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It's a dingy little place, but it's home

The Baltimore Sun

On a recent Sunday night, a downtown Baltimore watering hole called Leon's was crammed with patrons around the oval-shaped bar, drinking and chatting animatedly. Several of them smoked.

A baseball game played silently on a TV hanging from the low ceiling along a back wall of the small, dingy, darkly lit room. An eclectic mix of songs blared overhead - "The Girl from Ipanema," "Barbara Ann," heavily thumping contemporary rock.

A scene more or less like this one has played out in Leon's for decades, ever since the establishment, on a corner of Park Ave. a few blocks from Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, became known as a gay bar.

This month, Leon's marks its 50th anniversary, making it, by all accounts, the oldest gay bar in continual operation in the city.

For a lot of people, back in the day, it was "the heartbeat" of the gay community, says Gary Hoy, a retired city government worker who first stopped by Leon's in 1967.

"It's where you found everybody, before there were gay papers or a community center. It was the center of gay life in Baltimore," Hoy says.

To look at Leon's today, it may be hard to imagine it was ever the center of anything.

You can still detect art deco touches in the design of the bar area (the building housed a saloon for years before the change in clientele), but there's nothing stylish or particularly comfortable about Leon's now. Nothing particularly pristine, either.

The other day, when someone accidentally dropped a full beer bottle in the middle of a group of buddies, it caused barely a blip in the conversation. No one rushed to clean up the large puddle. Just part of the Leon's tradition, perhaps.

After all, years ago, when a car wash operated a few doors down the street, "a lot of times the water seeped into Leon's and the floor could get pretty gushy," says Michal Makarovich, who has been a patron for the past 40 years.

"We would just stand there in the water," adds Duane Schline, a Baltimore hair stylist whose initial visit to Leon's was in 1962. "No one cared."

Hoy seems to recall an occasional cleaning, though. "They would mop the floors once a year - on Election Day, when all the bars were closed," he says.

Makarovich, a former teacher who owns a Hampden collectibles shop, puts a philosophical spin on Leon's longevity.

"It's like what the Fox says to the Little Prince: 'What is essential is invisible to the eye.' If you just looked into Leon's, you might think, 'Oh my God, it's awful,' " Makarovich says. "But after the first drink, you'd just be having such a good time."

In the late 1950s, when most gay people were closeted and there was a strong threat of losing a job or housing because of sexual orientation, being able to have a good time in a friendly environment meant a lot.

That's what Leon's provided, although it didn't have - and still doesn't have - a gay proprietor.

The place was named for its first owner, Leon Lampe, who served time in the 1930s for bootlegging.

"He was a character beyond belief, the toughest of the tough," says Bob Davies, the current owner, who bought the bar in 1974. He also owns Tyson's Place, a basically straight restaurant and bar on West Chase Street that connects to Leon's via a short passageway.

Leon's gradually became a haven for artists, writers, musicians, bohemians - "gay, bisexual, whatever," Davies says. (A 1959 Sun article refers to the arrest of several "beatniks" who failed to disperse outside Leon's after it closed at 2 a.m.)

Davies says that the collective memories of staff and customers have come up with 1957 as the year when the bar took on its distinctly gay identity.

That identity was soon firmly established, and the place was hopping seven days a week, according to several patrons who became regulars in the 1960s, when they were all in their 20s.

"Sometimes walking in that door was like the stateroom scene in Night at the Opera, with Groucho Marx shoving more people in," says Lynn Summerall, who discovered Leon's when he was a student at Towson University. "I couldn't wait to get there. It was a place full of good cheer, good companionship - and good, hair-raising stories."

Not everyone had chit-chat on their minds. As in many a bar, no matter what the clientele, the prospect of my-place-or-your-place was in the air, too, especially in those sexual revolution days.

"It was the place to meet people, and the oval-shaped bar had a lot to do with making it so friendly," says Makarovich, who met his former partner of 16 years at Leon's.

"There are bars where people dress up, stand around and pose, bars where all the beautiful people go. Leon's has had its share of beautiful people, but it's always been more about personality than about looks."

Summerall, too, credits the layout of the bar with making it such a popular spot.

"You could see everyone," he says, "so Leon's tilted more toward human beings and relationships, instead of bars where it's all about the dance floor and being seen in your new clothes."

Only female bartenders, fondly recalled for their amiability and strong drinks, did the pouring in the early decades. "They had a real affinity for gays," Davies says of those employees.

Summerall, who works as volunteer services manager for a public radio and television station in his native Norfolk, Va., left Baltimore in 1970. But he has visited the city a couple times every year since - always "including a stop at that dark, smoky bar" on Park Avenue, where he met some of his best friends.

"We're still in each other's lives, and Leon's is one of the bonds we have," Summerall says.

As the years passed, trendier gay venues opened in the neighborhood, including places like The Hippo, with dance floors and live entertainment. "Leon's has never been trendy," says Makarovich, who recalls two posted signs at the bar in the 1960s: "No profanity" and "Positively no dancing."

Phil Cooper, a retired business executive who started patronizing Leon's in 1962, says that "people would dance at the Hippo, then head to Leon's between 1 and 2 a.m. for what was, in several ways, the last call."

Leon's would "fluff itself once in a while" in response to the competition," Cooper says. "I remember they put in new lights, and once they tried out some carpeting, which was soon covered in cigarette burns - everyone smoked in those days."

Even without a serious makeover, the bar had something that kept drawing in the crowds, and not just the prospect of liaisons.

"There were witty people, lots of intellectuals," says Schline. "They were like the panelists on What's My Line. Guys wore coats and ties. Glenn Milstead would be holding court in the back. He was so funny - this was before he became Divine [the drag queen star of several John Waters films]. There was a real mixed crowd."

Including straight women. (Lesbians tended to socialize in their own bars in other neighborhoods of Batlimore.)

Rhea Feikin, a popular personality on Maryland Public Television, often went there with her friend Cal Schumann, a colorful Baltimore figure who had collaborated with her on a children's show for WBAL.

Feikin didn't think much of the physical properties of Leon's - "It was dark, smelly, unattractive," she says - but enjoyed the scene.

"Everybody liked being crowded four or five deep," she says. "Someone sitting at the bar would have to hand drinks back to you. But it was all fun. There was a lot of hilarity, a kind of way of viewing things that was terrific. I felt privileged to have all that opened up to me."

Pat Moran, an Emmy Award-winning casting director and frequent collaborator with John Waters, sounds a similar theme.

"For a straight woman it was terrific," Moran says. "I was liberated from the suburbs by gay boys. Leon's had the smartest, best-looking people in town. You could meet anybody at Leon's - doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Everybody. I learned a million things about writers, fashion and theater - things I wanted to learn about. I wasn't interested in hanging out with gay rocket scientists."

Moran likens the place to "a gay Cheers, where everybody knew your name. And you always came back. You just had to - if only to see if it was still standing and if they ever got a new barstool."

Or just to have another good time. "If you were uncomfortable in there and didn't laugh," Moran says, "there was something wrong with you."

Feikin seconds that. "I don't know if people have as much fun today as we did at Leon's," she says.

And most people packed into the bar seemed to be in on the joviality all the time. "There were never any fights," Moran says. "Maybe some verbal combat."

Bad weather served as an extra magnet for Leon's. "As soon as it snowed, everybody ran there," Schline says.

During the music season, folks heading to or from opera and symphony performances down the street were known to stop by, dressed in their formal wear. More casually attired guys, fresh from a Camden Yards game, showed up, too. And Hoy spotted Liberace at Leon's one night - "He was too late for last call, and they wouldn't serve him."

You could find the occasional local politico, along with "the gay movers and shakers of the city, moving and shaking through the old doors of Leon's," Summerall says.

Others who popped in were not necessarily there for sociable reasons. Hoy remembers weekly visits from ladies of a Baltimore mission passing out religious tracts.

"And every Friday night, the Salvation Army would come in - a cute guy with a tambourine asking for donations," Hoy says. "Everybody would howl and carry on. But he apparently did well, because he always came back - for the Lord."

Feikin used to get a kick out of seeing "sightseers who poked their heads in to see the depravity."

The curious included a professor who "brought his whole sociology class in to look at us," Hoy says. "They came in, walked all around the bar and went back out. I guess they wanted to see us in our natural habitat."

The students could have gotten an even better education on Halloween night at Leon's, when the costumes could get pretty fanciful.

Over the years, Leon's saw a gradual drop in attendance. Some former regulars are, at best, only occasional visitors now. "We don't do as well as we used to," Davies says. "You can't be expected to. But we still have a very good clientele, very loyal."

Instead of seven nights a week with overflow crowds in the bar's heyday, it's more like two or three now. The bartenders are still just as friendly, and today's crowd is "a good mix of humanity, black and white, young and old, rich and poor - all thrown together," Makarovich says.

"And I see people in their 30s discovering Leon's. They seem to like the fact that it has so much history."

Newcomers certainly haven't missed out on much, in one sense at least. "It is still so drab, and drab is being charitable," Summerall says. "But that was always part of the charm, one of the allures of it - you know what to expect. It's not going to change."

Davies doesn't disagree. "You don't fool with something that has been around for so long and has its own character. It would lose some of the luster," the owner says (with no apparent irony).

As for the 50th anniversary of the establishment, details are a little vague. Davies says he has heard stories about some kind of "coming out" party held at Leon's between June 1 and 3, 1957, when a group of patrons "declared their sexual preference" and designated the bar as officially gay.

That sounds like a myth to Cooper.

"But a myth is a value-impregnated belief," he says. "So let's impregnate this myth, so to speak, and celebrate it."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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