Local musician and 'Jeopardy' contestant pushes for Capital Day in Lancaster - LancasterOnline: Lifestyle

Local musician and 'Jeopardy' contestant pushes for Capital Day in Lancaster

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Posted: Sunday, April 22, 2012 12:12 am | Updated: 7:10 pm, Thu Sep 12, 2013.

On a September evening in 1777, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia had just adjourned for the day when word arrived from the army of George Washington. In urgent Colonial English, it read something to the effect of: "Get out now!"

British troops, having handily beaten Washington at Brandywine, were now threatening Philadelphia, capital of the fledgling nation. After taking a roundabout route to hide the Liberty Bell in Allentown and avoid British patrols, the delegates reconvened at Lancaster County Courthouse on Sept. 27.

More than 230 years later, friends Matthew Johnson and James Lipka were sitting in a Lancaster bar wondering if folks truly appreciated the one day Lancaster served as capital of the United States.

"I think if you grew up around here, you remember learning about it in elementary school," Johnson said, "but I don't think many people really think about how important it was. A group of us thought it would at least be worth celebrating ourselves."

Johnson has been at the head of a grass-roots movement to recognize and celebrate Sept. 27 as Capital Day in Lancaster, and his efforts will gain a national audience this week when he appears on the game show "Jeopardy."

Johnson taped his "Jeopardy" episode - or episodes (he's not allowed to say whether he won) - last year, and it will air Tuesday, April 24.

Johnson said he was asked to submit several anecdotes about himself, and host Alex Trebek would pick one that he wanted to talk about.

"Luckily he picked Capital Day. I got to mention it, and then I got to school him on how to properly pronounce the name of the city."

As a baker, a philosophy teacher and graduate student at Temple University, and a guitarist with the psychedelic folk-rock band Slackwater News, it hardly seems plausible that Johnson would have time to mount a major civic project like this. "I've always been somewhat stupidly ambitious. But I do think this is something that would be great for the city."

It matters not to Johnson and his fellow revelers that the Continental Congress met at the Court House, located in what is now Penn Square, for barely a day.

"They basically met just long enough to decide to go to York," Johnson said.

Given the added safety offered by putting the Susquehanna between themselves and the British army, the Congress spent the next eight months in York drafting the Articles of Confederation and ratifying a vitally important treaty with France that would bring much needed money and military support for the revolution.

"But really, they went to York because they knew no self-respecting Englishman would set foot in such a miasma of a place," Johnson said, laughing. "I just think there is something cool about it being just one day in Lancaster that is worth celebrating."

The informal Capital Day celebration had flown under the radar until one of Johnson's bunch said he knew where Mayor Rick Gray lived.

Never one to do anything halfway, Johnson wrote a semiserious proclamation filled with snarky digs at York and dashed off the "Capital Day Song."

Gathering sufficient liquid courage, they knocked on the mayor's door, read the proclamation outside and sang the song. The mayor made an official-looking gesture and declared Sept. 27 to be Capital Day. "No one knows if he really had the authority to do that or not," Johnson said. "But he did."

The next year, the gang of revelers, now swelling in membership and sporting tricorn hats and powdered wigs, was ready to visit the mayor again.

Johnson was reluctant to make the mayoral visit an annual thing. Sooner or later, he figured, Gray would call the police.

But the mayor was glad to see them.

"He turns to his wife and says, 'These are the people I was telling you about!'" Johnson recalled.

Over cocktails and pleasantries, Johnson said Gray told them it was time to take their annual celebration more seriously. "He told us to take it to the city council."

Last year, the troupe did their song and proclamation dance in council chambers, and were rewarded with a handsome parchment proclamation officially declaring Sept. 27 to be Capital Day.

The holiday was real.

For now, plans for this September are still up in the air. Johnson has recently begun working closely with city officials in an effort to involve various civic, commercial and arts groups.

"The mayor's office has been incredibly helpful," Johnson said. "Right now we're just waiting for that one fish to jump, and I think that will get the whole ball rolling. I think there are some people out there who still think this might be a goof.

"The bottom line is, I want this to be a real thing that city residents celebrate and take pride in, but still have fun."

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