The Marble Bar, the Basement That Hosted Both Henry Fonda and Iggy Pop, Turns Another Page
For the better part of a decade, the boarded-up Congress Hotel has loomed over the 300 block of West Franklin street like a shabby ghost. It's the seven-story equivalent of Miss Havisham's moldy wedding cake, a heap of decorative curlicues and flourishes mired in neglect and lorded over by rats. A long-shuttered nightspot lies in the basement of this 97-year-old hostelry, eight granite steps beneath Franklin Street. Descend those steps, pass through a rusty metal door, and you're in a dim, cavernous room punctuated by 10 stout columns.
"What can I get you?" a voice calls out from the gloom. It's LesLee Anderson. Sporting a voluminous head of blond hair, she stands behind a marble bar stretching some 70 feet along the north side of the room.
Anderson, in a very real sense, has come home. She's in the basement as guest of Warren Carder, general superintendent with real-estate development juggernaut Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse, which, at long last, has begun renovating the long-neglected Congress.
Given the room's squalor, it's clear that in 2000, the only thing this joint can serve up is memories. And nobody has more of those than Anderson. Between 1978 and 1985, she and her late husband Roger Anderson ran a rock club down here. Under their tutelage, this basement--named after its most prominent feature, that long stone bar--was Baltimore's CBGBs. It was The Scene, the bar that brought punk and new wave to a slumbering town mired in cover bands and disco.
"I mean to tell you, we had some good, rocking times down here," the 51-year-old Anderson says, dropping her bartender act to stare out into the shadows.
Squeeze, X, the Cramps, Sonic Youth, and R.E.M. were just a few of the bands that rocked the Marble Bar. (Some scene vets insist they saw a pimple-faced foursome of Dublin lads calling themselves U2 at the Marble, but this can't be verified.)
"This is very emotional, I have to say," Anderson says, then lifts to her eye a video camera with which she's documenting her return. The bar is silent as a tomb, save for the occasional burst of cacophony--rumble, rumble, rumble, crashhhh--of construction as workers upstairs hurl debris down a metal garbage chute.
Carder says they're gutting the hotel, working downward from the top floor--stripping out whatever time, the elements, and an army of scavenging vandals left behind. The old heap is being turned into 36 apartments that will rent from $730 to $1,180 a month. The $7 million-plus project--the financing of which includes federal and state tax credits for historic preservation--calls for maintaining the hotel's original hallways and preserving the plasterwork in the building's lobby and ballroom. The Marble Bar will be spruced up as well, with an eye toward leasing it to a restaurateur.
Carder has his work cut out for him. The basement's umpteen layers of paint--red, black, gold--are all peeling at once. Sodden plaster lies about in heaps. But through the grime and graffiti come glimpses of a former glory. The columns--most of them, anyway--sport ornate Ionic-Corinthian capitals. Scrape the filthy floor a bit and you'll see hexagonal terrazzo tiles, blue and green chunks of marble set in concrete. Somebody threw a lot of money at this place once.
That somebody was James Lawrence Kernan, a Confederate soldier turned top-hatted impresario who built the hotel in 1903. Opened as the Hotel Kernan but renamed the Congress in the '30s, the rococo hotel was the center jewel in what was dubbed Kernan's "triple million-dollar enterprise," which encompassed the Maryland Theatre just west of the hotel (today a parking lot) and the Auditorium Theater around the corner on Howard Street (today a doomed wreck called the Mayfair). Kernan's creations were connected by underground tunnels, part of a subterranean spa with Turkish baths, steam rooms, and what was once the city's largest swimming pool. The Marx Brothers, Will Rogers, Sophie Tucker, W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, and a host of others graced his stages. Many stayed in the hotel, and more than a few probably wet their whistle in the basement. One enduring legend has it that Fred Astaire danced across the marble bar itself.
Rumble, rumble, rumble, crashhhh.
This was all ancient history when LesLee Anderson began her career down here in 1978. Sidling out from behind the bar, her snakeskin boots crunching the debris, she recalls her Marble Bar.
"The big stage was right here," she says, sweeping an arm toward the south end of the room. "Oh, and the soundboard was over here." From the look in her eyes, you can tell she sees it all still.
"People always ask me, 'What was the best night? What was the best band you saw?' I view it collectively. It was just a magical time," Anderson says. "I was so blessed to hear some of the bands that came through here."
But as she stalks the decayed confines, her camera darting here and there, the mists of that magical time slowly part, and she offers up some specific rock 'n' roll remembrances.
"Iggy Pop played here a couple times," she says. "He loved it. I remember I was mopping the floor and Iggy was standing against the bar saying, 'This is a great rock 'n' roll bar--this is going to be a rocking night.'"
Rumble, rumble, rumble, craashhhh.
"One of the best shows was the Dead Kennedys. We had 600 people come through the doors. I looked up from packing beers behind the bar, and kids were just flying around like wild fish--this place was mass lunacy.
"Oh, and I'll never forget how [head Kennedy] Jello Biafra left his pants here," Anderson adds. "I had to mail them back to him. They were soaking wet and full of holes, but he called me up and said he had to have them the next day. I offered to wash and dry them, and he said, 'Absolutely not!'"
Carder leads Anderson on a tour of the bar's anterooms. An erstwhile barbershop where the theater stars once had their locks trimmed is rife with garbage and heaps of rusty pipes. Across the way lies the former band room.
"Oh, look, there's the Slickee Boys," Anderson bursts out, pointing to graffiti left behind by a popular Washington-based band that played here often. The walls are plastered with the tags of long-gone, largely local acts: Thee Katatonix, Here Today, the Bedlamites, Reptile House, Cracked Nipples, Negative Watt, and a cryptic scrawl reading ROT DONUT TOUR 81.
By now Anderson is in full memory-download mode. You can just toss names at her.
The Psychedelic Furs?
"The band was great, but [singer] Richard Butler was a pain in the ass."
Velvet Underground relic John Cale?
"He was a prick. I didn't like that show."
"He didn't play here, but he came in one night and my husband was just in awe."
"You know who was good was Huey Lewis and the News," Anderson says, offering up one notable name. "About 12 people paid a $4 cover to see them on a Tuesday night. But I want to tell you, they played like they were in a stadium."
Rumble rumble rumble crashhhh.
Jello Biafra's soggy pants. A cranky John Cale trotting on stage, as legend has it, with cocaine residue under his nose. A host of Baltimore bands bounding about in frantic celebration of the new do-it-yourself musical ethic. It was quite a time.
But while her bar celebrated the manic new, Anderson's reign as punk-rock den mother was really a chaotic coda--an amped-up swan song for an address where colorful characters and high drama have been par for the course for nearly 100 years. It was quite a century at 306 W. Franklin St. And when the professionals move into their grand-a-month apartments sometime next fall, few will have any idea that their leather sofas have landed on such storied ground.
"Ladies' and Gentleman's Grill in the Basement. Meet the best people amidst best surroundings."--Hotel Kernan ad in a 1918 Maryland Theatre playbill
In 1865, 27-year-old James Kernan had a noose around his neck and a cannon pointed at his face. All because he wouldn't shut up.
Kernan, who wore Confederate gray as a member of the Baltimore Light Artillery brigade, was a Union-army captive. Word had just come down that President Lincoln had been assassinated, and Kernan couldn't stop cheering. He was an inveterate champion of the Southern cause, but that wasn't the only fuel for his fire--assassin John Wilkes Booth was a childhood chum. The pair had palled around the streets of Baltimore, and Kernan had even lodged for a time in the Booth family home. Let the Rebel yells ring out!
His captors were not amused--the war was over, but they weren't above adding one more casualty to the bloodletting. Graphically faced with the prospect of joining Lincoln, the young Reb fell silent. And so James Kernan lived to become one of Baltimore's most notable theatrical lights.
Perhaps his association with the thespian Booth family sparked Kernan's theatrical bent, or maybe he caught the stage bug after the war, when he managed East Baltimore Street's (now long since demolished) Monumental Theatre, which his brother owned. In any event, he proved a shrewd and tireless businessperson with a knack for driving the dramatic arts. He eventually lorded over a multitheater, multistate empire.
Kernan's father had run a feed store in the 300 block of West Franklin, and that's where the son went just after the turn of the century to launch his most ambitious plans. The Maryland Theatre was erected in 1903, debuting as a legitimate theatrical stage. After a year of bad box office, Kernan switched to vaudeville. Here paraded the sublime and the ridiculous--everything from Rhoda Royal's Elephants ("presenting a remarkable display of pachydermic intelligence") and Hathaways' Monkeys to Buster Keaton and Al Jolson. Kernan already owned the Natatorium, a sort of 19th-century health spa, around the corner at 508 N. Howard St., and in 1903 he remodeled the building on top of it into the Auditorium Theater. The Auditorium presented mostly legit theater and musicals, and over the years its footlights fell on the likes of Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, and Spencer Tracy. The hotel that rose between the two theaters captured the theatrical trade, both from Kernan's own stages and the nearby Academy of Music and Ford's Theater. The basement drinkery, known alternatively as the Rathskeller and the Bear Pit, was a nightclub in the nascent days of the Jazz Age. The joint was jumping.
Kernan enjoyed less than a decade as the kingpin of his million-dollar enterprise: In 1912, at the age of 74, he died in a private suite in his namesake hotel. (He left a chunk of his fortune to the Hospital for the Relief of Crippled and Deformed Children in West Baltimore, known today as Kernan Hospital.) But the good times kept on rolling on West Franklin. In 1920, the hotel opened the Jardin de Danse ("garden of dance") upstairs in the ballroom, with tunes provided by Ridgley's Jazz Band under the direction of one Professor P.E. McAsey, and later came the Club Ritz, featuring Moe Baer and his Club Ritz Orchestra.
Prohibition quieted things a bit at the Kernan. The Rathskeller became an ice cream parlor. (Although, given the complex's innumerable subterranean passages and good-time rep, it's hard to imagine that patrons who knew the right password or wink couldn't score some bathtub gin along with their egg custards and malted milks.)
The Depression quieted things down even more. The Maryland, which had switched to movies in the late '20s, was faltering, and in 1931 it was leased to a mobile group of youthful thespians calling themselves the University Theater. They took rooms at the Kernan and rehearsed in the basement bar. Among the players were Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan, who made the jump from stage lovers to the real thing. They married in the hotel dining room on Christmas Day of '31. Fifteen minutes after cutting the wedding cake, Fonda had to dash next-door for a matinee performance. (Life didn't imitate art: The marriage lasted less than a year.)
The Hotel Kernan was already showing its age when Fonda and Sullavan consummated their doomed marriage in one of its rooms. In 1932, the hotel fell into receivership and was taken over by an insurance company, which named it the Congress. The Auditorium soon nixed live theater altogether in favor of movies, while the Maryland limped along under a variety of owners and theatrical undertakings. One wonders what Confederate vet Kernan would have thought of the Maryland's 1949 decision to desegregate (after a group of actors protested the separate seating for blacks and whites). Heavyweight boxing hero Joe Louis came to the theater that year to show his support for the move. But it wasn't enough to save the old venue--the Maryland was unceremoniously replaced with a parking lot in 1951, the scars of its slanting balcony still visible on the Congress' west wall. One of the theater's opulent chandeliers wound up hanging in a wing of the Capitol in Washington. (One wonders what the old Confederate would have thought of that too.)
But live theater didn't totally abandon Kernan's corner. In 1950, the Vagabond Players, a community-theater troupe that now resides in Fells Point, was forced to vacate its former Read Street stage. The Vagabonds moved into the Congress' basement and created the city's first theater-in-the-round. A partition hid the marble bar, across which actors clambered to clandestinely reach the other side of the room.
John Bruce Johnson, recently retired from a 30-year stint as the Vagabonds' president, joined the company in 1960 as a bit player. "The dressing room was small, I remember that," he says of the troupe's days at the Congress. "But it was a thriving venture. We had many, many successful productions there."
The shows went on until 1964, when a disagreement with the Congress' owner sent the appropriately named theater company packing anew. And as the '60s gave way to the '70s, the Congress' steady march downward become a full-out tailspin. The brass beds and mahogany furniture of the Kernan era were history, as were the glitterati guests. The creaky hotel became home to a colorful collection of more or less permanent residents: forlorn pensioners, garrulous alcoholics, cranks of every stripe. Some only left their shabby rooms long enough to dash to the diner across the street. Kernan's pride had become a moth-eaten hunk of turn-of-the-century exuberance. A battered, baroque dinosaur on a dark and dog-eared corner of the city. A pedigreed flophouse.
Where better to open a music club?
"I don't want loud rock or any group that's going to cause trouble. But if the group's original and can play quietly, then fine."--original Marble Bar proprietor Scott Cunningham, quoted in the Baltimore News American, Jan. 21, 1977
I named the place," Scott Cunningham says. "I created it. A lot of my blood, sweat, and tears are down there."
Cunningham, now a 53-year-old car dealer and leader of a blues band (he plays guitar), came to Baltimore in the mid-'70s after spending a few post-college years gigging around New York City. He played a number of rooms in town but was looking to get something going on his own. Then, Cunningham says, a friend told him about "this old hotel with a 72-foot-long bar," and he went to check it out.
"The place hadn't been used in years," he says. "The marble bar was brown, and the back of it was covered in linoleum and vinyl."
It wasn't exactly love at first sight, but the young musician saw potential. He scraped together some cash and opened the Marble around Thanksgiving of '76 with Jack Voss, who left the partnership soon afterward.
In addition to playing the room regularly himself, Cunningham frequently booked the Loose Shoes Rhythm Band, a footloose local reggae/rock/R&B outfit. (In May 1977, a photo of a Loose Shoes gig at the Marble graced the cover of the very first City Paper, then called City Squeeze.)
Bob Friedman, now a 53-year-old guitarist and keyboardist with longtime local favorites Mambo Combo and a co-owner of a recording studio in Waverly, played bass in the Shoes. "Some of my favorite gigs are from the Marble Bar era," he says. "I'll never forget opening for Muddy Waters. It was incredible." After the show, Waters hung out with the crowd, Friedman recalls. "There he was, this big blues Buddha holding court."
Friedman was also one of the first to engage in an illicit activity that became a rite of passage for Marble musicians: exploring the disused warren of subterranean passages beneath the complex. Where towel-wrapped men of prominence once received rubdowns and steam baths, young artists would sneak off to smoke dope, drink beer, or have sex--sometimes all three. One night, Friedman led a gang of merrymakers into this netherworld and suddenly heard gunshots. "We all froze in terror," he says. "Then we realized they were playing a shoot-'em-up picture in the movie theater upstairs."
Cunningham soon found that playing in and managing an aged club was too much to handle on his own. Seeking a partner, he tapped Steven "TeeVee" Feldman, Loose Shoes' singer, harmonica player, and sometimes drummer.
"I just happened to fall into it because I had the money to help Scott," says Feldman, now 48 and living in Burlington, Vt. "We rebuilt the bathrooms and cleaned it up so we could cater to a better crowd. We made it a more comfortable place. But as it went, people just trashed it. The crazier the music got, the trashier the place got."
Among the "crazier" acts that took the Marble stage were Talking Heads, who played the bar in '77, with Loose Shoes opening. "I thought they were fairly incompetent as musicians," Friedman recalls with a laugh. "They were basically artists with instruments. To hear David Byrne sing was embarrassing." The room also booked a perky, punky local outfit called Scratch 'N Sniff, whose drummer, Gina Shock, later legged it for Los Angeles to play skins for the Go-Gos.
But when it came to new music, Cunningham would only go so far. Hoppy Hopkins, now a singer and percussionist with Mambo Combo, played drums in Da Moronics, perhaps Baltimore's first punk band. When the group got started around 1977, Hopkins says, his fellow bandmates "were the worst musicians I ever heard." When this fledgling ensemble brought their three-chord racket to the Marble, it didn't go well.
"Cunningham threw us out," Hopkins says. "He just ejected the band."
The Marble had a booking agent who steered established jazz, blues, and rock acts its way: Muddy Waters, Eddie Money, Canned Heat, and the fusion-y Brand X (featuring Phil Collins, when he had more hair and fewer cardigans). The price for landing marquee names on the weekends, however, was showcasing no-name groups during the week, a formula that didn't spell big money. Then subway construction began near the hotel, making parking a hassle. The Marble was teetering financially. Cunningham took the summer of 1978 off and closed the bar, with plans to regroup come cooler weather. (Summers were tough in the un-air-conditioned room: "It was a hot, damp jungle down there," Cunningham remembers, "with rats running down the top of bar.") But when he returned in the fall, Cunningham says, the hotel's owners reneged on his contract to lease the bar. The Marble's keys had been handed over to a pair of rockers named Roger and LesLee Anderson.
"I hoped it could be a great club--[the jazz magazine] Down Beat used to write about what we did," a reflective Cunningham says. "But it was a good time to get out--I was spending so much time in that basement, I never saw sunlight."
"Rock and roll and the Marble Bar make a good match, because rock and roll by its nature is from the streets. It's blue-collar music for punks young and old, and the Marble Bar is as blue-collar as you can get."--News American, June 17, 1979
We were moving to California--we had our house rented and everything," LesLee Anderson says, recalling the fateful fall of 1978. "But then Roger came to me and said there was an opportunity take over the Marble Bar."
The Andersons first came to the Congress in the mid-'70s, renting out the upstairs ballroom for parties featuring Roger Anderson's '60s-ish band Clear. They'd stash a couple of kegs in the corner, sell tickets at the door, and "pack the place," LesLee Anderson says. But throwing one-off parties with your own band is one thing; booking a club is another, as the neophyte entrepreneurs soon discovered.
"You have to recall, this was disco time--'Boogie Oogie Oogie' and all that," she says. "At first we hired seven- and nine-piece disco bands on the weekends, and we were going broke trying to pay these bands."
But increasingly, the new sounds that had started creeping into the Congress basement during the Cunningham/Feldman era were catching on in Baltimore. The Andersons booked a couple of new wave-y acts, and a good crowd came down the steps. Even Da Moronics were welcomed back.
"We became regulars and drew quite a crowd most nights," says Hoppy Hopkins, who would eventually play in nine different bands that gigged at the Marble. "Roger didn't get what we were doing, but anybody playing guitar and drums was cool with him."
Not that Baltimore was setting any trends--Sid Vicious' heroin-riddled corpse had already been found curled up in a Greenwich Village hotel room by the time punk hit the Marble Bar in earnest. But when it did come, the Marble was one of the few local venues to embrace it. The Congress Hotel's basement became the semi-official rec room for an offbeat family of folks--refugees from the thud of disco, heavy metal's hackneyed roar, and the aural pabulum of top 40, an underground bar for underground sounds.
"I'm from Dundalk--I still live there--but I was able to socialize with people from Reisterstown, Towson, Annapolis, and it didn't matter," says Robin Stuprich, now a 44-year-old highway engineer, who tended bar at the Marble during its glory days. "There were no classes, no fashion or attitude. It was a centralized meeting point, a musical melting pot, and the best years of my life."
Fellow Dundalk native "Adolf Kowalski" was already "knee-deep into punk" by 1977. Today he's a 40-year-old single parent and Legg Mason employee, but for nearly a decade, beginning in '78, he was the lanky frontperson for Thee Katatonix, one of the era's busiest bands (its oeuvre included "You Grow on Me Like a Fungus" and "My Genitalia"). The group played the first of many Marble gigs in '79.
"Roger knew that the punk thing would bring people in," says Kowalski (who asked that his real name not be used). "He liked the punk crowd because he was kind of a hood himself--a west-side tough guy. He wasn't really a bad guy, but he enjoyed the tough attitude."
While punk and new wave gave the Marble its personality, all kinds of sounds wound their way downstairs. Mixed in with the likes of X and Sonic Youth were acts such as '60s stalwarts the Searchers ("Needles and Pins"). John Waters' squat, Baltimorese-voiced discovery Edith Massey fronted numerous bands in the basement. Kowalski was one of the dozen or so who came down to see the decidedly unpunk Huey Lewis and the News, who were too square for Dundalk's answer to Johnny Rotten.
"I was in the bathroom smoking dope or something and writing on the wall HUEY LEWIS SUCKS when in walks Huey Lewis," a chuckling Kowalski recalls. "I just brought my hand down and said, 'Hey, how ya doin?' and gave him a Katatonix button, which he put on his coat."
The bar, Hopkins says, soon picked up a motto: "The Marble is the first place you play on the way up, and the last place you play on the way down." An example of the latter were the elder statesmen of punk--the splintered remains of the groups that had pioneered the sound. The Professionals, which included once and future Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, was one such outfit. Guitarist Tom Cohan's band Zehn Archar had the privilege of opening for the ex-Pistols' new project.
"We had the best sound system in town, so Roger would call us to open a lot of the big shows," says Cohan, now 43 and a teacher in Howard County. His band also warmed up the room when the now-deceased punk guitar hero and ex-New York Doll Johnny Thunders brought a band to town around 1980 (with fellow, also since-deceased Doll veteran Jerry Nolan on drums). During his set a bored, besotted Thunders verbally mocked the Baltimore crowd.
"This friend of mine had a beer can in his hand and--lovingly--just kinda tossed it [at the stage], as if to say, 'Come on, Thunders,'" Cohan recalls. "But the hand of God took that beer can. It just floated across everyone's heads and smacked Thunders smack-dab in his forehead. I even have it on tape. You hear Thunders going, 'Oh, you Baltimore children are so mind-expanding,' then all of sudden you hear this 'pop.' He just looked at the crowd, said, 'Thank you, children,' put down his guitar, grabbed his Jack Daniel's off the top of his amp, unplugged, and went out the front door."
By the early '80s, things were going well enough that the Andersons expanded, booking bands into the Congress' large upstairs room, which they dubbed the Galaxy Ballroom.
"We had such a skeleton crew," LesLee Anderson says. "We did everything: booking the ballroom, booking [the Marble], mopping the floors, cleaning bathrooms, and ordering stuff."
The Marble became more than just their life, it became their home--literally. The couple moved into the basement, sleeping on Army cots in a behind-the-bar storeroom and preparing meals in a series of toaster ovens. "If that ain't love, I don't know what is," Anderson quips.
Tireless Roger Anderson also found time to play guitar in the Marble's house band, the Alcoholics, which also featured his wife on vocals. "The bar was his baby; I just helped nurture," Anderson says of her spouse, whose stocky build and flattop earned him the nickname "Sgt. Carter." Some musicians found Roger Anderson difficult to deal with, and bands occasionally found themselves banned from the basement for one perceived infraction or another. But as a guitar-slinger himself, Anderson loved to hang with groups after closing, shooting the shit over beers. And with her hard-nosed husband at the helm, Anderson says, the police rarely had to come down the granite steps. (Once, legend has it, someone tried to hold up the place. Roger cracked the assailant over the head with a ball-peen hammer; crime over.)
The Marble's unique atmosphere wasn't too all tastes. Iggy Pop might have loved the fetid, echo-y cellar, but many touring bands were less than enamored of the bar once they got a look at--and a whiff of--the place. NRBQ and Steely Dan's Donald Fagen are among the acts said to have vetoed Marble gigs. Roger Anderson dealt with this too.
Cohan recalls the night when the manager of British hair-wavers A Flock of Seagulls turned his nose up at Roger's room. With their song "I Ran" rising on the radio charts, the Flock was flying high when it came to play the Marble.
"Their manager came in and said they weren't coming off the bus--the sound system was terrible, and they thought the place was a hole," Cohan says. "Roger got in this guy's face and started screaming, 'You better hold up to your contract, or you can get your asses back to England.'" A cowed gaggle of Gulls eventually took the stage. (Postscript: Years later, a fading, feather-bedraggled Flock played the Barn on Harford Road.)
For all his scrappy spirit, one thing remained beyond Roger Anderson's control: the competition. The Marble was never the only rock roost in town. Venerable venue No Fish Today was just around the corner on Eutaw Street (until it burned down in 1982). The hippie-esque Fish catered to less-caustic rock, but the Andersons' early successes with punk and new wave didn't go unnoticed elsewhere. Girard's, a mirror-ball-and-track-lights disco at Cathedral and Eager streets (now City Café) started booking bands in '81. (The Ramones plugged in there once.) Federal Hill's cozy 8 x 10 club opened in '83. The "underground sound" was emerging into the sunlight, and its growing legion of fans found better-looking rooms in better neighborhoods to hear it. Meanwhile, many of the Marble's earliest aficionados were graduating, or growing up, or simply moving on. The joint's shabby chic was wearing thin.
"You never went [to the Marble] because of how the music sounded," Cohan says of the black-slathered basement. "You went there because of the times, and the times dictated that clubs should be like that."
"It was a dump, there's no two ways about it," Kowalski says. "Roger did what he could do, but it was a big project for one guy, this huge, old hotel. In the summer it was blistering hot, in the winter it was freezing cold. It was dark, dingy, and stunk like piss."
The Marble's heyday came to a succinct and tragic end on the afternoon of April 26, 1984, when irascible, hard-living Roger Anderson suffered a fatal heart attack in the middle of the bar's terrazzo floor. He was 37. LesLee Anderson was fixing a toaster-oven dinner when it happened.
"He was laying on stage, and then he just flipped over onto the floor and died," she says. "It was that quick."
LesLee Anderson soldiered on in the cellar alone, but her heart wasn't in it. And her husband had left awfully big shoes to fill.
"When Roger died, something went missing from Baltimore: club owners who loved rock 'n' roll," Cohan says. "We were left with people who were out to make money. Roger was the only club owner I ever met who was actually a rocker. He had a fire for it."
On a chilly night in December of that year, someone broke into the bar while LesLee Anderson dozed on her back-room cot and stole her wedding ring and Dobro guitar.
"I was just heartbroken," she says. "When the police came, they told me I should leave, that I was in danger here." Several months later, she did just that, shuttering the bar and making the long-postponed move to California--by herself.
But too many people had too much invested in the Marble to let it go quietly into that good night. Among them were bartender Robin Stuprich, her husband Ed Linton, and their friend Joe Gary, who took charge of the room and booked "hardcore" bands--punk's harder, faster, and decidedly more youthful offspring. (Gary, who did sound for a number of those bands, passed away this past summer.) All-ages, no-alcohol shows became the norm, and they staged a number of good ones: the Bad Brains, the Dead Milkmen, Henry Rollins, the Butthole Surfers. But without Sgt. Carter's authoritative presence, the chaos was sometime hard to control. (The Buttholes, for instance, were blamed for heaving a paint can through an ornate, beveled mirror behind the bar.)
"There were more clubs by that point," Kowalski says. "And the younger crowd didn't drink, so you didn't have to have shows in a bar. [The Marble] was trying hardcore on Sunday afternoons, but the business end of it wasn't there."
Stuprich's reign lasted about six months, but there were others in the post-Anderson era. One was Vermin Supreme (nee Scott Taylor), a member of a local group of merry pranksters called Zae Jockee Clubbe. In 1985, the Clubbe held a musical Halloween bash at the Congress, and with the event's monetary and artistic success, what was once Professor P.E. McAsey's Jardin de Dance became Vermin Supreme's Fabulous Galaxy Lounge. Having taken over the hotel's upstairs, Supreme soon reopened the Marble as well.
With no budget for national acts, Supreme booked local, hosting the Motor Morons, Half Japanese, Exhibit A, and other area stalwarts, while also filling the stage with poetry readings, performance art, and assorted wackiness. (There were even--gasp!--Grateful Dead nights.)
"I used to hire dog acts and stuff like that," says Supreme, now a house painter in Rockport, Mass. (and a perennial candidate for elected office). "It was very eclectic."
Supreme's postmodern vaudeville lasted until the spring of 1986 when, he says, he "tired of dealing with the hotel's incredibly sleazy manager. . . . A number of people took to controlling the rooms after me, but they didn't last long because they all had to deal with that sleazy guy." (The sleazy guy's name escapes Supreme. The only former Congress manager City Paper was able to track down declined to be interviewed.)
And so the Marble limped along--open one week, closed the next--while the ballroom spent the bulk of its time as the Baltimore Pub, booking more mainstream fare. The rooms were unplugged for good in 1987, when out-of-state interests unveiled plans to remake the moth-eaten Congress into a budget hotel. The few remaining residents were eventually booted as well. On May 9, 1987, the Marble Bar held its farewell party. Scene veterans Thee Katatonix and Da Moronics clambered onto the basement stage for a swan-song set.
"It was sad, but at the same time it was kind of a relief," Hopkins says. "The bar had been struggling for so long; it was wounded and on its knees. We played, we drank a lot of beer, there were tears and hugs, and then we just dragged our shit out the door one last time."
"We think the neighborhood is improving and there's a renaissance of interest in downtown housing. This is such a beautiful, historic building."--Struever Bros. executive Ted Rouse, quoted in The Sun, March, 25, 1999
Rumble, rumble, rumble, crashhhh. mProwling the basement she left 16 years earlier, LesLee Anderson has moved beyond making video memories and is scanning the floor for a souvenir--a tangible hunk of history.
"I've got to have something--a piece of this place," she says. "I should've taken a piece of the marble bar when I left here the first time."
Alas, it's too late now even for that. Not long after Anderson moves out from behind it, a quartet of crowbar-wielding hard hats begin dismantling the signature bar.
"We're shipping it out to be cleaned and restored," Carder says. "We plan to bring it back."
In hindsight, perhaps, it's easy to say the punk plug was pulled prematurely at the Marble. Plans to convert the Congress into a budget hotel never came to fruition; there was never enough money. In the ensuing years, a number of developers fell in love with the Franklin Street pile, but none were able to put their feelings into action. Squatters and rats were left with the run of the place. Ironically, the utter squalor brought the hotel's final touch of show-biz attention: In 1995, Bruce Willis strode the edifice's muck-covered marble floors for a scene in Terry Gilliam's post-apocalyptic film 12 Monkeys.
Rumble, rumble, rumble, crashhhh.
The ubiquitous Struever Bros., rehabilitator of Canton's once-crumbling American Can Co. building and other moldering Baltimore buildings, might be the only developer in town with the clout and wherewithal to revive this rickety white elephant in the new century. They've already negotiated with the city for a property-tax break. Despite the hotel's tatterdemalion appearance, Carder says the place is still structurally sound. James Kernan built well.
And so the Rathskeller/Bear Pit/Ladies' and Gentleman's Grill/Marble Bar may become a restaurant. There's even been talk of bringing some form of music back down those eight granite steps.
Anderson pricks up her ears at this notion. Then she stares into the gloom.
"It can never happen again in Baltimore," she says. "Not like it was."
Then she shuffles off, looking for her piece of history.
Thanks For the Memories (12/23/2009)
2007: I had a borderline awful time in Bucharest—and I kind of miss it
Vini Vidi Vito (4/8/2009)
Vito Simone came to Baltimore, saw opportunity, and conjured a real estate fantasy
Preacher, Teacher, Forger, Spy (4/16/2008)
From Bounty Hunter to Bible Thumper, Pastor Anthony Hill Presents a Paradox
Period Pieces (8/1/2007)
Why A Maryland Man Turned His Rec Room Into The World's First Museum Of Menstruation
Wild Bunch (8/9/2006)
Prickly Racial Politics And Murderous Mafia Plots Amid Baltimore's Banana Wars
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (4/19/2006)
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201