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Judy Garland’s long-lost ‘Wizard of Oz’ dress turns up at Catholic University

The Rev. Gilbert Hartke and a student with the Dorothy dress. It was a gift to the head of Catholic University’s drama department from actress Mercedes McCambridge in 1973. (Special Collections, Catholic University)
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Nearly half a century ago, a story in Catholic University’s student newspaper described a “precious gift” bestowed on the school by Oscar-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, then an artist-in-residence in the university’s drama department.

Here was a rare piece of Tinseltown memorabilia, a farm girl’s blue gingham dress, one of several — though not many — worn by Judy Garland in her role as Dorothy Gale in the classic 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz.” It wasn’t quite the famed ruby slippers, but the garment was a fascinating artifact just the same.

Garland, “the lonely, tired entertainer, often spoke of college and how ‘it all could have been different’ if she had made it there,” the 1973 story said. In donating the outfit, McCambridge alluded to the drug and alcohol addictions that had led to her “close friend” Garland’s death, and she hoped that the dress would be “a source of hope, strength and courage to the students,” as the reporter put it.

Well . . .

The precious gift got lost at some point, folded and placed inside a box like an old sweater and stuck away — eventually no one could remember where — in the drama department building on Catholic’s Northeast Washington campus.

Over the decades, people talked about it from time to time, wondering whatever became of Dorothy’s dress, until the ancient wardrobe item, meant to inspire, became almost mythical.

Now it is found.

“As soon as I popped the top off the box, I knew what it was,” Matt Ripa said Thursday, sounding as proud as the mayor of Munchkinland. “I saw that blue gingham and I just started laughing and laughing. I mean, I’m still laughing. Because I was shocked, holding a piece of Hollywood history right in my hands.”

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Ripa, a lecturer in the drama department, said he had been intrigued by the “legend” of the missing dress since 2014, when he began teaching at Catholic. He liked to poke around the building in his spare time, hoping he’d come upon it.

On June 7, while clearing out clutter for a building renovation, he reached for a box atop a rack of faculty mail slots near his desk. And there it was.

Attached to the box was a note from Thomas Donahue, a now-retired drama professor.

“I found this,” the missive said. Donahue, emptying his office before leaving the university last year, apparently had discovered the dress somewhere and put it in Ripa’s office, knowing of his interest. But Donahue neglected to mention in his note what “this” was. Ripa said someone evidently tossed the box on top of the mail slots without looking inside.

When he saw that gingham, Ripa said, “I yelled to one of my colleagues, ‘Get some gloves!’ ”

But is it the real thing?

We’ve got to verify it legally . . . positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably . . .

Ryan Lintelman, entertainment curator at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, was summoned to the drama department. In an interview Thursday, Lintelman said he knew of five authenticated Dorothy dresses from the film still in existence, all identical. The one at Catholic would make six.

Among other telltale characteristics, he said, a hidden pocket for Dorothy’s handkerchief was sewn into the right side of each dress, and the star’s name and a wardrobe number were discreetly penned on each outfit by what appears to have been the same hand. After examining the dress, Lintelman and two of his colleagues gave it a thumbs-up.

“It’s not in Kansas anymore,” the university declared in a news release, adding, “It can now be preserved in proper storage in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment” as part of the school’s “special collections.”

As for Lintelman, he couldn’t help feeling a bit of envy. The Smithsonian has a pair of Dorothy-worn ruby slippers, a film-used Scarecrow costume, a Technicolor camera from the “Oz” set and an original script — but no dress.

“We’d certainly be open to a transfer,” he said wistfully, “if that’s ever in the cards.”

The Smithsonian has collected nearly 155 million objects. Most are behind closed doors.

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