By John Lauritsen

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A northern Minnesota town is the childhood home of a movie star legend. Judy Garland would have turned 100 years old next year. In this week’s Finding Minnesota, John Lauritsen followed the Yellow Brick Road to the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids.

We all know the origin of that timeless song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But how many fans actually know the origin of the actress who sang it?

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“She was born Frances Ethel Gumm in the hospital,” said curator John Kelsch.

Before she changed her name to Judy Garland, “Baby Gumm” (as she was known) spent her formative years on the Iron Range where her vaudeville parents ran a movie theater. The youngest of three sisters, she was well on her way to stardom before her family left northern Minnesota for southern California.

“We can track her in Bemidji, Hibbing, Aitkin, singing in these different movie houses,” said Kelsch.

The Grand Rapids house Garland lived in still has the original hardwood floors and staircase, and the basement below holds a treasure trove of Garland artifacts.

Much of what you find downstairs are donations that curator Kelsch does his best to keep up with. That includes 200 of Garland’s personal audio tapes, many of which have never been listened to.

“We have 10, 20 years of work to do here with this collection,” said Kelsch, adding it doesn’t feel like work. “That’s the fun part.”

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What’s fun for the thousands of fans that visit the museum each year, is the history tour of Garland’s life. From “The Wizard of Oz” to “Easter Parade,” she starred in more than 30 feature films, a leading lady alongside leading men like Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire. Relics from her movies are everywhere.

But one of Garland’s most famous movie treasures is nowhere to be found. In 2005, thieves broke into the museum and stole the ruby slippers. Thanks to the police chief and the FBI, they were found in Minneapolis 13 years later. The museum hopes to get them back when the FBI closes their investigation.

“We actually have people who get somewhat teary-eyed when they walk through there because it’s so well done and beautiful,” executive director Janie Heitz said.

Heitz has been instrumental in promoting Garland’s legacy here and in California. Being tied to one of the most viewed films in history definitely helps. She just wants visitors to know that they’re not in Kansas anymore, they’re in Grand Rapids.

“She, in and of herself, is just a timeless person. Her life and legacy will live on for many more years to come,” said Heitz.

Garland actually visited Grand Rapids one last time in 1938, right before “The Wizard of Oz” was released.

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She passed away in 1969. Next June there will be a celebration at the museum for what would have been her 100th birthday.

John Lauritsen