09 August 2011

Washington’s Surrender Message

The Washington Post columnist John Kelly recently wrote about the mystery of who painted “Surrender Dorothy” on a railroad bridge near the region’s palatial Mormon temple. The photo above shows how the message appeared from the 1970s to 2007; presently only the word “Surrender” survives, in what looks like a stencil rather than hand-lettering.

That graffito’s a comment on the temple’s architecture, which evidently reminds many people of the skyline of the Emerald City in the MGM Wizard of Oz. I don’t see a strong resemblance, but the spires are definitely striking and otherwordly.

Kelly couldn’t identify the artist in paint, but he did find a story of the first “Surrender Dorothy” message near the same spot, with letters made of rolled-up newspapers threaded through a chain-link fence.

In the fall of 1974, the senior class of Holy Child, a Catholic girls school in Potomac, visited the Mormon Temple before its dedication. To some, the building resembled the Emerald City. “The Wizard of Oz” might have been on their minds. It was going to be the school play that year. Almost immediately, a plan was hatched.

“We thought it was brilliant,” remembered Chris Brennan, Holy Child Class of 1975, “but being good girls we didn’t want to deface any property, so we came up with the idea to use wadded newspapers to spell out the letters.” . . .

Some time after midnight, the girls headed to the bridge. There were 13 girls in all. Each was responsible for at least one letter. The girls who finished the first letters then hurried to do the last letters. . . .

The next day, Montgomery Journal photographer Hoke Kempley happened upon the girls’ creation. On Oct. 31, 1974, his picture of it ran in the Journal under the headline, “Wicked Witch of the Beltway?”
The painted version evidently went up soon after the newspapers were taken down. Which suggests that a “Surrender Dorothy” message has been gracing the Beltway for more than half the time since that Wizard of Oz appeared in cinemas in 1939.

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