We're sitting in our office the other day when an e-mail arrives from the New Museum in New York informing us of an upcoming exhibit of still photographs by Baltimore's own filmmaker, John Waters. The message informs us that the exhibition opens Feb. 7 - today - coinciding with John Waters Day in Baltimore.
Hmmm, we think, it's gratifying to share the work of a favorite son with the rest of the world, but what's this about a John Waters Day? We have one of those?
Just as we begin pulling out our calendars to see if we've overlooked a chance to celebrate something, another e-mail arrives. This one is also from New York - from a syndicated public radio program called Studio 360. It seems that Waters is scheduled to appear on the show, which is carried locally on WYPR, and their publicist wants to know if The Sun could include this program among other listings of events celebrating John Waters Day on Feb. 7.
Other listings? We have no other listings of John Waters Day events.
It only gets stranger. Yesterday, we open our New York Times to find the paper wishing everyone a Happy John Waters Day today.
Now this is weird. All of New York seems to be aware that we have a John Waters Day here in Baltimore, but it's totally news to us.
Embarrassed by our civic ignorance, we begin a little investigation. A search of our own newspaper morgue turns up nothing at all about a John Waters Day. But two out-of-town publications -The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and Salon.com - both ran stories in the last five years mentioning that way back in 1985 the Baltimore mayor, William Donald Schaefer, named Feb. 7 of that year John Waters Day. Yesterday's New York Times says much the same.
Evidence mounts. Some Web sites, including that of the Baltimore visitor's bureau, seem to think Feb. 7, 1985, was John Waters Day, but a call to Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for the bureau, reveals that their information comes from a 1994 USA Today story about Waters.
We wonder, is everyone just recycling everyone else's information?
Closer to the historic day in question, and therefore perhaps more authoritative, is an old clipping from Au Courant, a defunct gay Philadelphia publication. A story dated April 1, 1985, mentions that the Baltimore mayor had recently proclaimed a John Waters Day.
The 1985 date seems more and more of a solid lead, so we call City Hall's Department of Legislative Services where they keep track of City Council actions. To no avail. "I'm not finding anything, anything at all," Anita Evans, a research assistant reports to us after a couple of days. "I'm not saying it didn't happen, but I can't find it."
No better luck with Mayor O'Malley's office. Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman, says their records on proclamations and dedications only go back to the year 2000, which does us no good at all.
Boy, this is turning out much harder than we thought.
Through an aide, Schaefer tells us, "We declared it John Waters Day because he is a unique individual who did so much for Baltimore." We can't tell, of course, whether Schaefer really remembers giving Waters a day or was simply prompted by our question. We know one of his chief aides at the time, Lainy LeBow-Sachs, has no memory of it. "I don't remember, but I feel like it could have happened."
We decide to call Pat Moran, the casting director and Waters' best friend. Surely she remembers a John Waters Day?
No such luck, but it also doesn't strike her as a big deal one way or the other. Everybody gets a day, she says. After she won an Emmy, both the city and the state gave her one on Oct. 20, 1997. "They hand those things out like popcorn." (She says that even without knowing that Shirley Jones and Rita Moreno each were recently given days by Baltimore.) To Moran's disappointment, however, no one threw her a parade.
If anyone should know about John Waters Day, it figures to be the honoree himself. Unfortunately, we are told by Waters' office that he's too immersed in preparations for his New York show to help us unravel the mystery of his day. Through an assistant, he does say that the honor was for one day only - rather than an annual occasion - and he helpfully refers us to the biography his office puts out.
That only confuses things.
The biography states that "'John Waters Day' was named in his honor in the State of Maryland in 1985 followed by 'John Waters Week' in the City of Baltimore in 1988."
That doesn't square with anything else we've learned. Waters should know, we have to admit. But maybe, being an artistic genius and all, his head is so full of subversion and salaciousness that he can't also keep various government bodies and their honors straight.
We especially think this may be the case after hearing from the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives, which houses the collection of Waters' papers and memorabilia. The co-curator, Leith Johnson, sends us a copy of a proclamation signed by Schaefer - as governor, not mayor - proclaiming Feb. 14 to Feb. 20, 1988, as John Waters Week in Maryland.
There is also a proclamation from then Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke declaring Feb. 16, 1988, Hairspray Day in commemoration of Waters' new movie.
Still nothing hard on Feb. 7, 1985.
We start wondering what was so special about that particular day anyway. After all, at that point, Waters hadn't released a new movie in four years.
Back we go to the newspaper morgue, where we discover a major clue. On Feb. 7, 1985, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Baltimore Film Forum co-sponsored at the museum a three-day retrospective of Waters' films, highlighted by a lecture by the filmmaker himself.
It was a seminal event for Waters, Moran recalls, marking a general acceptance that he had not thus far enjoyed with his guerrilla films. "It was the beginning of the lovefest for John Waters," she says.
Jay Fisher was then the curator of prints for the museum. He has never forgotten Mayor Schaefer's proclamation on John Waters Day because it was timed to coincide with the museum's event (black-tie optional) on Feb. 7, 1985. "I thought it was so fantastic that the city and mayor and everybody could put aside our typical American prudery and celebrate this genius in our midst," says Fisher, who is now the BMA's deputy director of curatorial affairs.
Finally, a credible, eyewitness account. Someone remembers!
So, we can say definitively that there appears to have been a John Waters Day in Baltimore, and it seems to have happened on one particular day 19 years ago today. We can also almost assuredly declare that today is not John Waters Day in Baltimore.
But maybe it should be in New York.