Originally created 07/01/03

No place like home for new Judy Garland museum



GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. -- Judy Garland is more to Robert Baneky than simply a favorite actress.

Baneky has copies of nearly all her albums, movies and TV shows, and scours stores to pick up the few he doesn't have.

He visits the late star's grave in Hartsdale, N.Y., on the date of her birth and death every year to lay flowers and sing Garland songs to her memorial.

Baneky, who lives in New York City, said Garland's art gave him an escape from an abusive childhood.

"For me, she was a savior," he said. "I'd lock my door, put on her albums and forget what's going on."

Baneky was among hundreds of fans in town for an annual festival in Garland's birthplace, a town of about 8,000 in northeast Minnesota. This year, the event that began Thursday and ends Saturday included the opening of a new, larger museum dedicated to the actress.

Several actors who worked with Garland attended, including Margaret O'Brien ("Meet Me in St. Louis") and four original Munchkins from "The Wizard of Oz."

"She was a regular teenager," recalled Clarence Swensen, who played one of the Munchkins. "She was just as interested in visiting with us as we were with her."

Many of the estimated 2,500 fans at the festival were day trippers, said John Kelsch, the museum's executive director. But about half are like Baneky - die-hard fans with such strong fondness for the actress that they travel thousands of miles to attend. In previous years, the festival has attracted attendees from 35 states and six foreign countries.

Baneky, who had a friend make audiocassettes of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" for the plane ride from New York, said he was impressed by the new museum's size. A fund-raising drive over six years raised $1 million to move Garland artifacts from the old location, an old bus station nearby.

The new museum is attached to Garland's refurbished Grand Rapids home, a modest, white two-bedroom where the actress - born as Frances Gumm - lived with her two sisters and parents until she was 4 years old.

It has the world's largest collection of Garland memorabilia, complete with paintings, magazine and album covers, original copies of her movie contracts, dolls fashioned after Garland and pictures of her family.

Museum officials went to great lengths to recreate the home as it existed in 1925, even hiring a detective to interview visitors and research photographs and insurance documents. The museum's prize holding is the carriage that carried Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion through the Emerald City in "The Wizard of Oz."

The carriage was owned by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 - the gift of a group of New York businessmen. Lincoln's name is inscribed on the side of the carriage.

Garland's career began at age 2 and continued until her death at 47. She started in small movie houses in outlying towns around Grand Rapids and in the vaudeville theater her parents owned. She eventually appeared in 32 feature films and several television shows and recorded countless albums before dying of an overdose of barbiturates in London in 1969.

Kelsch said he became interested in Garland when he started working for a separate museum in town that had a one-room exhibit on the late star. He said he appreciates Garland because she represents the American dream.

"It really shows that you can come from anywhere, at any time, and really be a success in life," he said.