Wizard of Oz Dorothy shoes_Garland4 © 2009 Lord Christopher Laverty. All rights reserved.

Lone Ranger & Judy Garland: Costume at the Smithsonian

As curator of Entertainment History at the Smithsonian, Dwight Blocker Bowers spends his days surrounded by movie costumes and props from past and present, including the Lone Ranger’s mask and those famous red shoes worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Speaking recently to The Collectors Weekly, Blocker Bowers explains what his job entails, the most popular exhibits at the museum and why Carol Burnett wore a dress with a curtain road attached.

Entertainment Curator…

Blocker Bowers: I’ve been at the Smithsonian for 28 years—I never thought I’d stay that long! The first job I had was as a producer and annotator of recordings. We used to have a very active program of archival recordings that we’d release. I came here to work on a set of American popular songs. I remained with the Division of Performing Arts until it was cast asunder and absorbed by the Museum of American History. Then I did public programs, and then I became curator of the Entertainment History Collections. So although I’ve been here 28 years, I’ve performed a number of different functions, all of them having to do with entertainment history.

What I mostly do these days is to try as best I can to make connections with potential donors who own objects that are reflective of an artist’s career. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t, but you can always ask.

For example, we just put a costume on display that was given to us by Carol Burnett. Actually, the costume came from the guy who designed it, Bob Mackie, but she was very instrumental in telling him that we wanted it. It’s her Went With the Wind dress, which she wore on her television show in a parody of a scene from Gone With the Wind—she wears a dress with a curtain rod balanced across her shoulders.

With Carol Burnett, it was simply a matter of her calling up. She said, “Well, what would you like to have?” I told her I was very interested in her television show, meaning the variety show that she did in the late 1960s, early ’70s, and asked her if she had the Went With the Wind costume. She had it.

Acquiring a Piece…

BB: The acquiring part is usually a mutual thing. Either we contact the owner of the objects that we’re interested in, or, in some instances, like in the case of Phyllis Diller, she contacted us and invited us to view what she had and make a selection. To prepare a piece, we work very closely with our exhibit staff. For costumes, we work with our conservation staff, which builds a custom mannequin for each costume that we show. And then you work with editors for the exhibition labels.

The selection process, curiously enough, is guided by the number of display cases that we have on the floor. In a lot of instances, we match the object that we want displayed with the size of the available cases. So that makes a lot of decisions for us. For a costume case, practically anything in the collection can fit in it. When you’re doing a show that features highlights of our collection, this process works well. But when you’re doing a large thematic show, it’s very difficult to make sure everything fits in preexisting cases.

Objects on Display…

BB: Thousands, but I couldn’t give you an exact number. It’s always something that I have to look up. The objects range from the Lone Ranger’s mask, which is very small, to a humongous award that Garth Brooks received from the Recording Industry Association of America naming him the number-one pop solo artist.

We probably add 100 to 200 new objects a year, with one exhibition on the floor at a time. That’s primarily because our building is still undergoing renovation. We try to rotate the objects every three months, but we keep the ruby slippers out on almost constant display because the public asks for those daily and gets very irate if we’re not showing them. We probably display less than five percent of what we have in our own collection simply because of limited floor space.

Interview by Maribeth Keane and Ben Marks.

Read this article in full at The Collectors Weekly. Republished with permission.

© 2009 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.

  • Randy Taylor

    I have a collection of costumes passed down from my great grandmother. She put on minstrel shows and other stage performances in Bath County Virginia as part of a fund raiser for the local elementary school. All the costumes are of cotton and include everything from clowns, fairies, kings, ethnic, chorus (top hats, tops, pants) with large spades embroidered. There are wigs. Most all are from the twenties and they were purchased from a costume company, I believe in NYC. I also have the scripts and a tube of blackface. I am trying to find a home for them where they might be appreciated and maintained. Do you have any suggestions. I am going to give a few to the local historical society, yet there are so many. I have two large boxes. Thanks, Randy Taylor

    • http://clothesonfilm.com Chris Laverty

      This is a UK based site, Randy. However one of my international readers may be able to help you out. Otherwise there is always the Smithsonian – just in case they any suggestions.