Grand Rapids, Minn. — When you drive into Grand Rapids, signs welcome you to the "Birthplace of Judy Garland." Downtown, some of the buildings are painted with larger-than-life murals of characters from "The Wizard of Oz." And now there's the new museum.
The building is flanked by a big flower garden, a hotdog stand and a new children's science museum. But the centerpiece of the Judy Garland Birthplace compound is the house that Judy once lived in. Of course, back then, she wasn't Judy - she was Frances Gumm.
The Gumms' house used to stand in a neighborhood right in the middle of Grand Rapids, but it's been moved to the museum, out on the edge of town by the Cub Foods.
John Kelsch is the executive director of the museum. He walks down a hallway and gestures at a wall covered with black and white pictures.
"They're early family photographs," he says. "Luckily the family had 14 family portraits taken. You can see that show business was in their blood. Here they are, all dressed up for the show."
In several pictures, a knee-high Judy Garland faces the camera in a white dress and tights, looking comfortable in front of the lens.
The Gumms owned the theater in Grand Rapids, and Baby Gumm - that's what they called Judy then - was singing on stage with her two older sisters at the age of three.
The house has been restored to capture the time these photographs were taken. John Kelsch says everything in the house, from the baseboards to the doorknobs, looks like it did in 1925.
"We hired a house detective to document this house," he says. "He put together a 200-page dossier based on the old insurance maps, eyewitnesses, and old photographs that were found."
When Frances Gumm was four, her family moved away to California. She changed her name to Judy Garland, and by the time she was 13, she'd signed her first contract with MGM Studios. Four years later, she starred in "The Wizard of Oz." She stayed in the limelight as an actor and a singer until she died of a drug overdose in 1969.
She came back to Grand Rapids only one time to visit, when she was 15 years old.
Some people in Grand Rapids have always been big fans, and big collectors of Judy Garland stuff. That's helped the museum put together the world's largest collection of Judy Garland memorabilia.
There's a microphone she sang into, and her personal address book, open to the page with Greer Garson's phone number. There are dresses and shoes - not the ruby slippers, but Kelsch hopes to get them here on loan.
Display cases show off the museum's collection of props and costumes from "The Wizard of Oz." The museum's prize holding is the carriage from the Emerald City scene.
John Kelsch says it's "The Wizard of Oz" that keeps Judy Garland's star shining.
"That movie has been seen by half the people in the world," he says. "And of course now it's on DVD, and kids watch it all the time. France treasures the Mona Lisa, and we have The 'Wizard of Oz.' It's a uniquely American masterpiece work of art."
Kelsch believes Judy Garland's fame will endure.
"Because of that movie, this is just going to go on forever," he says.
He stops in front a display of the gold record Garland received for, "Over the Rainbow."
"That was named the top song of the 20th century by the National Endowment of the Arts survey 18 months ago," he says with a resolute nod. "So I think everyone in northeast Minnesota should be proud that their native daughter sang the top song of the 20th century."
Kelsch expects the museum to draw more than 10,000 visitors a year. Grand Rapids is trying to attract more tourists - especially since one-third of the workers at the town's paper mill lost their jobs last winter. Kelsch says pilgrims come from all over the country to see Judy Garland's home town, and he's expecting visitors from overseas for this weekend's Judy Garland Festival.
"We've got a whole delegation coming from London from the Judy Garland Fan Club this year," he says. "They're holding a PowerPoint session. We've got BBC Television coming to film."
All because of Judy.
"Judy Garland is the one thing that's going to put this town on the map. It's like a beacon for Grand Rapids. It's like having the biggest lighthouse on the ocean saying, 'Here we are! In this big world, here's Grand Rapids.'"
Thursday night is the grand opening of the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids. Several people who performed with Judy Garland will be in town over the weekend. Margaret O'Brien and Donald O'Connor will be here, and so will three actors who played Munchkins in "The Wizard of Oz."