MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – 123 Pleasant Street is a prominent and inclusive alternative music venue in Morgantown, and that reputation started when Marsha “Mudd” Ferber purchased the bar in 1982. Marsha named the bar, then called The Underground Railroad, after her hero Harriet Tubman, and it was created to be a safe space for people who felt marginalized by society.
“She lived her life at that time with a purpose, probably much like a lot of the people that she was associated with. They felt like they were doing work to make our community and even our society a better place, a more accepting place,” L.J. Giuliani, owner of 123 Pleasant Street, explained, “All of those ethos manifested themselves in this building that’s 123 Pleasant Street now. She was certainly the matriarch of that scene and that movement.”
The Underground Railroad put Morgantown on the map, debuting popular bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers but also putting an emphasis on local music. Although Marsha is credited for starting the bar, she was a firm believer in collective ownership and believed that big decisions on bar ownership should be decided by committee. That’s an aspect that Giuliani said he tries to continue at 123 Pleasant Street, and he frequently asks himself–“What would Marsha do?”
I remember all sorts of nights when Marsha was so conflicted about owning a bar. We would have these conversations about–we should have a big pot of coffee set up by the door and give people black coffee as they are leaving because what are we doing? Are we going to send people out to drive drunk? Am I doing the right thing by doing this?Karen Zelermyer
“She was the right person at the right time to show up in Morgantown,” said Randy “Squeak” Williams, Marsha’s former partner, “She saved the music scene, really, because Morgantown was just a university band bar, and she promoted original music, so that made a big difference in town, and it still does down at 123.”
Allegedly, some of the money that went into securing bands was made through the sale of illegal drugs–mostly marijuana. Some people who were close to Marsha believe that this might have been the reason for her mysterious disappearance in 1988, but the theories are mixed.
Web Extra: The Matriarch of 123 Pleasant Street
A new podcast on Marsha’s disappearance debuts on June 9th. The podcast is called I Was Never There, and was picked as an audio selection for the 2022 Tribeca Festival. Karen Zelermyer, who co-hosts I Was Never There with her daughter Jamie, was a bartender at the Underground Railroad in ’82 and ’83. She said there are many fond memories, but one of her favorites was after the Grateful Dead concert at the WVU stadium. Karen was bartending that night, and they anticipated a big turnout at The Underground Railroad after people left the concert.
“We were tripping for the concert, so we came back [to The Underground Railroad]. We were a little high, and as we predicted, it was packed,” Karen remembered, “And Marsha was bartending with me, but she was a terrible bartender…at a certain point, we just couldn’t hold it together anymore, and she just said, ‘Let’s dance.’
“So we walked out from behind the bar, and all these people at the bar are like, ‘Hey, wait a minute. What about my drink?’ And Marsha was like, ‘Figure it out.’ And we just danced all night,” Karen recalled.
Web Extra: 123 Pleasant Street Today
Giuliani said he was a patron of the bar before he purchased it, but never had the chance to meet Marsha because it was after she disappeared. The bar went through changes over the years as owners switched hands, both in style of music and name. Switching from reggae to punk rock, and in one iteration, it was called The Nyabinghi Dance Hall. In 1998, the building and the row apartments were condemned. That’s when Giuliani decided to buy it and fix it up. It was for sale under one condition–that it would stay a music venue, which was a no-brainer for Giuliani.
“I [said], ‘Everything that you saw going on at The Nyabinghi and the Underground Railroad–you’re going to still see the mohawks. You’re going to still see the dreads. You’re going to see lots of colorful characters that will come down here. Those things are going to still be present,” said Giuliani, “All I want to do is make sure that you don’t have to worry about this space–that it’s a safe space that the fire department doesn’t have to worry about, code enforcement doesn’t have to worry about.”
Karen and Jamie said that they have visited 123 Pleasant Street a few times since Marsha’s disappearance and feel that Giuliani does a good job of continuing The Underground Railroad’s legacy for the next generation.
A calendar of events at 123 Pleasant Street can be found on their website.