited guests at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. (The next morning, Judy Garland’s famed footwear went back on public display for the first time in nineteen months.)]
What words best describe last Thursday night at the Smithsonian?
These might be some:
Elegant. Magical. Classy.
It was a beautiful, exclusive triptych of an event: the simultaneous opening of the Ray Dolby Gateway to American Culture, the Nicholas F. and Eugenia Taubman Hall of Music, and the reappearance of that unique icon of both pop culture and song . . . The Ruby Slippers.
Just two hundred guests were invited to participate in the evening; perhaps forty of us attended the ribbon-cutting that officially opened the wing at 6:30 p.m. Another one-hundred-and-fifty arrived to attend the 7 – 10 p.m. reception, which featured a special presentation honoring the Dolby and Taubman families — plus musical programming — from 7:30 – 8:30.
I was fortunate to be present, as I’d participated — on-camera and off — in the Museum’s Kickstarter Campaign of 2016 to “Keep Them Ruby.” At that time, funds were (swiftly!) offered by the public to aid in the conservation of the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer pumps that have long since become legend. A year later, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to join in meet-and-greet breakfasts and tours with Kickstarter contributors who’d selected such a premium in exchange for their donations; there was also a lengthy international video chat for several fans who’d opted for that experience.
Thus, last Thursday evening was the culmination of a lot of work, investigation, science, creativity, research, support, cooperation, conversation, and camaraderie on the part of many, many people. To attend the debut/launch/re-premiere of the shoes as a sort of climax to the mass effort was extraordinary for me, and my first “move” that night will come as no surprise to anyone reading here. Once the ribbon was cut, I quietly and directly walked to what we’ll call “The Oz Room.” There I enjoyed a private, first-personal-glance, few minutes with the Ruby Slippers; such an experience would be difficult to top. The suddenly silent, rest-of-the-world-gone-away fantasy of Oz once again became the particular, spiritual home it often is for countless people — and has been for me since age five.
The shoes have been [re]established in their own cool, dark, and large room, on a platform covered in glass, with maximum space around the case for simultaneous viewing by many. The walls inside and out of the gallery — even the flooring of the new wing — are “mural-ized” with OZ concepts and silhouettes: poppies, yellow bricks, Dorothy & Toto, etc. In The Oz Room itself, the walls display additional Ozian touches: motion picture dialogue quotations, scene stills, and photographs of the shoe-conservation process. (Also on display: Ray Bolger’s own “Scarecrow” hat, gifted — with his original costume — to the Smithsonian by the actor’s wife, Gwen, after Bolger’s passing in 1987. A Glinda wand, used by Billie Burke in an off-set photo shoot but not seen in the actual OZ film, is on view, as well.)
[While only Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow hat is seen in the current Smithsonian exhibition, their archive actually boasts his complete 1939 costume. It’s shown here, cushioned in its protective wrapping and file drawer at the Museum.]
In three different areas of the Museum across the evening, there was live music. A children’s chorale of scores of voices sang Broadway show tunes in the main foyer of the building to greet arriving guests. The vocalists were rehearsing Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” – seemingly all the verses and choruses! – when I entered, which evoked an instant “no place like home” emotion here. Both the Smithsonian’s individual chamber and jazz ensembles performed as part of the official programming in the new third floor music hall, offering selections that ranged from an excerpt of a Bach Brandenburg concerto to Duke Ellington’s melody for “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart” and the Harold Arlen/E. Y. Harburg “Over the Rainbow.” Finally, in the spacious promenade around the third-floor west wing, a cabaret vocalist and her accompanists also shared “Rainbow,” plus “Tomorrow” and other standards. Every performer and aggregation were beyond excellent. (Plus, the food and drink were superlative; the crowd beautifully dressed!)
Yet, despite all of that – not to mention the initial one-on-one with the shoes — the moment[s] that resonated most happily here came across the rest of the evening. Apart from two young preteen girls, all of the invited attendees were adults: a few in their twenties but otherwise older. Being in the presence of The Ruby Slippers, however, they were once again reduced (all of ’em!) to happy childhood. There was complete awe, silence, fascination, and curiosity in the manner in which they entered The Oz Room, gingerly (in some cases) approached the case, and walked around the slippers on display. There followed muted comments and marveling . . . and then, as if on cue (or as if a dam had burst), there was eager, enthusiastic conversation. Virtually everybody seemed happily compelled to share the special — and apparently unforgettable — impact that the amalgam of MGM, Judy, and L. Frank Baum’s THE WIZARD OF OZ has had on them.
And a blessed privilege to be part of it these past thirty months! Thank you, Smithsonian and Warner Bros.!
[Okay, it’s not OZ! But I know full-well that we have some first-rate, first-class Garland devotees among the readers of this blog. And to be found amongst the Smithsonian’s massive holdings is her immediately identifiable waitress garb from MGM’s Academy Award-winning musical, THE HARVEY GIRLS (1945). It was donated to the Museum by the film’s director, George Sidney.]
[Photographs courtesy Ryan Lintelman.]