Proposing "Wizard of Oz" style


Editor’s Note: Today’s post is written by guest blogger Kurt R. Bell.

In life, we often connect memorable dates with events that had some kind of emotional impact. Do you remember where you were when learning of the Kennedy assassination? Or when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded? Perhaps you can recall the moment when you heard of the events of 9/11? What about when your boyfriend or girlfriend proposed—or more precisely, where? After a 4 1/2 year courtship, on Saturday, December 12, 2009, I decided to make our nuptials permanent in a big way—with a special Smithsonian connection.


For many years my fiancée, Michelle Garrett, had been an avid collector of film memorabilia—specialing in books, advertisements, and curios related to the 1939 MGM motion picture The Wizard of Oz. Like many American girls of her generation, she grew up watching the film on network television and read the book (by L. Frank Baum) upon which the film was based. At the same time, I developed a passion for museums and history and decided to pursue a career in transportation history as an Archivist with the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

When it came time to pop the big question, I wanted to surprise her in a big way at a special place that was near and dear to both of our hearts. Proposing on the beach was too easy and Christmas time was too traditional. But, alas, I knew that it had to be somewhere "over the rainbow" that would be special to both of us.

One day, the thought occurred to me: she likes the Wizard of Oz, and I like museums. Why not the Smithsonian? The proverbial wheels started turning!

After buying an engagement ring, I made preparations for our inevitable day. Two weeks before Christmas, on a Saturday morning full of sunshine, I convinced her to climb into my Honda Civic to take a “surprise” two-hour drive for a day of sightseeing. She willingly obliged. We boarded the DC Metro where we encountered several delays due to construction. By now I was sweating bullets, fearful she would figure out my scheme and we would miss closing time at the museum. By 3:30 pm, after much traffic and delays en route, we finally made our way across the National Mall to the entrance of the National Museum of American History.

As I am a railroad buff, Michelle’s first instinct was head to the America on the Move exhibition to pay homage to the John Bull locomotive and the big green and gold Southern Railway No. 1401. She was surprised when I turned in the opposite direction and led her up the escalator. By now she suspected I was up to something!

When we arrived in the Pop Culture gallery, I urged her to find the exhibition case with the ruby slippers. As we navigated through a sea of teenaged visitors, I spotted our query. I reached into my pocket for the ring, and as she examined the sequined shoes made famous in The Wizard of Oz, I asked her to close her eyes and repeat the phrase, “There’s no place like home,” just like Dorothy’s lines in the film. Meanwhile, as she clicked her heels, I dropped down on one knee. Immediately, she blushed and a swarm of 16-year girls gleefully circled around us, probably more flattered about my proposal than my girlfriend. Nervous beyond words, I asked her if she would marry me and she said yes! By that time, we were somewhere over the rainbow.

WozstylepropKurt and Michelle next to the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 MGM film, The Wizard of Oz 

We decided to celebrate by having our picture taken in front of the ruby slippers case, courtesy of one of the teenaged visitors. But our visit would not be complete without a quick run through of America on the Move, where we had our photo taken in front of old No. 1401. I’m currently writing a history of the Smithsonian’s railroad collections, aided in my research by National Museum of American History staff—Curator Susan Tolbert and Associate Curator Roger White—as well as retired Smithsonian curators, William L. Withuhn and John H. White, Jr. However, celebrating our engagement at the museum with a delightful slice of the Magical Land of “Oz” was a nice respite from researching trains! Our wedding date is now set for June 25, 2011!

Thank you, Smithsonian Institution, for making our big day very special!

Kurt R. Bell is an Associate Archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.