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In Minnesota, Judyland

By Cliff Terry
The Washington Post
Sunday, June 13, 1999; Page E02
   


Unlike the character in a song from the 1954 film "A Star Is Born," Judy Garland wasn't born in a trunk in the Princess Theater in Pocatello, Idaho, but in a hospital near a modest white-frame house in Grand Rapids, Minn.

Garland's Birthplace Historic House is now a year-round tourist attraction in Grand Rapids, where the future cult singer and unforgettable Dorothy spent the first four years of her life as Frances Ethel "Baby" Gumm (born 1922). The afternoon I was there, a volunteer vehemently disputed the rumor that the singer claimed she was from Grand Rapids, Mich. "Judy just loved Minnesota," the woman assured me. "She said it was the only time that her life was normal."

To her devotees, a journey to Judyland is all the more appropriate this year, which marks the 30th anniversary of her death and the 60th anniversary of the release of "The Wizard of Oz." This year on June 24-26, the folks who oversee the two-story house and rose garden will hold the 24th annual Judy Garland Festival. Among the guests will be four of the movie's Munchkins, including 80-year-old Ruth Duccini, the only Munchkin born in Minnesota, and one of 13 original Munchkins surviving.

Built in 1892 by a steamboat captain, the house has been moved twice--first in 1938, soon after Garland's triumphant return to her home town (her last) as a teenage movie star, and then in 1994 to its present site at 2727 U.S. Hwy. 169 south. First opened to visitors in the summer of 1995, it now attracts some 10,000 a year.

Outside the home is a Yellow Brick Road (actually, a sprawling dropcloth) on which visitors from Iowa and Texas to Ireland and Japan write inscriptions ("Judy--There's no place like home").

Through a self-guided tour, one learns that Frances's parents, Frank and Ethel, were vaudeville entertainers, that "Baby Gumm" was a sensation at age 2 1/2 at her father's New Grand Theater and that she and older sisters Mary Jane and Virginia sang and danced throughout the area until 1926, when their parents moved the "Gumm Sisters" act to California. One also discovers that Baby would sit in the parlor and endure an ear-ache remedy: socks filled with heated salt hanging over her ears. ("You'd look like a cocker spaniel," she remembered years later.)

A short distance away, at 19 NE Fourth St. in downtown Grand Rapids, there is also the Children's Museum, housing Garland memorabilia. (Ground is scheduled to be broken in 2000 for a $1.6 million Judy Garland Children's Discovery Museum, to be built next to the birthplace.) The present museum features such items as suede shoes worn by Garland in "Meet Me in St. Louis"; her floor-length sleeveless gown from "Easter Parade"; a poster in German for "Judgment at Nuremberg"; and a "Winkie" sword. (The Winkies guarded the Wicked Witch's castle.)

Unexpectedly, there is also a 1963 medication prescription. "It always becomes part of the story," says museum executive director John Kelsch. "We want people to understand that her death was caused by an accidental, incautious self-overdose of sleeping pills--which is what the coroner said. We preface that by saying that she had a lifelong problem with prescription medication. So many people think she was an alcoholic or took heroin, but that's just not true."

Kelsch says visitors are remarkably cross-generational. "There are children coming to see Dorothy's house, and teens who've suddenly discovered the music and films, and her older fans with their fond memories."

Garland died in London in 1969 at age 47. Five years earlier, she told an interviewer: "If we had stayed in Minnesota, my life might have been very much happier."

For information on the Judy Garland Festival and Birthplace: 1-800-664-JUDY, www.judygarland.com. Grand Rapids is 3 1/2 hours north of Minneapolis/St. Paul via I-35 and Minnesota 73, and an hour northwest of Duluth on U.S. 2. Five motels are within walking distance of the Garland birthplace. Chamber of Commerce: 1-800-472-6366, www.grandmn.com.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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