Raising a Glass
Baltimore's Oldest Continuously Operated Gay Bar Turns 50
It's a typical Monday night at Leon's.
The two front doors are propped open--usual for a spring evening--but the fading sunlight does nothing to illuminate the tiny corner bar at Park Avenue and Tyson Street. At just before 8, happy hour is in its last moments, but no more than 10 men are there. Bartender Celeste Ball is slinging last-minute two-for-one orders for the men sitting around the oval-shaped bar that fills the room. Cans of Bud, rum and cokes, and a drink with fruit juice hit the bar and bills are exchanged. Billy Idol screams "White Wedding" from the digital jukebox--just about the only modern item in the place. Ball shimmies a bit behind the bar. The lights from the jukebox are the brightest things in the place, but when it came in a few years ago, Ball covered them with newspaper.
"We don't like much light in here," she says with a grin. "I'm like a bat now."
With her gold jewelry and halo of frosted, spiky hair, Ball shines like a disco ball. She calls the customers "Mary" or "Louise"--depending on whether or not she likes them. After 22 years behind the bar at Leon's, she's earned this right.
"My claim to fame is Mustard Mondays," she says pushing over a basket of pretzels and a tiny plastic condiment container of dipping sauce. She developed the recipe for the sauce herself and has been serving it for about five years. It may have started out as a modest marketing push to draw in new customers, but these days it's just something nice she does for her regulars.
"Watch out, it's hot," she warns. It wasn't supposed to be, originally, but Ball made a mistake with the recipe that upped the heat. The boys liked the error. "It took me like two years to figure out what I did wrong," she says.
There are no martini glasses, frozen drinks, or frosted beer mugs. Leon's is a shots-and-beer joint, and that hasn't changed much at all in its 50-year existence. There are older gay bars around the country, such as Doubleheader in Seattle (1934) and the White Horse Inn in Berkeley, Calif. (1936), but as far as anyone can tell, Leon's is the oldest continuously operating gay bar in Baltimore. It's been around since the 1930s, at least, but 2007 marks a half-century since gay men colonized the bohemian hangout that had previously served the artist community in Mount Vernon. These days Leon's is strictly a gay bar, serving mostly older gay men.
"It's always looked like this," Ball says, pointing to the dark walls and low, black-painted ceiling. "A couple of young folks said, `Why don't you redecorate?' We do, but it keeps looking like this," she laughs.
It wasn't always so empty. Before AIDS took its toll on the customer base and hipper bars with glittering dance floors sprung up in the neighborhood, even a Monday night happy hour was standing room only. It was never a swanky place, though. Leon's has a charm all its own that emanates from the tar-stained ceilings and walls, the cracked and torn vinyl-seated barstools.
In fact, the more Leon's changes, the more it stays the same. With the same owner for over 30 years and patrons who remember the password they once had to utter to get into the bar, why should it?
"Sometimes they're evil," Ball says to a happy hour customer. "I hear that. That's what boyfriends are--evil.
"I've never been treated better," Ball says of her customers.
"This is Michael," she says, pointing to a man in a baseball cap nursing a gin and tonic. Like everyone at the bar, he has two drinks in front of him. "He took me to Las Vegas for my 50th birthday," Ball says. In 2000, she was diagnosed with colon cancer and was off work for two months. The boys at Leon's took up a collection for her, bought her a television set, and took care of her yard work, even though she lives in Laurel. "No straight man has ever done that for me," she says.
A buff man wearing a ribbed T-shirt slouches in, digging around in his pocket for enough change.
"How much is a beer?" he asks Ball.
"$3.40," she answers. "Are you close enough?" She tosses his money into the cash register and brings him two cans of Budweiser.
Mondays used to be packed, she says. That's when the shops along Howard Street's Antique Row were closed, and many of the shop owners spent the day and evening drinking at Leon's. The Baltimore Eagle took the late crowd.
An older gentleman--he must be in his 70s--says goodbye to Ball and makes his way around the bar. As he passes the Bud guy, he stops. The unlikely pair start up a conversation--the Bud guy is suddenly super friendly, like an eager shopkeeper greeting a new customer. A wide grin spreads across his face as he motions the older guy to sit down next to him. He seems to be exactly what the septuagenarian is looking for. They chat and slip out quietly.
It's 8:30 p.m., and the place is clearing out. Happy hour has ended and patrons have downed their last two-for-ones. They're headed for Jay's or the Drinkery, Ball says. She'll have some quiet time for a while to read a book or watch some TV. That is, until her regular date comes in between 10 and 10:30, after he finishes his shift at a local hotel.
"I put a beer on ice, and sometimes he calls," Ball says. "He says `What are you doing?' `Waiting for you.'"
Bill Wurzburger is a jaunty fellow, even at 83. Sitting at the northwest corner of the bar at Tyson Place, which is connected to the back of Leon's and accessible by a long hallway, he's chatting up a woman who must be 20 years his junior. A tweed driving cap tilts across his forehead. Large glasses frame his twinkling eyes. It's clear that Wurz, as his friends call him, is a rascal.
"Leon's was a real dump," he says. He recalls that he first entered the place in 1958. "It was a little corner bar. It was a hangout for beatniks and artists and young downtowners. I said, `Holy mackerel, this is it!' I mean, I finally found someplace to communicate."
At the time, a man with unlikely name of Mace Crystal owned Leon's, along with his business partner, Ben Adler. The original owner, Leon Lampe, had opened the bar under his own name in the mid-1930s, although some customers say that the building has been a bar since the 1890s, when it was called Georgia's Tap Room. It was a speakeasy during Prohibition and had no name then.
Under Lampe's ownership Leon's became the hot spot for Mount Vernon's artistic and beatnik residents. Gradually more and more gay men ventured into the bar, and no one cared. According to a story passed down over the years, in 1957 Lampe took out an advertisement or distributed fliers declaring the bar "gay friendly."
"I was in college at the time, so I don't know for sure," says current owner Bob Davies. Still, the story stuck, and patrons and staff members count '57 as the year that gay Leon's was born, even though the bar served a mixed crowd at the time.
As the '50s came to a close, Crystal--a short fellow with dark Italian looks, according to his nephew Bill Lugenbeel--purchased Leon's and the car repair shop behind the bar. He turned the garage into Tyson Place, which for a while served Chinese food before changing its menu to American cuisine. Crystal opened "the tunnel" between Leon's and Tyson Place. Today, patrons walk through Leon's to get to Tyson Place and vice versa. The bathrooms are located along the hallway between them, along with the kitchen.
Sometime in the early '60s, Tyson Place became the place for straight customers, while Leon's catered primarily to a gay clientele.
"It was a gay bar, but it wasn't openly gay," says resident historian and Tyson Place bartender Gus Van de Castle, of Leon's heyday in the '50s and '60s. He started going to Leon's 40 years ago, when he was 16: "It was one of the few places you could go, and you were accepted."
It's 7:30 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month, and Tyson Place is hosting its monthly party to celebrate the regulars' birthdays. Van de Castle is cutting up tickets for a betting pool--horses, but Tyson Place patrons will bet on anything, Van de Castle notes. He's missing most of his front teeth and wears enormous, round Coke-bottle glasses and a short crew cut. He talks a mile a minute, in a crisp, authoritative voice, spouting out dates and names as if they're engraved just inside his forehead.
A table set up near the bar holds goodies that customers have brought in--cheese plates and crockpot meatballs. The kitchen, which serves both Tyson Place and Leon's, closes at 6 p.m.
Tyson Place is a more upscale version of Leon's. Still no frozen drinks, but you can buy a glass of wine or get your martini in the proper glass. The two-martini lunch and Sunday brunch used to be the big draws here, especially for the state workers who toiled in the offices across the way on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The place still serves legendary Bloody Mary's, using a recipe developed by Richard Parnes, a Leon's bartender who died of AIDS in 2001.
Wurzburger lives three doors down from Tyson Place in one of the few rowhouses remaining on this block. "He's one of the world's oldest juvenile delinquents," Van de Castle says. Wurzburger's never had a job, as far as anyone can tell, but he lives well.
Like many people who lived in the immediate neighborhood back then, Wurzburger liked to have a good time. "Every house was an artist's," he says. "It was a party, for Christ's sake. On the weekends, Jesus Christ, it was like you could go anywhere you wanted. You could walk or do whatever you wanted."
Wurz is talking about the stretch of Park Avenue between Martick's Restaurant Français on Mulberry Street and Leon's at Park and Tyson. Mount Vernon beatniks would trundle back and forth between the two establishments--Martick's for food, music, and art; Leon's for cheap drinks.
"Between here and Martick's you had all the artists," says Tyson Place bartender Bruce Vane, who has been working behind the bar for 18 years. "Leon's was a 90 percent straight bar. It didn't matter to us [that gay men hung out there, too]. We were swinging."
Vane began going to Leon's in 1958, before he was 17 years old. "It was just a thoroughfare of creative people," he says. "Plus a lot of oddballs, too. It had swingamatism--you swing in every way possible. It includes multifaceted ways of life, because we really had a bevy of artists, musicians."
To them, "swinging" means partying their way through life, trying new things like writing haiku or composing songs. It also means accepting people regardless of their sexual orientation or race. Vane remembers hanging out with African-American patrons at Martick's long before public integration was acceptable; Leon's was where straights and gays hung out together like it was the most natural thing in the world. It was a far cry from Ozzie and Harriet 1950s mainstream society. And it's where Leon's, the gay bar, was born in 1957.
Vane wears a bushy mustache and a ponytail. His hair is gray, and his paunch--covered by a brightly colored sweater--sits atop his belt. He plays it very cool, and like most longtime bartenders he can spin a tale.
"It wasn't rough," he says of Leon's in the '50s and '60s. "You had a lot of well-read people. They didn't come out to get plastered. They came out to socialize."
Among these creative patrons were the Six Realists--Joe Sheppard, John Bannon, Frank Redelius, Thomas Rowe, Evan Kheen, and Earl Hofmann, and eventually Melvin Miller and David Walsh--Maryland Institute College of Art graduates who had a dream of creating an artistic realism movement in Baltimore. These talented and eventually well-respected painters and sculptors hobnobbed with Vane and Wurz, moving between Martick's and Leon's in one continual party.
Comedians and singers also frequented Leon's. Sunny Carroll, a former Rockette, worked as a bartender at Leon's in those days. "She was with Lenny Bruce for a few years before he made it," Vane says. Local celebrity Cal Schumann, a puppeteer who did the weather with Rhea Feikin on WBAL-TV, came into Leon's frequently. Wurz says Mama Cass Elliott, a Baltimore native who went on to front '60 hitmakers the Mamas and the Papas, also hung out at Leon's.
"It was cosmopolitan," Wurzburger says. "No one gave a shit about gays. There were no barriers whatsoever. It was intellectual and kind of evolved."
But then the area lost its swingamatism. It didn't happen overnight, but that generation of artists moved on.
Crystal was shot in the stomach in 1972 or '73. The gunman knocked on Leon's door late at night and tried to push his way past Crystal. Bob Davies says Crystal never really recovered. "The bullet stayed lodged until the day he died."
Davies, Crystal, and Harry Meyerhoff, whose uncle built the symphony hall, were good friends at the time. Davies discovered Leon's and Tyson Place in 1961. "I was coaching football at the time," he recalls. "Leon's was just an afterthought. You go to Martick's, go to Leon's, and go to Valley Inn. No one knew at the time that Leon's was going to be a gay bar. It was eclectic."
When Crystal decided to sell, Meyerhoff asked Davies if he wanted to buy it. "I had no money to buy the place," Davies says. Meyerhoff offered him a loan to buy the bar and restaurant. Davies bought both Leon's and Tyson Place on Dec. 1, 1974, and paid Meyerhoff back within two years. Crystal rented the space to Davies for four years before selling the buildings to him, too.
These days the line between Tyson Place and Leon's is more defined, although customers still go from one to the other easily. It's that segregation that galls Wurzburger, though he doesn't blame anyone for it.
"Oh, it was beautiful," he remembers. "I tell you, you won't find anything like that in this city."
By the time Gus Van de Castle darkened the doors, Leon's had changed dramatically. The décor was the same, but the doors were shut tight. Instead of swinging, carefree straight and gay customers, Leon's served only gay men. But in those days, being in a gay bar could get you in trouble. If men were seen dancing together or even touching, they could be arrested and have their names plastered on the front page of the morning newspaper.
"It was a dark and foreboding little place," Van de Castle remembers. "Some of the people scared you and some of them didn't." The door still has a small window in it, just large enough to peer at the person knocking, leftover from its speakeasy days.
"If you were a familiar face, you could get in," remembers Ed Armstrong, a hairdresser who now works just up the street at Neal's Salon. "They would ask you questions like, `Are you a friend of Dorothy?' And if you said yes, you could come in." In those days, the The Wizard of Oz reference was still covert code.
Armstrong started going there in 1969, when there were only two gay bars that he knew of in the city--Leon's in Mount Vernon and a place called Eddie's on Water Street. "Eddie's had dancing, but Leon's didn't," Armstrong says. "So Eddie's appealed to the younger crowd. At the time, it was against the law for guys to dance together. Leon's stuck to that rule."
Like so many longtime Leon's patrons, Michal Makarovich (he dropped the traditional "e" in his first name when he was 18) visited Leon's for the first time when he was underage in the 1960s. He remembers Pepper Hill, a gay bar on Gay Street across from the old police station, allegedly being raided in the late '50s because a patron brushed the leg of a police officer with his hand.
Club 900 near the prison was one of the first gay bars that had dancing, Makarovich says. "Until the Hippo"--which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year--"there weren't a lot of dance halls."
Still, Ed Yoe, a talent manager and producer who now lives in Palm Springs, Calif., says he paraded many celebrities who were visiting Charm City through the bar in the late '60s and early '70s. Joan Rivers, Liberace, Mickey Rooney, and Richard Chamberlain ("in a dark blue velvet pant/sweat suit," Yoe says) all came to Leon's for drinks and to chat with the locals.
The key to these clandestine celebrity visits "was the false entrance and egress into Leon's proper" through the hallway shared with Tyson Place, Yoe says. Celebrities could come and go without passers-by knowing they had been in a gay bar.
Nicotine-stained, cardboard signs that read positively no dancing in neat, black lettering hung on the walls at the time. (Another sign read no profanity--"Good fucking luck," Makarovich says.) In fact, the signs were still up years after the Stonewall riots in a New York City gay bar in 1969, the event that liberated queer bars all over the country.
"It was the year Judy Garland died," Armstrong says. "Some say it was a reaction to her dying--Stonewall."
On June 27, 1969, five days after Garland's death, seven plainclothes police officers and one uniformed officer raided the Greenwich Village bar, arresting patrons and throwing them into paddy wagons. No one knows for sure why this rather ordinary event sparked such an extreme reaction from Stonewall patrons, but instead of going quietly on this night, they decided to fight back. Drag queens, effeminate men, and butch women yelled at the police and began throwing coins, rocks, and bottles. The police retaliated with beatings--one teenager lost two fingers from having his hand slammed in a car door. The crowd dispersed and reformed in the street several times throughout the night. Demonstrators returned the following night, and protests continued throughout the next five days. After Stonewall, the police backed off gay bars all over the country, a trend that had begun before the riots.
Even so, it was hard for many gay men at that time to even come in the doors at Leon's. Jim Houston, organist and music director at First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, says he sat in his car for several nights before getting up the nerve to come into Leon's for the first time in 1971. "It was liberating in a way," he says of his first visit. "I think I even got picked up. Even better!" he laughs.
"After Stonewall hit in '69, things got more relaxed in Baltimore," Armstrong says. "There was still some [police] harassment but not as much."
As a result, Leon's gradually opened its doors and let go of password-protected entry, a transformation that was not readily embraced. "Some of the older guys I knew didn't appreciate the liberation," Makarovich says. "They preferred the closed society."
There's still no dancing at Leon's (except for Ball's subtle moves behind the bar). There's simply no room.
Even without dancing, Leon's patrons found plenty of ways to amuse themselves and each other. Just above the cigarette machine near the two front doors is a dumbwaiter used to lower booze from the second floor to the bar. One crazy night in the late '70s, just before closing, a drunken customer snuck upstairs, got undressed, and stood on the dumbwaiter.
"He hit the switch to lower it down," Brady White, a longtime customer, says. "And as he lowered it down, there he was, naked." White giggles and takes a sip of his O'Doul's. "The place really was a very energetic, campy, fun-loving bar."
Bartender Vernon Brewer refills White's glass with the rest of the nonalcoholic beer and tosses the bottle in the trash. White's partner of five years, Jim Shuttlewood, is sitting on a torn barstool nearby, cradling their amber-colored Yorkie named Jamie.
"We bring him here every day," White says of their pup. "We know everyone. I've known everyone who's been coming here for umpteen years. A lot of them are dead, I'm sorry to say."
White has been coming to Leon's since 1978. He, Shuttlewood, and their little dog walk down from their home at St. Paul and Chase streets at about 4 p.m. A year ago, he says, he quit drinking. "Yeah, I was quite the drunk," he laughs. But he remembers the raucous, pre-AIDS days when people were screwing around in the bathrooms and picking up one-night stands.
"We did more business between 10 [p.m.] and 2 [a.m.] than we did all day long," owner Bob Davies remembers. While other gay bars in the neighborhood closed at 1 a.m., Leon's was always available for a last round and a last look-around. The bar would be packed, with 15 to 20 people lined up outside. On Mondays, when their shops were closed, the antique dealers from Howard Street sat at the bar all day long.
"It was a very cruisy bar then," Armstrong says. "You could pick up guys for the night very easily." In the men's room, instead of urinals (as there are today) was a kind of a trough. "You could check out people's penises," he adds. And on a large chalkboard, people scrawled messages to one another: guy in the yellow shirt--i think you're cute. --guy in the blue blazer.
"I've heard that you could stand at the bar and sort of lean on the bar and put your foot on the foot rail." Armstrong demonstrates with a tall table and chair at the salon, a cabinet of multicolored nail polishes behind him. "And someone could give you a blow job. We had fun times there."
"It's always been a fun bar. It used to be very crowded all day," White says. "People did walk in and they would find out it was so much fun here. They would get so drunk!"
White owned Zippers from 1989 until 1995--a very different bar from Leon's, with a big-screen television and a dance floor. But every day, he would come down to Leon's and hang out with bartenders Vince Hammond and Richard Parnes.
"Vince used to do all kinds of stunts and drag shows," White says. He began the Miss Leon's drag contest in 1995. "Richard was more of a sedate bartender at times. Richard is very much missed."
Both Parnes and Hammond died of AIDS--Parnes in 2002 and Hammond in 1998. Their portraits hang on the wall in Tyson Place, along with those of other treasured employees and customers. Though not all of them died of AIDS, the crisis was tough on Leon's. White estimates that two-thirds of the patrons in the '80s are now dead.
"AIDS hit and all the bars suffered," Armstrong remembers. "People were dying right and left, and no one knew how it spread. The promiscuous era was over."
"I've lost five employees to AIDS," Davies says. That's a lot, when you consider that there are currently 10 full-time and two part-time employees at both Leon's and Tyson Place, most of whom have been there for at least a decade. "They thought they were immune," he remembers. "As that era became more and more dangerous, people became more aware of it. And of course business crapped out because they stopped cruising."
Davies is not being crass. A soft-spoken man with kind, bright blue eyes, he tears up when talking about the toll that AIDS took on his customers and employees: "No one can afford to lose the lives that we've lost--and I'm not talking about business." He remembers attending funerals where no family members were present. The gay community--along with Davies and his ex-wife--cared for their sick, and buried them.
Parnes and Hammond were huge losses for Davies. "To see the deterioration of their bodies over a two-year period--and they worked until they couldn't show up for work again," he says. "It was devastating.
"It will never leave you. That's why they're up there," Davies says pointing to the portraits on the wall.
Others are still around. White's been HIV+ since 1984 and "doing fine."
"Little too fucking skinny for my taste, if you ask me," Bert Siarot, a bartender, chimes in with a smile.
"Still hanging around," says White, who's been retired since closing Zippers in 1995. "They call Jim and I part of the furniture." After their drinks, they saunter home, where White puts together a simple dinner, and they settle in for a night of television. It's a routine they both cherish.
"That's one of the things I like," White says, "the sameness and variety."
On a Friday night, the crowd is lively, as men push past the five or six fellows standing near the door. It's hard to hear over the din--people greeting one another loudly and getting their buzz on after a hard week at work. The digital jukebox is running through an unlikely selection of music: Big Country, R.E.M., Michael Jackson, the Psychedelic Furs. It's smack dab in the middle of happy hour, and a guy named Rob--a regular who stops by on his way home from work in Annapolis--is chatting with Celeste Ball over a shot of whiskey and two Rolling Rocks. His story echoes others'--he began coming to Leon's in 1975, before he was legal, went crazy in the `70s, watched the decline during the AIDS crisis, and is now content to stop by during happy hour to sit and unwind after a long day.
Rob knows almost everyone in the place. A couple of men come up behind him for a quick hug and to say hello. Leon's has been a comfort to him since his partner of more than 25 years died in a work-related accident last fall.
"I like it because it's laid back," he says. "Nobody bothers you. It's not pretentious at all, as you can see."
He has his own wild stories--like the blizzard of 1979, when he and half of the gay men in Mount Vernon showed up at Leon's. At 11 p.m., the National Guard and city police kicked everyone out. "The snow was up to here," Rob says, pointing to his neck and laughing. He was arrested for curfew violation and spent the night in jail. When he used his one phone call to call his mother, she said, "I told you not to go out."
Dressed in a starched white shirt, he smokes Winstons and tries to talk over the growing din. Happy hour on Friday night is busier than Mondays. The place is getting more crowded, each group staking out its territory. Bears gather near the entrance, beside the cigarette machine. The older crowd is stationed at the other end of the bar, near the television. Couples snuggle a bit along one side of the oval bar. A regular shows up to watch Jeopardy! Apparently he's as much a part of the bar's routine as opening and closing--standing near the ice machine, sipping two Rolling Rocks. When the game show is over, he's gone.
Ball shares the space behind the bar with Penny Lorio, a bartender who has lived in Baltimore for nine years. She came to Leon's soon after moving to town, responding to a tiny classified ad in one of the gay papers. "I stumbled into a place that has 20 to 30 aunts," she says, speaking of the older gay men who are her customers. "It was very grounding for someone who was new to the city."
As much as Leon's has changed over the years--forever altered by AIDS and the gradual liberation of gays and lesbians--it has remained the same. All of the neon lights and pimped-up jukeboxes in the world cannot alter the basic essence of Baltimore's oldest gay bar.
"It never will change," White says. "People come back after years and say, `Yup, same place.'"
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812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201