A Little About the South By Southwest Film and Music Festival

I’m here in Austin, Texas, attending some of the festivities associated with the South by Southwest Film and Music Festival. Actually, there are third and fourth components to the festival, as there was an education portion held prior to the beginning of the film and music, which kicked off with an appearance by President Barack Obama. (Michelle Obama arrived for the music portion today).

I’d heard about the film festival here for years and, having covered the Chicago International Film Festival for a decade (and one in Vancouver years ago), I learned that a top-of-the-line ticket to everything would have cost me $1,745. A ticket just for the film portion is $695. In other words, this is a far pricier proposition than attending the film festival in Chicago, which is exclusively film and doesn’t attempt to involve Austin’s version of Silicone Valley (3D printers) nor music venues galore. However, if you are a resident, as we have been since January, locals can purchase wristbands for either $65 or $95, depending on the length of time the wristband covers.


The Slippers

The documentary “The Slippers” by Canadian filmmaker Morgan White was a 5-year labor of love based on Rhys Thomas’ book The Ruby Slippers of OzToronto native and director White co-scripted the film with Derek LaJeunesse. The film was, in a sense, a tribute to a man director White dubbed The Robin Hood of Hollywood, Kent Warner. “Once I read the book, I knew I had to do the movie,” said filmmaker White.

Warner, a Hollywood fixture who really knew his movies, was hired to help organize the sale of MGM’s large warehouse full of film artifacts and costumes when new owner Kirk Kerkorian, Las Vegas multi-millionaire who did not care about the Hollywood history that was going to be auctioned off became the studio owner back in 1970. It is estimated that Warner, who probably liberally “helped himself” to the important dresses and props of the era, discovered the shoes in February or March of 1970. Warner, himself, told an embellished story about retrieving the cache of what may have been as few as 5 pair of ruby slippers or as many as 10. Warner kept the best pair for himself, but often stole things “for Debbie,” meaning Debbie Reynolds, who, for years, was buying props and costumes of yesteryear for a Hollywood Museum that never materialized.


The Rising Cost Of Nostalgia

Debbie Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, is interviewed in the film and told stories of how his mother was cheated time and time again at auctions when she bid on bits of motion picture history, detailing one particular purchase of what was to have been the original blue-and-white Judy Garland dress from the 1939 film. When she went to pick up her purchase, she had been given a plain blue dress that was a “test” dress. Similarly, Debbie ended up only with a pair of ruby slippers that were rejected for the film but made initially to test the concept of a pointy-toed elf-like design, (which was ultimately rejected).

Director Morgan White described his regret at not being able to interview Debbie Reynolds in person but said he talked to her on the phone and said, “She sang to me and sort of trailed off. I think she may have been drunk.”

The rising cost of owning a pair of the ruby slippers was tracked. The shoes probably cost only $13 or $14 to make, originally, in 1939. A woman named Roberta Bauman who  won a pair of the ruby slippers in a contest kept them for years and then cashed in by having them auctioned by Chrstie’s. They brought $150,000 in 1988. In 2000, a pair sold for $666,000. Prices today, if a pair were to be put up for auction, are estimated as bringing as much as $2 million or more. The 2012 auction of Debbie Reynolds’ accumulated treasures brought in $27 million. The film is as much about the rising cost of nostalgia as it is about the iconic ruby slippers.


Different Pairs In Different Locations

One pair is on display at Disney, given them for display by the owner (Anthony Landini). One pair is on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. One pair was bought for the Academy by investors including Leonardo DeCaprio. A woman in the Austin audience asked about a pair on display in Austin and the filmmaker sighed and said, “I’m going to be really sorry if there is an original pair on display here in town and I didn’t know about it when I was making this film.”

A large part of the film covers the loaning of a pair of the slippers to a Judy Garland (real name at birth: Frances Gumm) Museum in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. After successfully loaning the slippers to the Museum for years for an annual festival, they were stolen in August of 2005. The small town Museum supposedly had security, but the security alarm did not notify police and the security camera had been switched off. The thieves were inside the structure for just a few moments in a smash-and-grab robbery and the film shows scuba divers searching a nearby lake (created from an abandoned iron ore pit), on suspicion that the shoes may have been stolen by some local youths who then threw them away.

Filmmaker Morgan White said the most disappointing thing was the Academy of Motion Pictures’ refusal to allow him to film the slippers that were donated to them by the mystery donors (guesses beyond DeCaprio include Stephen Spielberg and possibly Oprah Winfrey). He described the film as a tribute to Kent Warner, the knowledgeable Hollywood insider who smuggled out so many iconic items. Warner died of AIDS in 1984 at the age of 41 and had to sell off most of his treasures to pay for his treatment. (Shots of Warner’s grave were poignant). White considers Warner an unsung hero of the Hollywood memorabilia movement, one who is not acknowledged or even known.

Dwight Bowers of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who has a pair on display, explained:


“What makes the shoes so valuable is not necessarily what they are (i.e., size 5 to 6 shoes covered in 2,300 handsewn fish scale sequins dyed red—a change from the original plan to have silver shoes inspired by the advent of color to movies—) but what they represent.”