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D.C. Temple graffiti prank won't die

Published: Tuesday, July 26 2011 1:55 p.m. MDT

WASHINGTON D.C. — Who did it?

Who played the part of the Wicked Witch of the West and was the first in the early 1970s to spray paint the message "Surrender Dorothy" on an overpass on the Washington D.C. Beltway right where the Mormon Temple comes into view? The mystery is now, at least partially, solved.

Christine Mulligan of Germantown, Md., wrote to "Answer Man" John Kelly at The Washington Post last month to see if he knew the orgin of the painted prank.

He didn't — at first.

"That graffito (singular of graffiti) was on a CSX railway bridge, meaning the perpetrator(s) risked not just falling onto the Beltway below but being flattened by a passing freight train," he wrote. "The temple was dedicated in November 1974, and certainly by the early 1980s 'Surrender Dorothy' was a common sight for Beltway drivers — and an irritant for state highway workers, who would periodically be brought in to remove what was seen as a distraction to drivers."

For more than three decades that "distraction" has been painted over by highway crews — only to reappear.

The article had a nice 1986 photo of the tagged bridge — the tall spires of the Washington D.C. Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rising above the graffiti.

So the "Answer Man" asked for help from his readers to solve the mystery.

The phrase comes from the movie "The Wizard of Oz" where the Wicked Witch leaves a sky-written smoke message to the residents of the Emerald City to turn over the witch's enemy, their ruby-shoe-wearing visitor from Kansas: "Surrender Dorothy."

"Ehpien" on Flikr.com explained the context of the graffiti this way: "As you go down this particular section of highway, the road descends and suddenly you see this majestic building constructed of white marble and topped with metal spires gilded with gold, as well as I believe an angel looking down from above. The effect is somewhat like seeing the castle from The Wizard of Oz."

So someone spray-painted the witch's demands on the train bridge starting in 1974.

A video on YouTube shows what the drive looks like at night — and how it inspires the Wizard of Oz reference even if the graffiti is gone.

In 1989, the Deseret News Washington Bureau reported on an article in the Washington Post Magazine that rated the Washington D.C. Temple the "Best View on the Beltway." The magazine described the view: "As you drive past Kensington at night along the Roller Caster (the freeway stretch between Connecticut and Georgia avenues), the soaring spires and golden highlights of the Mormon Temple are always a thrill — however incongruous." The Deseret News explained that the temple was "known affectionately by locals as Oz."

Orson Scott Card, who writes a column for the Deseret News' Mormon Times section, tried to explain in 2005 why the movie quote graffiti is funny: "This is funny because clearly the Mormons didn't intend their temple to remind anybody of a classic fantasy movie, but once somebody put up the graffiti, it made everybody think of it and laugh." It wasn't the temple, Card explained, it was the juxapositon of the architecture and the greenery and the clever connection with the graffiti quote.

Several people responded to The Washington Post's Answer Man's request for information. "No one would admit to painting the message over the Beltway, but three people said they had met the person who did it," he wrote. The leads, however, turned cold.

But before the paint, there was the idea — an idea that involved crumpled newspapers and Catholic schoolgirls.

"In the fall of 1974," Kelly wrote, "the senior class of Holy Child, a Catholic girls school in Potomac (Md.), visited the Mormon Temple before its dedication. To some, the building resembled the Emerald City."

The school was performing "The Wizard of Oz" as a school play that year. The girls hatched a plan to present the witch's message to the world.

"We thought it was brilliant," Chris Brennan, Holy Child Class of 1975, told The Washington Post, "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."

The girls gathered at night and in a commando-style midnight operation — each girl assigned her letter. They then stuffed the newspaper wads into the chain-link fence on the Linden street bridge over the beltway.

A photograph appeared in the Montgomery Journal on Oct. 31, 1974, with the headline, "Wicked Witch of the Beltway?" The photo caption read in part: "Fantasy? Maybe. But isn't it great to have such a sense of fun?"

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com TWITTER: www.twitter.com/degroote degroote

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