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  • Diana Balakirov

There's No Place Like Grand Rapids

Updated: Aug 20

It's interesting to look back at a significant memory in your life and trace its origins to a specific occurrence, single thought or simple idea that later led to something you've only ever imagined a dream that you dared to dream that really did come true. If my own memory serves me correctly, I remember all too well how the story of my once-in-a-lifetime trip over the rainbow was first told and written.


In early 2020, my friend Dava, an aspiring author, had come across the Festival of Faith and Writing a biennial conference for writers, publishers and readers taking place in the city of Grand Rapids. A multi-day gathering marked by a series of engaging workshops and peer-led presentations sounded like my type of event; like Dava, and possibly because of her, I was eager to hone my own writing skills and network with industry professionals who could lead me down a professional path I've long since wanted to explore on my own. I was always an avid traveler, willing to seize any opportunity to take a trip or plan an impromptu vacation, and I immediately expressed an interest in going to Grand Rapids. While there, I figured I'd also stop by to check out the Judy Garland Museum®, a must-see treasure trove of exhibits, artifacts and fan-favorite attractions.


As initial planning got underway, I realized that I had gotten my states completely mixed up. Abbreviations were to blame, of course, for the conference was actually taking place in Michigan; the Grand Rapids I had in mind was an entirely different location in Minnesota. After a few weeks, when Dava and I put our travel plans aside, I forgot all about the conference. Judy Garland's birthplace, however, was an entirely different matter.


With a rerouted sense of purpose, I began searching for flights and looking into overnight accommodation options. Almost immediately, I came across the charming, European-style Green Heron Bed and Breakfast and found out that the city of Hibbing, into which I could fly directly, was only 40 minutes away from Grand Rapids. Slowly but surely, my plans were coming to fruition; after ironing out a few additional details, I would finally get a chance to visit the Judy Garland Museum® and take part in an annual summer celebration of my favorite entertainer's life and career. That's when COVID-19 hit.

 

To this day, it's sometimes difficult for me to recall the first few months of the global pandemic without feeling a sense of unease. For several months after initial lockdowns were mandated and restrictions for gatherings were instituted at many businesses, I was one of many people who felt at a loss with myself. Furloughed from a job I held within the hospitality industry, I struggled to find a sense of purpose and stay hopeful while looking ahead to a rather uncertain future. For most of that year and well into 2021, it was unclear when or whether travel and large-scale events would make a comeback.


A trip to Minnesota felt like a pipe dream until a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. When the museum formally announced the return of its annual celebration, coinciding with Judy Garland's 100th birthday on June 10, 2022, I immediately purchased tickets to as many festival events as I could and invited another close friend, Cindy, to join me.

 

While living apart from childhood friends and relatives is difficult, especially in a day and age when so many of us feel disconnected, I try to make an effort to stay in touch with as many people as possible, family being the most important. My easygoing, laid-back dad is usually the first person to be roped into one of my many schemes, particularly the ones that require long-distance travel to see and sometimes meet favorite artists and performers. But he takes it like a true champion every time, showing up where he needs to be and willingly admitting that some of the best trips we've taken together materialized as a direct result of my cajoling efforts.

Hanging out with Kelly Clarkson at 2016's Texas Book Festival, possibly the one time my dad and I didn't venture too far, was only the beginning. In 2017, the two of us planned a California trip around a meet-and-greet opportunity with Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith of The Monkees, followed closely by a breathtaking getaway in Lake Tahoe, Nevada we took to see The Mike & Micky Show the following year.


Although the cross-state road trip that Cindy and I were initially planning to take together never came to fruition, the week-long family vacation I did spend in Minnesota with my dad and sister ended on a note as high and epic as the one Judy hit during her TV show rendition of "Old Man River."

 

We set out on our journey on June 4, flying into and spending a few days exploring Minneapolis. Surrounded by glittering lakes, scenic parks and noteworthy attractions, I couldn't help but fall in love with and admire everything the first of the two Twin Cities had to offer. After taking what I felt was a much-needed respite from the summer heat, overwhelming traffic and crowded areas one tends to find in Texas these days, I immersed myself in the awe-inspiring sights and sounds of Minnehaha Falls Regional Park, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the Mill City Museum and Stone Arch Bridge. On more than one occasion, I even wondered what it would be like to live in one of the cottage- and duplex-style homes, which I came across in several prominent neighborhoods, that seemed as historically significant as they were aesthetically pleasing. But that's a conversation I'll save for another day...

The lakeshore city of Excelsior was not one we initially planned to visit, having had our sights set on a guided tour of the Mississippi River, but we fell in love with it while strolling down historic downtown streets — marked by a row of quaint coffee shops, local restaurants and mom-and-pop stores — and taking a serene boat ride down the picturesque Lake Minnetonka.

Though we didn't dedicate too much time to Excelsior, leaving that afternoon for Saint Paul, I could have easily spent an entire day exploring many of its marinas and park areas and possibly taking in some sailing — a recreational activity that remains at the top of my bucket list.


Saint Paul felt like a much smaller city than Minneapolis, and at times, it seemed like my family and I were the only tourists there. Many restaurants and stores were closed during the week, some possibly recovering from the pandemic and unable to maintain adequate staffing levels, and all the areas we visited in downtown were quiet and, for the most part, empty. Nevertheless, we set out in search of the must-see destinations that the second Twin City had to offer — including the Landmark Center, the two homes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Cathedral of Saint Paul and the Minnesota State Capitolsoaking in plenty of iconic landmarks, eye-catching architecture and local faire along the way.

If the Twin Cities and Excelsior made an impression on me, they were nothing compared to the industrial port city of Duluth, which was single-handedly the most memorable and special place I've visited over the years. From the recreational Canal Park district and Lakewalk to several maritime and railroad museums, the Bob Dylan Way and the formidable Glensheen mansion, Duluth had something for everyone and everything in between.

I can go on and on about all the great experiences I had during the first leg of my Minnesota trip, but other than sharing a few highlights, I don't want to shy too far away from the heartbeat of this post. For as incredible a week as I've had, the first few cities gave me only a glimpse of what lay ahead. After waiting and looking forward to visiting Judy Garland's hometown of Grand Rapids, I would finally open the door to step into my very own Oz adventure.

 

While I promised myself I wouldn't get too emotional, I couldn't help but tear up as my car turned the corner and pulled up into the driveway of the museum. Though Judy's birthday festivities would not begin until the following day, coming face to face with her childhood home — miraculously restored and soundly situated in its place after two previous relocations — felt like a celebration all on its own. My sentiments were echoed when I attended a welcome reception at the nearby Timberlake Lodge later that evening. Listening to a curated jazz presentation of standards and originals sung by Judy over the course of her movie, radio, television and stage career, there was no other place I wanted to be.

My belief in the value of this festival was never unfounded, but my appreciation grew tenfold the following morning. Amid an impressive community of warm, friendly and outgoing people from all walks of life, ranging in ages from 10 to 80, I felt an uncanny sense of belonging. Hanging on every word heard and spoken, I could hold lively conversations about the legacy Judy Garland left behind with dedicated fans whose enthusiasm matched or — in the case of the incomparable John Fricke, an award-winning film historian, author and producer who's considered by many to be the leading expert and foremost authority on Judy's legendary career — surpassed my own.

Having read several of Mr. Fricke's meticulously researched and thoughtfully presented biographies, all of which I consider to be essential reading, I was not only grateful to meet him in person but truly humbled to see the heartfelt and genuine way in which he connected and interacted with each and every individual he'd met (and remembered by first name) over the course of several days.

After playing a rousing round of "Judy Jeopardy" against what turned out to be tough competition and attending the first of several presentations given by Mr. Fricke, I took time to explore some of the museum's exhibits and browse through a collection of photos, personal belongings, archival documents and vintage memorabilia including a few key pieces from The Wizard of Oz. But while the Emerald City carriage and Dorothy's test-dress were still on display, only a hint of a trace remained in the case of the original ruby slippers.

 

Even as the second day of the festival began winding down, the long-awaited birthday celebration was yet to come. In preparation, the Timberlake Lodge had transformed overnight as the previous day's reception space was reset to make room for a seated dinner presentation and fundraising auction. Between the handmade table centerpieces, themed cocktails in novelty glasses, cupcakes with festive toppers and a tiered cake, I couldn't help but admire the loving care that went into each and every detail making Judy's birthday truly worthy of its 100th year.

By mere coincidence, I ended up sharing a table with Mr. Fricke, who told me about some of the authors who inspired him to write, and caught up with a few familiar faces I've met at various sessions throughout the festival over a delicious meal. After a tribute performance from powerhouse vocalist Jennifer Grimm, which was followed by a livestream of the Judy perfume launch in Los Angeles, the evening came to an end. But as much as I didn't want for it to be over, the next day couldn't come quickly enough. For even though I could never meet Judy Garland in person, not in this life anyway, I knew I would come fairly close thanks to a special visit from a member of her immediate family.

 

Although I had arrived at the Judy Garland Museum® fairly early the next morning, I found Dorothy and her friends already waiting to greet and welcome me to what was sure to be the most thrilling day of the festival, beginning with a bus tour of Grand Rapids that highlighted some noteworthy places associated with Judy's early childhood. Along the way, I spotted the Itasca Hospital, where Judy was born, stopped by the Old Central School building to walk down the Yellow Brick Road (and admire a pleasantly surprising collection of whimsical puppets and dolls) and found a few hidden treasures at the Rapids Brewing Company.


In 1924, two-year-old Frances Gumm made her stage debut with a thrilling rendition of "Jingle Bells" at her father's New Grand Theater. When she returned to her hometown in 1938 as Judy Garland, now a Hollywood celebrity on a publicity tour, she was greeted by movie audiences at the newly renamed Rialto Theater. While the legacy of the theater in both of its iterations may very well have been lost by the time its doors closed in 1982, thanks to the efforts of the Rapids Brewing Company, traces of the original structure (including rows of seating) still remain and are accessible via an isolated entryway.

Getting off the bus, I was happy to spend time getting to know two very lovely ladies named Laura and Ann. I had already met Laura while playing "Judy Jeopardy" the previous day, but I had no idea that she was a singer like myself until we had finished the tour and proceeded to burst into an impromptu performance of "Everybody Sing" that was just as spontaneous as the one young Frances gave while running onto the stage of her father's theater all those years ago.

 

As much time as I had dedicated to walking through the museum's exhibit space, I had yet to make my way to the most important location of all. Luckily, I not only got to see the inside of Judy's house — the interior of which has been restored with furnishings and personal belongings the Gumms would have used while living there but also gained backstage access to the basement's archives with John Kelsch, one of the museum's co-founders.


Although I saw many interesting pieces that had been acquired by or donated to the Judy Garland Museum® by private collectors, the one that fascinated me the most was part of a sequined suit that Judy wore during a 1967 concert at the Palace Theater in New York. Having always known that she stood at a height of only 4' 11'', I couldn't believe how small the pants actually were when I saw them up close and ran a white-gloved hand along their intricate stitching.

Continuing to count down the hours to the most important part of the festival, I sat down to a high tea party inspired by Easter Parade, one of Judy Garland's best and most remembered films. As I poured out various teas while sampling an assortment of sandwiches and pastries accompanied by jams, butter and clotted cream, the event hosts gave out awards for the best and most creative party hats.

As much as I hate to admit this, I was not one of the attendees who dressed up for the occasion, my love for hats of all shapes and sizes notwithstanding. Instead, my sights were set on meeting the one person who would bring Judy's 100th birthday celebration to a glorious conclusion.

 

When discussing Judy Garland with others, I tend to find that the so-called casual observer knows all about her daughter, Liza Minnelli, but is unfamiliar with two other children from her third marriage to Sid Luft. While Judy's younger daughter, Lorna, has made a name for herself in show business, even releasing a memoir that served as the inspiration behind the Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows biopic, Judy's son, Joe, tried to stay out of the spotlight as much as possible. But regardless of the paths they have chosen, both Lorna and Joe have done their best to embrace their mother's legacy by participating in special occasions held in her honor; in Joe's case, the 100th birthday celebration that the Judy Garland Museum® organized fit that bill.

Having personally met John Fricke and Joe Luft (who was every bit as kind, reserved and easygoing as I imagined him to be), a new chapter in my journey with Judy has now been written — figuratively and literally. When I pull out the book I brought with me to the festival, my heart skips a beat when I look at a single note, which has since taken on a life of its own, and read the words that Mr. Fricke immortalized within its precious pages: "With maximum delight and even more gratitude."

 

Time really does fly when you're having fun. Even now, as I'm writing this post, I find it hard to believe that over a month has passed since I visited the museum. To this day, I remember what it was like to wake up the morning after the festival and acknowledge the effort it took to plan a trip to Grand Rapids years in the making and against all odds. But as I picked up the breakfast menu at Hotel Rapids, a quaint boutique hotel where we would have our last meal, and saw the "Garland" and "Rainbow" crepes listed at the top, I knew that the stars had aligned in my favor and everything had fallen into place as it was meant to all along.

That same afternoon, I ran (and re-ran) into another festival attendee, Melissa, at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport and immediately recognized her as the vocalist who flawlessly sang "Easter Parade" at the high tea party. After the two of us reminisced and exchanged phone numbers, we noticed John Fricke sitting nearby. While Melissa and I were both heading home, he still had a long way to go and even more people to meet and impress with his knowledge of the world's greatest entertainer. Judy's 100th birthday may have come to an end, I realized, but more adventures were still ahead for all of us.

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