Judy Garland, a Ruby Slippers Heist, and the Lost Crown Chest of Sweden by Michael Jensen
Vehicles swarmed around a State wayside rest like misplaced worker bees having lost their queen. Slowly cruising through revealed not a space, only the other end of a bee-dance loop back into the Interstate 25 buzz toward Los Angeles. My goal was not for the megalopolis most seemed destined, but for a micro cell in the macrocosm of life within the greater flows of that nation/world of California. Though there were links by both mere chance and destiny to the renowned singer/actor Judy Garland, little did I fathom that the California deserts of Judy's past would dazzle too with the royal crown of Sweden. This is by no means the chronicles of a “trip”; but of the memoirs of an “adventure”, adventure - “an exciting or very unusual experience”, as Webster's dictionary defines.
The Ruby Slippers had been stolen. The news had reached all corners of the globe, a crime stamped with my own hometown of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, also birthplace of Judy Garland. Slow growth town as it once was, I was even born in the same hospital. Actually the Ruby Slippers had no meaning to me, that's why I had sought their non-meaning. What the Ruby Slippers had done, their causality, their metaphor, possessed all the meaning. They had brought much happiness to the Judy Garland Museum in Minnesota where I had performed piano. The Ruby Slippers had drawn record crowds of dreamers and had raised funds for the museum and its charitable causes; and Michael Shaw, the actual owner of the Slippers, had scheduled them to next raise funds for an orphanage in Kansas. That channeling of giving and receiving the Slippers had catalyzed was gone. Whoever stole them for self-centered purposes had destroyed that opportunity to contribute to the flow of goodness they once sourced.
I was by then nearly two months and thousands of zig-zagged and musical miles from my Grand Rapids home. My piano venues along the way were only a couple of clubs to the Gumm family's many in their same journey west from Grand Rapids to Lancaster, California in 1926. A lake Tahoe Club manager required my meeting with their “Human Resources Department”, an insurance policy, a contract to sign... complexities not at all comparable to life in the long lost era when Judy and the Gumm sisters performed there.... Closing in on my destination I could visualize again the yet to be publicly seen Judy Garland museum archives I had had the unusual privilege to venture through, photos of Judy in the MGM lots, back stage, or studying for her tutor. Such were the black and whites of the era she and her mother had many times ventured through the 60 miles of arid Joshua tree-scapes between Lancaster and Hollywood. Ironically, they were the very same years my late aunt, Marcella Baker, and my vigilant grandmother, Rena Baker, a parallel family combination... had also sought Hollywood stardom. After a few modeling stints and fringe roles in some more obscure Hollywood films, my aunt Marcella had transcended, 1927... one among the many angels fallen in the tuberculosis sanitariums of the decade that had roared.
Turning east off Interstate 25 less than 60 miles from LA revealed expansive desert-lands seemingly leveled to exacting grade by some greater design through the epochs of earth trembling change, trampled under the vanished herds of antelope across the aptly named “Antelope Valley”. It is dry and dusty there, real dry, especially for a Minnesotan. Not far off, astronauts land at Edwards Airforce base - a NASA Space Shuttle now and then when the way of the skies, not the economy or peace time... dictate. I could see the Gumm's rumbling black car spinning a dusty tail. Dust, sun, and the age of the Joshua, somehow leads one to seek out the past, Judy era buildings engraved with a desert sun's signature across the fiery ages. That burning Lancaster desert left after images too, the black and whites across my mind's view, the mirage of a scene or two or three of perhaps the very same buildings young Judy may have seen as her mother piloted their way to MGM Studios. Perhaps at times too the world shook beneath her feet over the clatter of the Hollywood bound rails, an express steaming its way beneath rainbows of destiny, the colors of what would light the pathways of an unparalleled talent. Like desert shadows, if one could only know of the where the when such talent might spread its wings, talent, of those unknowns that humanity can only wish to preconceive, that magical synthesis of music and of soul.
For the first time my destination was certain along my, by that point, rag tag 6,000 mile car-camp journey across the nation. I was a pianist with a destination, Judy's Lancaster, in hopes my piano solos dedicated to Judy would take hold in the many gift shops I was anticipating to call on there. Ahead lie too the streets the corridors of a past obscured beyond the dust storms, the sand-rain stinging price of stardom that hazed the catus-bloom magic of a talent unfolding. I too had drawn a rainbow, my own rainbow, a dream of black and of white arching too with those seven sent from heaven colors, black and white keys I had drawn with old architect tools, a great ebony and ivory arch that would transform through the Graphic Designer's magic of the computer age into a sweep under Judy's delicate hand over the keys then rise skyward over the roof top of her early childhood cottage then crest in rainbow unison over her dream-like gaze and smile. Dreams only happen if we let them, and with great fortune, mine was materializing.
Overall this venture was also an unfinished duty unto myself. I had titled it a “metaphorical journey”, part of my grieving process since my mother had transcended into the greater design of things. This journey had also been a sojourn along our venture never completed. I found great healing with the sea and had just camped the month of April on the Big Sur Coast of California. My late mother and I use embark on “CD Journeys” west from Minnesota to sell my solo piano CD's to businesses with sound systems: clinics, show room stores, funeral homes... any business where solo piano might add to the ambiance. Sales did not dominate our excursions as we enjoyed our moments through the vistas like searching for rocks along Yellow Stone River Wyoming, picking sage at Fort Peck Reservation Montana, praying in silent vigil at Wounded Knee South Dakota. Along the great banks of the wide Missouri she had literally opened her arms in dancing flight against the blue skies and waters of a powwow forever etched into my dream horizons.
We were both fans of John Steinbeck. Our former plans were I would land a gig in the Monterrey/Carmel/Pacific Grove... area of John Steinbeck country. We were to stay in a less expensive motel in nearby Salinas, visit John Steinbeck's home, then venture on to Judy's Lancaster. We were at a motel in Kingman, Arizona in the fall of 2005 not far from Lancaster. My music sales definitely helped pay for our trips; but we also relied on savings. Our money was not quite enough and gas over three dollars a gallon. The numbers turned us in retreat for our Grand Rapids home. It was on the very day the earth shifts its winter's tilt sunward again that she transcended, December 21st, 2005, two weeks from returning to complete our great West journey, yet I had to keep reminding myself she had embarked on a greater venture. We are the living who must push on Joshua tree strong against the sandy tides. An unexplained urge to finish an uncompleted whole overwhelmed me to the point I left Grand Rapids in early March 2007 with about four hundred fifty dollars. My car of course broke down in Fargo, North Dakota, another three twenty from the the four fifty to my name....
“That far? On those tires you'll never make it,” the mechanic had said.
I was not being practical, a typical trait. With one hundred thirty dollars to my name, from Fargo I pressed on westward into the journey and healing of a lifetime. So my mother's face too was ever shimmering in the desert horizons, or smiling within the high and purple hue visage of mountains, or high and flying within the hypnotic spiraling rise of snow geese in migration, or grand and flowing within that rush and draw metabolism of the seas of Big Sur....
So a dream was literally being transgressed, wheels spinning over the sandy highways to what hopefully would cross the pathways of many. Two tread roads of Model A's and T's narrowed to buggy treads narrowed to meandering single treads of burros and horseback narrowed to the first people that skirted the edge of the desert lands and narrowed through the epochs to the lush green worlds when dancing herds of antelopes grazed the long vanished grasslands. Edith Gumm too sped by, stardom bound, with youngest daughter once Francis Gumm transformed to show name Judy Garland. When the Gumm sisters trio sang someone had remarked they looked as lovely as a “garland of flowers”, and so stayed the name. The three of them, oldest Virginia, next Suzanne, then Judy, one, two, three, smiles made of music, kept singing. Sometime in 1938 the Lancaster to Hollywood move had been made; but for all practical dream purposes Judy was returning from Hollywoodland for a Lancaster-friends visit, that same year in the making of Metro Goldwyn Meyer's, “Wizard of Oz”.
I followed them down “Avenue I” and past a sign labeled, “Historic Downtown”, turned right by a huge mounted fighter jet commemorating Edwards AFB, rolled on to Lancaster Boulevard and parked at the Public Library in the heart of old downtown as the rolly polly black vehicle vanished with a dream's dust tail into the ethereal desert light. The library looked quite new. It's landscaping and plant life appeared harbor to homeless, outcasts of a tightening economy. I walked down the boulevard, day pack filled with my, “Over the Rainbow”, solo piano Cd's, to my first stop, “The Lemon Leaf”, a restaurant. The roar of customers dining and what I had hoped for, music... filled the spaces. Fortunately solo piano works well as background in many settings, restaurants included.
At 2PM The Lemon Leaf was surprisingly crowded, like noon in Minnesota. The only societal pattern I could conjure was the siesta influence of old Mexico, or “New Spain” as it was once called until 1845 when President Polk proclaimed “Manifest Destiny”. It was the fateful message God had supposedly delivered to Polk that all lands from the Mississippi west to the Pacific was suddenly the United States. It was all of what soon after rendered New Spain and such peoples as the Navahoe, Apache, Ute... into the ever expanding graveyards of a relentless march west....
“So what brings you to 'AV'?” the owner asked as she extended her hand. Sweat ran from under her baseball cap while beyond her rose the clatter of her busy kitchen. It was interesting she named her homeland not of the city's name but of their Antelope Valley, “AV”.
At first sight “Over the Rainbow” was an easy decision for The Lemon Leaf sound system.
“Thought I'd find a lot of tourism, gift shops around here.”
“Here?! Lancaster?! It's all a bedroom to L.A. now days. You aren't going to find anything here. Try a bit south of here; but not here.”
The cash register rung as she reached for fifteen dollars cash and whipped it into my hand.
“Now this better be you or I'm sending my gang down the street after you!”
South meant larger arteries, veins into the greater flow with names like Palmdale, Santa Clarita... to me what seemed too close to the greater metropolis I wanted best to avoid..
The last growth for “Historic Downtown” was apparently the Fifties as I passed blocks of old store fronts, some with relocation signs or simply marked “out of business” all vanished to the corporate “big box” sellers of an exploding suburban world. A hair salon was decked with a long lost Fifties like elegance. A portly man in suite and tie escorted me through the graceful reach of tropical plants and soft music to an internal office where he formally presented me to another portly man in suit and tie, the owner. He gazed into my CD cover as my music played over his sound system. He smiled, shook his head as though he were nodding in agreement to some long hidden apparition, a strand or thread of meaning against the race of time around us, the epiphany that all to infrequently reminds us that there are no bonds, as in the most sun beaten lemon leaf... where through its veins freely swims the miraculous life of its green, all of what makes the difference between the toll of the desert and the refuge of an oasis.
“I appreciate Judy's talent very much. You know I was personal assistant to Mae West.”
“That's an experience you could share with many.”
“I have the biggest collection of her wardrobe in existence. I have more than that though. You know Mae West was no dumb blonde. Brilliant woman she was. Always liked her amazing perspective. 'You're never too old to become younger' she'd say in such a beautiful way I can't explain. She could laugh too.”
“You could write about that.”
“Writing? Never's been my forte. There's the old hotel still standing where the Gumms first lived after their arrival just down the street here. The girls' hand prints are in the cement there too. It's hard to get in there. Tell you what, I'll give you a name of someone. Tell her I sent you. I know she'll open it for you.”
He scrawled a name, office address, and number, opened a door otherwise never opened down the streets the corridors and through that sand-rain sting of obscurity we call time.
I wasn't sure how else to respond other than once again I felt the magical link to an era that had roared with a change and prosperity that spiraled beyond control into a historic and irreversible “Crash”, a ghost that seemed all too looming with present times as gas was again reaching well over $3 a gallon. The highest I had seen by that point was at Big Sur hitting $4.12 a gallon. Prices again were closing in on me; but something of the attributes with immersion into the ever present moment sustained me. Whether I had a way back home again or not, whether there would be a bed for me to sleep in that night or not... above all, I possessed the unparalleled, the gift of freedom.
TO BE CONTINUED
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