Graffiti Showcase and Graffiti Rock Challenge

Top National Showcase and Launch Pad for Rusted Root and the Clarks
The rock scene in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and early 1980s took place in small cramped crowded bars like the Decade, The Fat City Lounge, and the Electric Banana. In 1983 Tony DiNardo gave Pittsburgh a big new space that allowed Pittsburgh musicians, national artists, and music fans to stretch out. Modeled after showcase clubs like the Bottom Line and Bitter End in New York and the Troubadour in L.A. the Graffitti Café Pub and Showcase opened at 4615 Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh’s North Oakland neighborhood in December of 1983. The music scene in Pittsburgh greatly expanded with the Graffitti's offering of a broad range of national and regional acts, its 500 seat showcase room with a big dance floor, its wide stage, and its annual Graffitti Rock Challenge awards. For 17 years it was the best club in the Pittsburgh area and one of the best in the country. The Graffitt was rated in the top ten Showcase rooms in the USA by Performance Magazine and number 1 for live sound in a concert setting by E.Q. Magazine.

Over 1500 acts performed at the Graffiti from 1983 until its closing in 2000. Among the national acts that wowed Pittsburgh audiences were rockers Nirvana, Red Hot Chile Peppers, Green Day, LA Gunns, and Guster: guitar masters: Robin Ford, Roy Buchanan, Robin Trower, Dick Dale, and Danny Gaton; blues legends Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, and Keb Mo. Singer song writers John Hiatt, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett Billy Brag, John Hartford, Matthew Sweet, Clint Black, Livingston Taylor, Graham Parker, and Richard Thompson;. female stars Phoebe Snow, K.D.Lang, Lucinda Williams, Joan Jett, and Michelle Shocked. Pop rock stars Todd Rundgren, the Guess Who, Hootie and the Blowfish; classic rockers Little Feat, Eric Burdon, Ian Hunter, Robyn Hitchcock, Camper Van Beethoven, and Derek Trucks; jazz great Jaco Pastorius. funk masters Tower of Power; and New Orleans stars the Neville Brothers, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Buckwheat Zydeco. Jerry Seinfield, Ellen DeGeneres, Jake Johansen, Second City, and Sandra Bernhardt Johansen are comedians who did their stick at the Graffitti

A longer list of artists who played the Graffiti are listed by year at Graffiti Schedule.

Seventy percent of the revenue came from the national acts that were booked and promoted by Jack Tumpson's Next Big Thing and Elko Productions. The promoters made their money from ticket sales. The Graffiti earned its keep from liquor and food sales. Owner Tony DiNardo did not work with DiCesare-Engler Productions as they wanted a percentage of the bar income in addition to ticket sales revenue. The other 30% of the revenues came from the many Pittsburgh area bands who showcased their original music at Graffiti. Several of the Pittsburgh bands including Rusted Root, the Clarks, the Affordable Floors, and the Cynics rose to national fame and international fame after building their fan base at the Graffiti.

Antonino's Pizza Parlor Beginnings

The Graffitti was the creation of Tony DiNardo, whose real name is Antonio Carmello Giovanni Deluca Policicchio DiNardo first started booking entertainment in the 1970s at his Craig Street pizza parlor called Antininos that was located in Oakland close to Pitt and CMU. Antinino's was one of the first comedy club venues in Pittsburgh. Denis Miller got his start at Antinino's before he went off to Saturday Night Live fame. Jim Kreen appeared at the pizza palace before he became the host of the WDVE Morning show. Comedians Billy Elmer, Randy Lubas, and Rick Rockwell were also regulars. When a store front space next door to Antinino's became available in 1973 Tony expanded his restaurant and renamed it the Portfolio Lounge. With more space he began booking local musical acts and showcase national acts including Roger McGuinn, the Talking Heads and others. Turned down for a liquor license and about to lose his lease at his Craig street location, Tony searched for a larger venue. The Portfolio closed in June of 1982, but a new venue was announced in the press.

The Auto Palace becomes a Music Palace

DiNardo found a large warehouse space a few blocks away from the Portfolio on Baum Blvd. It was located on the second floor above the Auto Palace car dealership. DiNardinoi’s cousin Marlo Grande owned the building and the Auto Palace dealership that sold expense high performance Porsche and Ferrari sports cars. The space became available when its tenant, the Theater Express acting company, was forced to close due to code violation complaints from fiery Pittsburgh city council women Michelle Madoff. Tony leased the space from Marlo and constructed his new club doing much of the work himself.

The Graffiti had two grand openings. The small Grafitti Cafe Pub opened its doors in December of 1983. Folk singer Anne Feeney was the first performer. Located in the front of the building it was a small café room with a bar and small stage. DiNardo presented local folk and jazz fusion artists. It was designed to host smaller acts that performed as early warm up acts before Showcase events or on nights when the Showcase room was closed.

The larger unheated back room that was to host the showcase acts was still under construction when the café room opened. The Showcase room opened later in the winter of 1984 temporarily warmed by a giant orange jet engine looking space heater. Newcomers were impressed the wide four foot high stage located along the back wall. It looked like the band set of Saturday Night Live. The stark red brick wall behind the stage had a giant embedded industrial fan and a large dark gritty steel framed window. The room was a wide high ceiling bare brick walled industrial space with plenty of room for dancing and tables. The front row tables were located inches from the stage. Devoted fans rushed to get to the Graffiti early to grab a good table to be very up close and personal with their favorite musicians. If the front tables were taken the two side balconies had seats right above the stage. Getting to the Graffiti late fans still had a good view of the stage from the back of the floor or above in the back balcony. The room was only 35 foot deep. Dinardo created an intimate setting with good site lines and sound. Nicely decorated with warm low colored lights it had a relaxing ambiance. It was worth the wait on the long steep steps to get a good seat for one of the hundreds of great shows hosted by Graffiti.

Pittsburgh Bands Thrive at Graffiti

Pittsburgh bands that wrote and played original music in a wide variety of musical styles blossomed and flourished at the Grafitti playing for large enthusiastic crowds. Several became regional and national stars. In the early 1980s MTV generation fans flocked to Graffiti to dance to the new wave tunes of the Kids After Dark, and Hector in Paris. The most popular new wave band at Graffiti, the Affordable Floors, released three albums on Anthem records earning airplay across the U.S. At the end of the '80s the college rock band the Clarks became the most popular draw in the city making the Graffiti their Pittsburgh home base. Recording on MCA and Razor and Tie Records the Clarks were heard on Triple-A radio station across the county placing five songs on the Billboard charts. They became a major concert act drawing thousands to their shows in the East and Midwest. In 1990 a new band called Rusted Root appeared at the Graffiti and took the city by storm with their original brand of tribal rock. They went on to become platinum selling recording artists with their all time classic hit “Send Me on My Way”.

Other new wave / punk bands became popular at the Graffiti including the Spuds, the Cynics, Voodoo Babies and the Nixon Clocks. Alternative/folk influenced performers who got their start at Graffiti included Karl Mullen’s Ploughman’s Lunch, Brownie Mary, Anne Feeney, Brad Yoder, and Bill Deasey’s groups Shiloh and the Gathering Field. Billy Price brought his blue eyed soul and his many long-time loyal fans to Graffiti. The S.W.A.M.P. band laid down their reggae beat for Graffiti patrons. Rockers Ashes to Ashes, Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, the Granati Brothers, B.E. Taylor, Norman Nardini also made appearances at the club. Per Tony DiNardo’s wishes death metal bands and bad boy rappers never appeared at Graffiti.

Graffiti and its promotion partners created demand for Pittsburgh’s bands with the help of alternative radio station WXXP. Promoter John Antimary, Next Big Thing, and Elko productions advertised their Grafitti shows on on WXXP. The station in turn put the records of many of the Pittsburgh based Graffiti bands into their regular rotation play list airing them next to the songs of national artists. WXXP greatly increased the exposure of and standing of Pittsburgh’s bands. WXXP DJs also endorsed those artists by emceeing their Graffiti shows. The popularity of the Affordable Floors, New Kids on the Block and other bands grew with WXXPs support

The Cars close down Graffiti

Marlo Grande, owner of the Auto Palace car dealership and Tony DiNardo’s cousin, sold his business and the building that housed Graffiti in January of 2000 when he decided to retire to South Carolina. David “Richie Rich” Scaife, son of the billionaire owner of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper, purchased the entire Auto Palace building to house his personal collection of luxury cars. The final show at Graffitti was held on March 25, 2000. Forced to vacate the Auto Palace building the Graffitti closed its doors for good. The musical paradise became an indoor car park. As Dinardo said in an interview "The paved paradise to put up a parking lot". The Rosebud and Metropol clubs in the Strip district took over as Pittsburgh’s showcase clubs. Tony Dinardo continued to run the annual Graffiti Rock Challenge contest at other venues until 2006. 

Graffiti Rock Challenge

Graffiti sponsored and hosted an annual contest for 22 years to select the best rock band in the Pittsburgh Tri-state area. The goal was to challenge Pittsburgh bands to write and record original music and to give exposure to the most talented acts. The contest began in 1984 as the “Tri-State Rock Competition” under promoter John Antimary. As the state liquor laws prohibited bars from offering contests, an outside promoter was required to provide the contest prizes. After a controversy with John Antimary over the grand prize awards Next Big Thing Productions became the competition promoter in 1987. The contest was renamed the “Graffitti Rock Challenge” in 1987. The annual grand prize was 60 hours of recording studio time and a pressing of 1000 CDs.

Bands entered the competition by submitting demo tapes/CDs with three to four songs. The annual number of entrants ranged from 60 to 159 bands. A preliminary panel of judges evaluated the demo recordings to selected 16 semi-finalists who competed live in concert. The concert competition was held over five weekends at the Grafitti. Four bands competed each weekend with one finalist picked by the judges. One the fifth weekend the top four finalists competed to pick the overall winner. Nationally known artists participated as judges at the final concert including Chris Franz, Tina Weymouth, Tommy James, and Jules Shear. The final concert became so popular that it out grew the Graffiti and moved to the large Syria Mosque and were televised by KDKA TV.

The first winner in 1984 was the popular new wave band Kids After Dark. Other known winners were the the S.P.U.D.S (1985), Affordable Floors (1986), 11th Hour (1987), Johnny Rhythm & the Dimestore 45s (1988), the synth-pop band the Sponges (1989), Illuminatus (1990), Shiloh with Bill Deasy (1991), Torn & Frayed (1992), Out of the Blue (1993), Brownie Mary (1994), D.O.S.E. (1995), Vibro Kings (1996), Push (1997) Buzz Poets (1998) Yves Jean Band (1999), Soda Jerks (2002), Science Fiction Idols (2003), progressive band Idio-sympathy (2005), and Kill the Drama (2006)

Several of the runners up in the finals went on win recording contracts including Rusted Root, the Clarks, and Seventh House.
After the Grafitti closed in 2000, the contest continued at other vendors. It moved to the Beehive in 2001 and Rosebud in 2002 and 2003. The 2002 contest sold out five consecutive nights at Roseband. Mr, Small hosted it in 2004 and 2005. The last Graffiti Rock Challenge was held at Moondogs in 2006. Tony DiNardo did not schedule the contest in 2007 when he had to take care of his ailing father.
The Auto Palace
The Affordable Floors at Graffiti 1989

Rusted Root Dec 1992 at Graffiti
Hector in Paris
The Graffiti Rock Challenge Finals 1989
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