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

50 years makes Leon's city's oldest gay bar

June 10, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Reporter

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."

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