There really is no place like home for a prized piece of movie memorabilia that came to The Catholic University of America’s drama department about 50 years ago.
Missing for decades, the university’s long-rumored possession of the blue gingham dress worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” showed up without much Hollywood fanfare this summer in a white trash bag stashed high in a theater department’s office.
The rediscovery of something that had almost seemed legend in the drama department— except for photos and descriptions from people who remembered seeing it—echoes a theme from the classic 1939 movie. Dorothy promises never to look for her heart’s desire “any further than my own backyard” after likely taking to heart the wizard’s advice that everything she was “looking for was right there with you all along.”
In early June, in preparation for renovation work to start on the university’s Hartke Theater, a department faculty member noticed a white trash bag above the faculty mail slots. Inside it was a green shoe-sized box whose contents needed no explanation for Matt Ripa.
Once Ripa, a lecturer and operations coordinator in the university’s drama department, saw the faded blue squares and the aged yellowing blouse of the classic film dress, he began to laugh hysterically.
For seven years, since he started working at the school where he earned his graduate degree, it’s been his personal mission to find this dress. It was given to Dominican Father Gilbert Hartke—founder of the drama department and namesake of its theater—in 1972.
There are pictures of the priest holding the dress and showing it to faculty members but after he died in 1986 no one knew what became of it.
Ripa searched the theater’s archives and storage closets and had essentially given up hope of finding it, so its unexpected appearance was a welcome surprise. He and a co-worker got some gloves, held the dress up and took pictures and then called the university’s archive department with the news: "We have Judy Garland’s dress!"
The piece of movie history, one of six original dresses believed to be in existence, was a gift from Mercedes McCambridge, an actress and friend of Ms. Garland’s, who was artist-in-residence at the university in 1972-1973.
A 1973 article in the campus newspaper, The Tower, said she donated Ms. Garland’s dress to be a “a source of hope, strength and courage” to students.
Talking to Catholic News Service July 7 alongside the famed dress—now safely stored in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment—Ripa said the finding is a reminder that “you are in a special club and Father Hartke was the coolest.”
Maria Mazzenga, curator of the university’s American Catholic History Collections, reached out to experts in cultural memorabilia at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History which has several “Oz” items—including Dorothy’s ruby red slippers—on display.
They are not authorized to authenticate objects like this one, Ms. Mazzenga said, but they could say with confidence that this dress, like the other five in existence, had the same verifiable characteristics: a secret pocket, Judy’s name written by hand in similar script on a label and tears in the blouse’s thin material.