All posts by coreymac94

Freak Show Sanctuary

“It was a bunch of freaks, whether it was punk rockers with mohawks, or hippies or whatever – it was a sanctuary and I like to think it still is.”

That’s Don Duppee, one of the managers in charge of running the day-to-day operations at 123 Pleasant St. He’s been with the freak show since the start, coming in as a freshman in 1985 – heading to 123 Pleasant St. for his first time on September 4 – and it has been home to him ever since.

And the 123 Pleasant St. we know all too well may not have been a reality if it weren’t for this guy, along with LJ (the head manager) and the local community that has loved the brick row sound garden since its beginnings.

This week I headed back to 123 with Michael Caplinger, the historian, and got to check out the main office for the venue. Obviously, it was a treasure trove of ticket stubs and event posters. But one picture stood out:

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That’s Marsha Ferber, the legendary creator of the Underground Railroad that started the music wave in Morgantown.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you’ll know her story is an interesting one to say the least – vanishing outright in 1988 without a trace. The Underground Railroad closed down shortly after. It opened again as the The Nyabinghi Dance Hall, but due to complications with the building it was ready to be shutdown.

“When this bar shutdown – the dance hall – when it closed and that whole legacy of the Underground Railroad and everything – it was devastating to this community. It really was. It can’t be underestimated what a dark cloud descended on Morgantown at that time. It was like ‘what are we going to do? Is it worth even being here’ because there was no outlet for anything like that?”

They managed to buy the condemned building and spent half a year refurbishing the century-old building, conducting “some kind of geology experiment.”

“(The building) was neglected. The biggest issue as far as code enforcement was the electric, so that was huge. And there were a lot of holes in it, and the building inspector really frowns on holes,” Duppee said. “It was in bad shape. A lot of work that had been done to this building over the years – going back decades – a lot of it was like ‘well you know we can fix that or just lay something down on top of it.’ So you started ripping up the floor in the upper bar and there’s like 5 layers of flooring. There’s linoleum, and then there’s a layer of carpeting, and then another layer of linoleum. Oh my god they just never took anything up, just layered it over.”

With the help of the community, they managed to dig the building out and revamp it in a matter of 6 months.

“I mean I don’t even know how we did that,” Duppee said. “It seems to me now – we’re all much older and maybe much wiser – but I can’t even figure out how we managed to do that. But there were a lot of us. Literally hundreds of trips to the dump to throw stuff away.”

Morgantown can certainly attest to new out-of-town businesses coming in nowadays, and Duppee speculates that the brick row may have been home to these random assortment of businesses if it were not for the communal love that kept the joint alive.

“For LJ to see that at that time – a much younger man than he is now – to look at it and be able to say ‘I have the means to do this; I can take on this project,’ it was pretty monumental,” Duppee said. “I can’t imagine that if he hadn’t have done this… if he hadn’t had stepped up I don’t know that this would not be a parking lot right now…”

“Or changed into a sheets,” Caplinger chimed in.

And thank god they kept it that way. The assortment of ticket stubs I saw in that office was staggering. A random compilation of musicians you never thought would make a stop in Motown:

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(Pt. 3 of an ongoing series.. )

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Structural Happenings

I’m sure the majority of you have been to 123 Pleasant Street before (if not, go as soon as physically possible). While you’re there – full tuned into the music blasting from the stage – it might peak your interest if you look at some of the signs hanging from the walls. Hell, even the brick walls hold some deep Morgantown history.

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This week I got to meet with Michael Caplinger, the historian for 123 Pleasant St. who has compiled a boat load of information about what the brick row has been over the decades.

Back when Marsha Ferber and company first started the music scene up in 1982, they had the intent of making it a place where everyone was welcome. The now famous music scene came from her “desire to have a place where people could ‘find their way to freedom,’ by interacting and listening to music without regard to skin color, dress, sexuality, hair style, or ideas.”

Harriet Tubman, the heroine of the real Underground Railroad, was painted on the wall of 123 and came to symbolize the bar’s concept of basic equality among all people.

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Quite a welcoming beginning.

The infamous stage – where many a famous musician has planted their feet and belted their heart out on – has not been renovated too much. In fact, it used to be smaller prior to the venue being refurbished in the mid to late 1990’s.

“It was smaller than that back then in the 90’s and 80’s,” Caplinger said. “When (the current owner) bought the place, it extended out, it gave you a lot more room thank god. They used to put 12-person bands up there when it was a small stage and it was like ‘oh god this is way to tight.’ It was an incredible improvement.”

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Take a look up, and you may notice the ceiling might not be so 21st century looking. That’s because it’s just barely a 20th century roof.

“When (the owner) renovated the place, that’s when they uncovered the ceilings,” Caplinger said. “Nobody knew they were there because there were two drop ceilings that had been hung over the years, so he just started pulling out those ceilings and it was like ‘holy shit, there’s a 1921 tin roof.'”

So next time you’re roaring to the music, take a look up at a little piece of the roaring twenties.

Then take a look at the surrounding walls. Plenty of nostalgia for some of the older folks here in Morgantown who remember the Underground Railroad.

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Here’s a couple original signs for the 1980’s music club that started the scene in Morgantown.

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(Part 2 of an ongoing series..)

 

What once was..

123 Pleasant St. has a long, rich history that goes back as far as the City of Morgantown does. And while it started up as a music venue in the 1980’s, it had a detailed history prior to that.

Morgantown began to rapidly grow in the early 1890’s, and there was a need for housing. The area that is commonly known as “123 Pleasant St.” was built in 1891 as Morgantown’s first major apartment building that housed everybody from college students to railroad employees and merchants. A famous architect even lived there, Elmer Jacobs, who can be attributed with designing many of the buildings that stand today.

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During the roaring twenties, businesses started occupying and filling the buildings. What is recognized as the stage room in 123 currently, in fact, was home to the very first radio store in the region. The Radio Appliance Company opened and set up a public radio set, inviting all to experience “the wonder of the modern age.”

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It didn’t last very long, but it seems like a fitting start.

For the next 60 years, businesses came and went. It wasn’t until 1982 when Morgantown introduced a new underground music scene. The Underground Railroad reflected the style and musical tastes of the venues creator – Marsha Ferber. With a group of friends, Ferber conceived the venue with the idea of having “a bar where music was the binding force bringing together all types of people in a peaceful atmosphere.”

 The Underground Railroad’s name came from her desire to have a place where people could “find their way to freedom,” by interacting and listening to music without regard to skin color, dress, sexuality, hair style, or ideas. Harriet Tubman, the heroine of the real Underground Railroad, was painted on the wall of 123 and came to symbolize the bar’s concept of basic equality among all people.

But on April 25, 1988 – Ferber walked out of the bar and was not to be seen or heard from again. Gone missing without a trace or a hint of whether she was dead or alive.

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Ferber’s vehicle, purse and other personal belongings were found undisturbed. The case is still open to this day..

 

(Part 1 of an ongoing series..)

Rising star in jazz will hit MainStage Morgantown today

Morgantown will be greeted by a rising star in jazz music today at MainStage Morgantown.

Kamasi Washington, a Los Angeles-based jazz musician, will hit MainStage Morgantown in a couple of hours – doors open at 7 p.m.:

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Washington has been gaining acclaim since the release of his triple album ‘The Epic,’ a nearly three-hour long record worthy of its title that featured a 10-piece jazz band, backed by a 32-piece orchestra and a 20-person choir.

Washington credits the inspiration behind ‘The Epic’ to a series of dreams he had:

‘‘I had this dream about a group of young warriors living in a village beneath a mountain.’’ He went on: ‘‘At the top of that mountain, there’s this gate, protected by a guard. The warriors spend all their time training to kill the guard and seize control of the gate. One by one, they are defeated by the guard. But the last warrior has the power to win, and the guard hesitates for the first time, because he sees that the warrior’s heart is good and that his own time has come.’’

‘‘The guard is the person who protects the music and pushes it forward,’’ he said.

Washington, a 34-year old saxophonist, could be considered jazz’s latest celebrity, and may even be credited for revamping the genre’s appeal to younger listeners. Prior to his record release, Washington played saxophone on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly,’ which also featured several of his bandmates. He will also be playing several festivals this season, including Bonnaroo and Coachella.

While Washington is naturally inclined to play saxophone, he is also skilled in the drums, piano, and clarinet. He even wrote the string arrangement for Lamar’s album. But his passion is in the tenor saxophone, picking it up at an early age and instantly falling in love with the sound. In fact, Washington has only played on one saxophone – a Selmer Mark VI which belonged to his father.

That was at 13-years old. Washington was playing the drums at 3-years-old, and was playing the clarinet at 9. Within two years of his discovery of the saxophone, Washington earned the lead tenor saxophone chair in the top jazz ensemble at the prestigious Alexander Hamilton High School Music Academy in Los Angeles. At the same time, Washington joined the Multi-School Jazz Band, a compilation of young local musicians from surrounding areas of his community.

In 1999, Washington began studying at U.C.L.A. with the composer Gerald Wilson, who has worked with musicians such as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. After one year, Washington was invited to go on tour with Snoop Dogg – heading the horn section – where he got his first taste of the road and his first taste of Hip-Hop, which continued with him performing behind big names like Lauryn Hill and Nas.

And Washington hasn’t stopped touring since. He has been on a world tour since October, traveling to places like Tokyo and Australia to perform. And he has now made his way to Morgantown, West Virginia.