They're not saying "Doggone it" on Fleet Street anymore. Missing for several years, an offbeat Baltimore landmark that was the inspiration for a John Waters movie set is slowly returning to the red brick walls of the Luc his grooming and supply store in Highlandtown for nearly two decades.
Soon, there will be a dozing dog. A Miss America dog. An aerobics dog. And if the years of auditioning hundreds of artists pays off, there may even be a Marilyn Monroe dog sashaying in the middle of Fleet Street.
"It's been quite difficult," says Lucky Three owner David Walter as he bounces back and forth between his cluttered shop and the emerging mural of colorful canines -- and one cat -- above the corner of Fleet and Conkling streets.
With darting eyes and shaggy brown hair, Mr. Walter is as nervous as a border collie about to be clipped. For the past four years, he's been trying to figure out what kinds of pictures should replace the murals that had been gracing his building since the 1970s.
He has been calling art schools, placing newspaper ads and soliciting proposals from hundreds of artists around the state.
He has rejected many proposals, stuffing them into a bulging Hecht's shopping bag.
Standing in his pet shop, he pulls the proposals out one at a time and shakes his head.
"I don't know what this one is trying to say," he says, staring at a sketch of a cat staked out spread-eagle on the fairgrounds of an amusement park. "It's not very good. We have a lot of pictures that aren't very good."
Walter has been dogged about the mural, creating dozens of "scenarios," jotting down themes for possible pet cartoons on pages of loose-leaf paper. Among the ones he likes: a Liberace dog, a dog on a department store escalator -- and an Elvis dog.
But turning the pet scenes into mural-size cartoons hasn't been easy. "I give the artists the idea, and then I see if they can create it," he says.
Most times they can't. Mr. Walter dumps the proposals into his Hecht's bag. But if he likes a sketch, he pays the artist for the rights. So far, he's planning to reproduce 10 to 15 sketches as part of the new mural.
The mural has become something of an institution in Highlandtown, a neighborhood where traditions die hard and families stay for generations. The first mural went up in the 1970s, shortly after Mr. Walter bought the store. It was replaced in 1982 by another set of posing pets, such as a dog dressed in boxer shorts refusing a spoonful of medicine from his frazzled owner.
The cartoons inspired filmmaker John Waters and his production designer Vincent Peranio when they created a set for the 1988 movie "Hairspray." Paintings similar to those on the side of the pet store wound up adorning the film's fictitious Hardy Har Har joke shop, where Ricki Lake's character and her parents, played by Divine and Jerry Stiller, shared a knotty pine-paneled apartment upstairs.
"We always saw it because we did a lot of filming in Highlandtown, and we always liked it," Mr. Waters says.
Mr. Walter stripped the mural off about four years ago because it was peeling. When he didn't replace it with another collection of cartoons, some Highlandtown neighbors worried that the dog days were over at Lucky Three.
"When he took them down, people thought he was out of business," said Eddie Frank, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years and has been taking his Yorkshire Terrier named Butch to the pet store for the past seven years. "We really like the cartoons. People always stopped by and looked at them."
Exhausted from interviewing so many artists and reviewing so many pet sketches, Mr. Walter says he wasn't sure when he was going to create a new mural. Finally, he felt the time was right to begin this fall.
Even as a painter started work on the mural last week, Mr. Walter was still fretting over which cartoons should wind up on the wall. He says he desperately needs an Elvis dog. But so far, none of the artists has been able to capture what he wants. He also wants a hip hound, a "dog for the '90s," but he's having a little trouble.
"I don't really know what that is," Mr. Walter says. "But I'll know once I see it."