Originally named the Hotel Kernan after its builder, theater magnate James Lawrence Kernan, The Congress Hotel was built in 1903 to cater to lovers of musical theater. The six-story French Renaissance Revival-style hotel boasted 150 sumptuously appointed guest rooms and an art gallery. Two underground tunnels housed a Turkish bath, a barbershop, and a swimming pool, and connected hotel guests to the adjacent Auditorium (today the Mayfair Theatre) and Maryland Theater (demolished in 1951), both owned by Kernan. A savvy promoter on par with PT Barnum, Kernan billed his hotel and theatrical complex as a “Million-Dollar Triple Enterprise.”
Kernan’s Million-Dollar Triple Enterprise transformed Franklin and Howard Streets into the nexus of Baltimore nightlife. The Maryland Theater headlined the top vaudeville talent of the day, including Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and later Will Rogers, Weber & Fields, Al Jolson, and Eddie Cantor, while the Auditorium focused on traditional plays.
Capitalizing on the steady influx of German immigrants to the US, Kernan outfitted the hotel’s basement as a rathskeller—a traditional German beer hall. Dubbed “the bear pit” after the mascot of Berlin depicted on the German capital city’s coat of arms, it was the city’s first true nightclub. The Great Depression saw the decline of the era of the grand downtown hotel. In 1932, the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company bought Kernan’s Million-Dollar Triple Enterprise at a bankruptcy auction for a paltry $225,000 and reopened it a year later, on October 5, 1933, as The Congress Hotel.
By the seventies, The Congress had slid into flophouse status, its single-occupancy rooms renting for less than $5 a day. In 1977, brothers Angelo and Samuel (“Sam”) Palumbo, an engineering draftsman with the city’s housing department, purchased the property. In 1979, the brothers racked up a staggering 174 housing code violations, including citations for a lack of working smoke detectors. A contemporary article in The Baltimore News-American lamented that “The Congress became shabbier and shabbier, like an old movie star down on his luck.”
“Pretty much a fleabag hotel,” is how jazzman Scott Cunningham recalls The Congress. In 1976, when Cunningham was searching for a venue for his eponymous jazz band, not only the hotel but also its surroundings had gone to seed. Sam Palumbo showed Cunningham the lobby-level Galaxy Ballroom and then the dust-encrusted bar in the basement. Peering through the patina of grime, Cunningham spotted potential in the subterranean space. I wasn’t wrong. Once they took down the vinyl panels covering the wall behind the bar, it revealed the original oak paneling and mirrors from the space’s rathskeller days. But the biggest payoff proved to be the bar itself. Scrubbing away decades of rust-colored soot, Cunningham and his helpers unveiled the crowning glory: a spectacular, 72-foot-long bar hewn from white Italian marble. Cunningham had found his venue—and a name: the Marble Bar.
To build word-of-mouth buzz and a following, Cunningham handed out flyers at the nearby University of Maryland School of Medicine and offered free admission to students. The Scott Cunningham Band played there several nights a week while Cunningham worked with a promoter to book an eclectic mix of acts, including Muddy Waters and Talking Heads.
The Marble’s loyal following would be cemented by Cunningham’s successors, Roger and LesLee Anderson. In 1974, Roger, a bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll player from Kentucky who grew up on Baltimore’s westside, was also looking for a venue for his band, Clear. An engineer by day, he’d met Sam Palumbo on a project for the city. The two men hit it off, and Palumbo offered him the Galaxy Ballroom. For three years, Roger’s band performed in the hotel’s lobby-level ballroom.
Meanwhile, down in the basement, the Marble was struggling. The spartan space lacked heat in the winter and AC in the summer. Construction on Franklin Street cost the bar its precious parking lot. Cunningham closed it in 1978, and Sam Palumbo handed the Andersons the keys, asking them to manage and rent the space.
At the time, the Andersons were packed for a move to California they never made. Before sealing the deal, the couple met with Palumbo, who, according to LesLee, treated her as if she was invisible. Furious, she returned home and laid down the law. “Before I go down there and work, he’s gonna respect me. And that’s all there is to it,” she remembers saying. Thereafter, she managed both Palumbo brothers with a mixture of modern feminism and old-school charm.
Soothing the brothers’ periodic outbursts provided the least of the Andersons’ challenges. The crowd-pleasing disco bands were pricey, some having as many as nine musicians, a serious consideration given that the couple had to pay the talent out-of-pocket. On top of the cost, Roger dismissed disco. The alternative: Bring in a new, fresh sound that wouldn’t cost a lot. “And in walks the punks,” remembers LesLee with a laugh.
Though Roger was initially against booking punk acts—he famously turned down The Police—he was eventually won over. Da Moronics and Judies Fixation were the first punk bands booked. Off the Wall and The Slickee Boys played the Marble once a month, drawing crowds that, according to LesLee, “kept us afloat.”
LesLee remembers Roger saying, “’These kids, they’re playing three-chord music. And they’re having the time of their lives. I’ll book more of them…as long as they act right.’”
To many people’s surprise, the kids did act right. Roger made sure of that.
“Nobody messed with Roger,” says Wilcox, the lead singer of the band Rock Hard Peter. “I remember him breaking up an entire cluster, whether they were moshing too crazily or whatever, with a two-by-four. Things pretty much calmed down after that. He ruled with an iron hand and a heart of gold.”
“ROGER AND LESLEE GAVE BIRTH TO A SCENE THAT ALLOWED PEOPLE TO BE FREE AND EXPRESS THEMSELVES.”
Roger took a personal interest in the young artists who flocked to the bar, buying instruments for budding musicians who couldn’t afford their own, and even allowing graffiti in the hotel’s former barbershop, then used as the bar’s main entrance. Says LesLee, “Roger always said, you give kids art and music at a young age, and it’ll save their life.”
Under the Andersons, the Marble Bar became the place to hear punk music. Steep steps led club kids from the street into a blanket of blackness, the only lighting coming from the stage and behind the bar. The cavernous atmosphere fostered a sense of autonomy. And freedom. Flooding the dance floor were patrons sporting styles from mohawks to dreadlocks, many of them dancing with themselves. It was a dungeon to some, a sanctuary to others.
LesLee has fond memories of how Roger used comedy to clear out the bar at closing. “He would say things like, ‘This is not your mother’s womb, so don’t get too comfortable.’ Or what would really make, ’em run out the door—’All virgins can stay.’”
Last call at the Marble may have been at 2 am, but for the Andersons, operating the club was a 24/7 labor of love that expanded to host fashion shows, art exhibits, poetry readings, and even rock ‘n’ roll flea markets .
“We didn’t have any kids,” LesLee explains. “We weren’t very extravagant people. We just put everything right back into the bar—bigger shows, more music, national acts.”
LesLee, herself a musician and songwriter, had barkeeping in her blood. Her family owned Nelson’s, a local watering hole in Southwest Baltimore. At the Marble, she wore many hats, including managing and tending bar, booking the acts, and acting as a surrogate parent for many of the young punks. “They called me mom, all the little punk girls there with their little black lipstick and their black rouge. They’d all call me mom, a whole pocket of them. They still call me mom.”