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Friday, July 07, 2017

Looking Back at Leon’s

Written by  Rodney Burger
Leon’s walls can’t talk, but old patrons can! Leon’s walls can’t talk, but old patrons can!

A watering hole with roots in the 1880s and a colorful detour through Prohibition

There is an old saying that: “Everything changes, nothing remains without change.” That may be true, but I’ve never been a fan of change. There is something to be said about things that remain the same– like wonderful old movies that you can enjoy over and over or favorite restaurants that have been turning out the same delicious meal year after year. In Baltimore’s gay community that place that seems to ignore all the constant changes in the world is a little dive bar located at 870 Park Avenue. As Leon’s prepares for a 60th anniversary celebration that current Leon’s owner Ron Singer informs me will take place sometime this fall, I wanted to take a look back at that little place that defies change.

I first walked into Leon’s in 1984 when I first moved to Baltimore, but I recently sat down with my friend Gus Van de Castle. He knows much more about the history of Leon’s then I do. He first walked into the bar in 1967. I caught up with Gus one morning as he was working at The Drinkery, right down the street from Leon’s. As Gus hurried around the bar to get it ready for another day, I sipped on an ice-cold beer and we exchange stories about a place that has been a big part of both of our lives.

The building that houses Leon’s has been a bar since the 1880s. It has been reported by Baltimore Heritage that it was called “Georgia’s Tap Room” in those days, but Gus informed me that some old bottles were once found in the attic of a home on nearby Read Street. The labels on the bottles read: George’s Tap Room. In the 1930s a man named Leon Lampe bought the place and named it Leon’s. It has been Leon’s ever since. During Prohibition it was a speakeasy. Nothing stops the booze from flowing at Leon’s. In the late 1950s the bar was purchased by a man named Mace Crystal along with his business partner Ben Adler. Gus informed me that Ben Adler had also owned a bar at 1100 North Eutaw Street, now the location of a state office building. Adler’s other bar was called The Eagle (no relation to the Baltimore Eagle) and for many years a large wooden eagle hung in the hallway at Tyson Place. Mace also owned a steel and metal fabrication business and made the shelves and such behind the bar at Leon’s and the Drinkery. Gus pointed out that they are still in use today. It is claimed that in 1957 Mace and Ben promoted their business as “gay friendly” but due to the political climate of the times patrons were asked at the door if they were “a friend of Dorothy.” This was a common code for gay that references the popularity of Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. They also purchased a truck repair business behind Leon’s and turned it into a restaurant called Tyson place. (Now the location of Steampunk Alley) The buildings were connected by a hallway. This way folks could enter and exit via a restaurant and not be seen coming out of a gay bar.

When Gus arrived in 1967 he was a 17-year-old hippie and his first “gay date” brought him to the Drinkery and Leon’s. He said that the big circular bar had not yet been added. At that time Leon’s had a semi-circle bar along one wall with a dozen or so tables and chairs in the middle. The red-and-black tile floor is the same today as it was back then. Leon’s was known in the 50s and 60s as a hangout for “beatniks, hippies, and artistic types.” Cass Elliot, a Baltimore native before she became famous as part of the Mamas & the Papas was a regular. Gus said that her parents owned a small grocery store in Canton behind the Sip and Bite.

I also asked Gus about a bartender named Sunny Carroll. My research on the internet brought up that she had been a former “Rockette in New York and dated comedian Lenny Bruce.” Gus laughed, he said that she was in fact a dancer in New York, but that “Rockette” was a nice word for it: “After a few drinks she would be happy to dance for anybody.” He remembered Sunny’s retirement party at Leon’s when she said she was 65. (Gus said she was more like 75.) “It took three people to carry her and all of her gifts home!” Gus also remembers that the police came in often in those days and asked for IDs. Gus added that they were not checking your age; they were just taking names. One also had to be careful of pickpockets. The thieves knew that if someone’s wallet was taken in a gay bar, they would not report it to the police.

Gus worked part-time in many bars in Baltimore over the years. He said that he often was a substitute for someone who didn’t show up at work. He laughingly added, “I lived in Fells Point and at one time I had the keys to eight or nine Fells Point bars on my keyring.” In 1997 he stated working at Leon’s under owner Bob Davies, who had purchased the bar in 1974. We talked about the popular happy-hour bartenders Doris Stuchinski and Celeste Ball. Back when Leon’s was so packed on a Sunday afternoon that you couldn’t move, Doris and Celeste were the perfect tag team behind the bar. They knew everybody and everybody’s drink of choice. Doris just recently passed away on May 16th and I had heard that Celeste had passed away a few years ago. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see Celeste walk into Doris’s funeral looking better than ever.

Gus also remembers Baltimore’s popular high-heel race that it now an annual tradition before the Baltimore Pride Parade. He informed me that the race actually started at Leon’s as a way to drum up some businests over the slow Labor Day weekend when many of the regulars were away at the beach. The first year saw 15 people in the race. Participants in high-heels had to run from Leon’s around the corner to Tyson Place, put on a dress complete with boobs that were made from condoms filled with club soda, run down to the Drinkery and order a drink, drink it and run back to Leon’s, order another drink and finish it. As the contestants ran their “boobs” often stretched bigger, but if they broke the runner was disqualified.

Leon’s became known for crazy events. In 1995 Vince Hammond, who died in 1998, started the Miss Leon’s Contest. Baltimore has had many very polished performers over the years, but Miss Leon’s was always just about having fun.

When asked about a favorite memory, Gus told me the story of a Leon’s regular named Jay who for many years would come to the bar with his pet squirrel. The squirrel was usually well behaved, but sometimes would play with people’s drinks or money on the bar. Once it jumped on the floor and ran up at lady’s skirt. She remarked, “There are 50 pairs of nuts in the room and he has to run up my leg!”

Another time during a snow storm Gus made over 100 snowballs and brought them into the bar so that patrons could have an indoor snowball fight.

I had a wonderful afternoon talking about Leon’s with Gus. So many good times. The place has changed very little since I first walked in the door. Leon’s always makes me feel at home. There have been some small changes over the years. Gus confirmed that those orange lights above the bar that always looked like pepperoni pizzas to me were put in as set decoration for the television series “Homicide: Life on the Streets” (1993-1999), which filmed in the bar. Happily Leon’s is still the same familiar little dive bar. Thank God that somethings do not change and for 60 years Baltimore has had this gathering spot for the friends of Dorothy.

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