Period props across in McPherson Square, summer 2018 Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Sightings of Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, and Kristen Wiig in D.C. lit up social media this summer. “A lady came into the store one day…” says Wendy Ezrailson, who owns Reddz Trading resale store in Georgetown. “She said, ‘I’m scouting out locations for a movie. But I can’t say what it is … and we’re going to recreate Commander Salamander.’” 

The “lady” talking to Ezrailson, who co-owned the punk clothing store with her husband Izzy from 1976 to 2010, was most likely Carol Fleischer, one of D.C.’s top film location scouts. Later, crews built a Commander Salamander façade over the former Appalachian Spring American craft storefront next door to Reddz and across the street from the original Commander Salamander, now an M&T Bank. The secret was out. The ’80s and Wonder Woman had arrived.

Operating under the working title Magic Hour, Fleischer and counterpart Matthew Noonan approached D.C.’s Office of Cable, Television, Film, Music, and Entertainment (OCTFME) to set the groundwork for filming a live-action period film in D.C. 

“They approached us because they heard about the incentive program,” says OCTFME Associate Director Herbert Niles, describing the agency’s Entertainment Rebate Fund. Since 2016, productions have been able to apply for a refund of up to 35 percent of qualified production expenditures provided they spend at least $250,000 in D.C. and hire residents to work on the crew. Warner Bros. Pictures’ Wonder Woman 1984 “represents the largest and most impactful production footprint in the District of Columbia since the film office was established [in 1979],” Niles says. 

By June, vintage ’80s cars were cruising along Wisconsin Avenue NW. The Georgetown movie theater (poised for apartment conversion) was dressed as a double-screen family-friendly venue for Footloose and Ghostbusters—not as the original single-screen arthouse it was that year, with screenings of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, and the 1979 erotic Roman empire drama Caligula

Director Patty Jenkins updated her Twitter background with a WW84 graphic. The sequel transports Wonder Woman from 1917/the Great War to the glam and grit of the Barry/Reagan-era D.C. of 1984. The final storyline won’t be revealed until close to WW84’s November 2019 release, but during filming, Deadline.com reported that it’s a Cold War plot. Twitter provided the bulk of real-time information and mapping for the WW84 filming. But wherever the crew went, the ghosts of 1984 D.C. were present. The city’s still walking in their footprints. 

Watergate 

The Twitter account @WonderWomanHQ tweeted a photo of Gadot and Pine on the balcony of what looks like the co-ops at Watergate East. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted a pic of real live “cows at the Watergate.” 

In 1984 at the Watergate, chef Jean-Louis Palladin, owner of Jean-Louis, was taking his farm-to-table concept up a notch. French food and nouvelle cuisine were the luxury dining experiences of the ’80s. Inside the intimate restaurant, diners often dropped $100 to $200 per dinner plate ($243 to $487 in today’s dollars) with their American Express Gold cards, plus a $100 per person tip for the waiter.  

President Ronald Reagan—former movie star, SAG president, and California governor—was campaigning for his second term at the time. When the president and Nancy Reagan arrived at the White House, a cadre of their closest wealthy and celebrity friends tagged along for the ride. One of the favorite meetup spots was The Watergate in Foggy Bottom. The complex included three residences, an office building, a hotel, and retail shops. The Watergate was transformed from the scandalous ’70s Republican Party crime scene to the “unofficial headquarters for Republican partying,” Washington Post staff writer Stephanie Mansfield wrote in 1981.  

The Reagans’ social inner circle was known as “The Group.” It included bold-faced Watergate residents Betsy “Bets” Bloomingdale and her husband; Bloomingdale’s retail heir Alfred, who also founded the Diners Club; and Senator Bob Dole and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth “Liddy” Dole. Watergate is a better location for Wiig who, according to the film’s IMDb page, is playing Barbara Minerva, heiress, archaeologist, and Wonder Woman foe “Cheetah.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“SILENCE = DEATH,” Hirshhorn Museum 

Gadot and Pine were spotted on the ground level of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden wrapped in screens printed with the “SILENCE = DEATH” symbol a month after the museum closed its recent exhibition Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, which included a neon version of the symbol created in 1987. 

In 1984, the Hirshhorn Museum, a decade old at that point, continued to expand its collection and exhibitions of modern 20th century art.

Messages appeared on bulletin boards in Adams Morgan and other areas near Whitman-Walker Health about “this strange pneumonia or this strange skin cancer,” Barbara Lewis remembers. Lewis, a full-time physician assistant at Whitman-Walker, was a volunteer at its lesbian health center in 1984. The nameless virus, later identified in 1986 as HIV, mostly affected gay men. 

“There was a lot of anger around monies not being directed toward research,” Lewis recalls. “Ronald Reagan never even said the word ‘AIDS.’” An estimated 12,000 people had died from AIDS by 1985, including Hollywood actor Rock Hudson, who sought experimental treatment in France. The crisis caused Whitman-Walker to pivot its mission toward activism.

The SILENCE = DEATH Project design collective lent their signature symbol to the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP (founded in 1987), to use in protests at NIH and the FDA, demanding they release to patients the AIDS drugs they were developing. ACT UP member and museum curator Bill Olander documented the story of this symbol in a 1987 hand out accompanying a New Museum of Contemporary Art window display of the neon “SILENCE = DEATH” symbol. 

By March 1987, AZT, the first treatment for HIV, was approved by the FDA and priced at $8,000 a year ($17,000 today) per patient. Protests erupted over the drug’s steep price tag. President Reagan signed an executive order in June and named 12 members to a presidential panel on AIDS. Afterwards, Barbara Lewis was working full-time as a physician assistant in clinical trials at George Washington University Hospital. “A lot of my activism was trying to get people into studies and getting them on medication,” she recalls. 

Wonder Woman 1984 is a bit premature for SILENCE = DEATH. Gay men’s health groups and individuals distributed information about AIDS prevention and safe sex as early as 1982, making 1984 not too early for Diana and her beau to have the safe sex talk. 

The demographics for HIV/AIDS virus carriers shifted. Whitman-Walker evolved, serving African-American, Latinx, and immigrant communities. “It became clear that it was not in just the gay, white community,” Lewis laments.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Downtown, McPherson Square 

The Metropolitan Police Department announced street and alley closures from 6:30 p.m. on Friday, July 6, to 5 a.m. on Monday the 9th on the 1400 and 1500 blocks of I Street NW and K Street NW around McPherson Square. Retro telephone booths and video store façades were moved into place.

“In the ’80s, if you look at D.C. for all its problems, it has a huge concentration of black professionals,” say George Derek Musgrove, co-author of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital. D.C.’s black majority took Chocolate City into its second decade. Mayor Marion Barry created job opportunities for residents in the city government. Youth explored career options through the mayor’s popular summer jobs program. And downtown real estate developers made major strides alongside the growth of the Metro.

Even after the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982, D.C.’s reputation as a city for smart career women was also growing. Five women served on the D.C. Council: Ward 3 Councilmember Polly Shackleton, Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, Ward 5 Councilmember Nadine Winter, Ward 8 Councilmember Wilhelmina Rolark, and At-Large Councilmember Betty Ann Kane. In the first years of the Reagan administration, UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick was the only woman in a cabinet-level post. 

“I’m sure that [Secretary of State] Alexander Haig thought he was going to wipe me out during the first nine months, and he didn’t,” she recalled at the 1984 Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society, a gathering of influential women from around the globe. Elizabeth Dole, and Margaret M. Heckler of Health and Human Services, joined Reagan’s cabinet in 1984. Queens Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro threw another punch at the glass ceiling when she ran for vice president with Walter Mondale on the Democratic party ticket. 

Women earned 63.7 cents to the man’s dollar. Downtown entry-level “pink collar” clerical positions were plentiful. Alcott & Andrews (founded in ’84) on Pennsylvania Avenue NW was where “career girls” bought their proper business attire without wrangling with fashion trends. Everything the store sold could be mixed, matched, and accentuated with a silk bow, the women’s version of the neck tie. But when supermodels and celebrities showed up on red carpets in Armani suits, “career” attire was abandoned for style and substance. In 1989, Alcott & Andrews filed for bankruptcy.

According to a 1982 Congressional Quarterly report, in his first year in office Reagan cut about $25 billion in programs affecting the poor; personal and corporate income taxes were reduced by $37.7 billion.

In 1984, you could usually find McKenna’s Wagon parked on the 15th Street NW side of McPherson Square. Martha’s Table founder Veronica Maz started the meal service named for a Jesuit priest Horace B. McKenna, who died in 1982. Maz and Rev. McKenna met when she was teaching sociology at Georgetown University. They worked together to address poverty in the city. 

“One of the major issues in the early ’80s was homelessness,” says Musgrove. 

The Center for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) and fervent homeless advocate Mitch Snyder pushed the city to create a comprehensive shelter system. Mayor Barry gave hints of support after his inauguration in 1979. 

“[Barry] comes against a budget crunch that he really inherits from the [Walter] Washington administration,” Musgrove says. “One of the things that he cuts, in response, is the small expansions in homeless services that he enacted when he first came into office.”

Snyder and CCNV turned their attentions to the federal government for shelter space. Snyder went on a hunger strike to secure the Federal City building on 2nd Street NW  near Union Station, ending his 51-day fast when the government granted the shelter. The Right to Overnight Shelter Initiative appeared on D.C.’s November ballot and passed by a 72 percent majority. Reagan defeated Mondale and won a second term.