Staircase Lounge

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100 Years of Music History at the Corner of Liberty Avenue and Strawberry Way

On weekend nights during the late 1960s and 1970s Pittsburghers lined up under the bright blue and yellow neon Staircase Lounge sign that hung high over the downtown sidewalk of Liberty Avenue. Sharply dressed they descended the steep steps into basement nightclub of 818 Liberty Avenue to dance to the soulful R&B tunes of Pittsburgh’s hottest band the Jaggerz. At the Staircase they also came to hear the rock bands the Racket Squad, Sweet Lightning, Sweet Breeze, Windfall, Diamond Reo, WHAM, and Wild Cherry. They followed in the footsteps of several generations of Pittsburghers who descended those same steps for entertainment, diner, and dancing at the posh night spots Joe Hiller’s Music Box, the Villa Madrid, Lenny Litman’s Copa, and the Pin Up Lounge.

Liberty Theater 

The corner of Liberty Avenue and Strawberry Way has been a center of entertainment for 100 years.  The building that housed the Staircase Lounge was constructed in 1913 as the Liberty Theater. The terra-cotta-clad beaux-art theater was an intimate 1,400 seat vaudeville showcase. Stretching from 812 to 818 Liberty Avenue it had a 100 foot long entrance, Inside it was small and cozy with 700 seats on the ground floor,  another 700 on two balconies and dozen more in four private boxes.. The lobby was decorated with brown terra cotta tile and the auditorium was draped in yellow and green curtains. Operated by John Harris it offered vaudeville acts and movies. The grand opening was held on April 8th 1913. Sometime later it became Harry William’s Academy Burlesque. With the building of the much larger 3,000 plus seat Stanley and Penn Theaters in the late 1920s, the Liberty Theater was converted into offices and stores and renamed the Baum Building. The basement of 818 Liberty was a cafeteria during the 1920s.

Joe Hiller's Music Box

The first nightclub to bring customers to the basement of 818 Liberty Avenue was Joe Hiller's Music Box which was opened in 1934.   

Joe Hiller was a nationally known music impresario who began his career in 1907 singing with piano player Chico Marx at the Song Shop music store and an Italian restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh. Working with composer George Olcott, Hiller wrote the lyrics to several hit songs that sold millions of copies across the country. Promoted to the New York headquarters of the Song Shop, at Waterson, Berlin & Snyder, Inc., Hiller marketed the music of Irving Berlin and became a very successful song picker. He discovered and promoted  million selling hit songs. Returning to Pittsburgh in 1926 he bought three “Song Shop” music stores in Pittsburgh, started his own music publishing house, and hosted the “Song Shop” live music radio show on KQV. With the decline of sheet music sales to phonographs and radio he became a booking agent and a night club manager. Hiller booked and managed the Show Boat night club from 1928 through 1931.

In 1934 Hiller rented the empty basement store of 818 Liberty Avenue and opened his own floor show nightclub “Joe Hiller’s Music Box”. The grand opening was held on November 9, 1934. Dora Maughan, a night club and vaudeville star from London, headlined the opening night. The first floor show featured Alfredo and Delores, the Rumba Dance Team, the Four Rhythm Queens, and music by Buzzy Kountz and his Orchestra. He booked Pittsburgh singing star Jackie Heller for a two week stay in December of 1934. Eddie Loughton and his Aristocrats of Rhythm were also headliners. The Music Box became a popular spot to catch dinner and watch a floor show. Business was good until the great St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936. The muddy waters destroyed the basement club. The piano and the furniture of the Music Box floated away. Joe went into the booking agency business taking on young Pittsburgh singers Perry Como and Vaughn Monroe as clients. Band leader Ed Flynn took over the Music Box after the flood 1936.

Villa Madrid

Air conditioning was installed and the basement of 818 Liberty Avenue became the Villa Madrid nightclub in 1941.  Band leader Etzi Covato owned and managed the club billing it in advertisements as "Pittsburgh’s Newest and Best Rond D Vu” and "Pittsburgh's gayest, newest, most modern restaurant".  Advertising for the club ran through 1946.

Lenny Litman's Copa

Pittsburgh music promoter and entertainment writer Lenny Litman along with his brothers purchased the Villa Madrid club in 1948 renaming it the Copa. Offering big name performers the upscale dinner club was a very popular night spot for eleven years. The Copa sat 287 guest for dinner, had a dance floor in the middle or the room and a long bar along the side wall. Three shows a night were offered Monday through Saturday. Lenny had a talent for discovering unknown performers and signing them with “options” that gave him the right to bring them back at low rates.  The club’s headliners over the years included: Johnny Mathis, Cab Callaway, Mel Torme, Conway Twitty, Patti Page, Andy Williams, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Henny Youngman, Pearl Bailey, Johnnie Ray, Rudy Vallee, Artie Shaw, Bela Lugosi, Marty Allen, Bill Haley's Comets, and Miles Davis.  Facing competition from the larger supper clubs, the Holiday House and the Twin Coaches Litman closed the Copa on December 31, 1959. The last show was held on New Year's Eve.

Pin Up Lounge

In the early 1960s the basement Liberty Avenue club became a rock and roll Go Go club called the Pin Up Lounge. Live acts who played the Pin Up included the Del Monaco’s and the Tammys in 1964. Ads for the club ran through 1966.

The Staircase Lounge

Dolores “Dee’ DeMase and her husband Henry Sonny DeMase opened the Staircase Lounge sometime around 1967 or 1968. According to Jimmie Ross the Jaggerz began their long run at the Staircase in 1968. At its opening the Staircase competed for the top groups in the area with Mancini’s, the Musketeer Lounge in Market Square, and the Swizzle Stick in Oakland. The Staircase hired the most popular acts that had established followings and paid them well. The DeMases supported acts that wrote and performed original music. Frank Cruzi, who performed at the Staircase as a member of the Jaggerz and Diamond Reo, said the bands loved playing there and the fans “loved going there”. It was packed every weekend. 

The Jaggerz played the Staircase on Friday and Saturday nights from 1968 until their break up in 1975.  The club was so jammed back you had to know someone to get to see the Jaggerz.  They turned down many out of town shows as they were well paid at the Staircase.  In 1975 KQV radio broadcast a live four hour performance of the Jaggerz from the Staircase.  After 11 years together the Jaggerz played their last appearance at the Staircase in January of 1976.

The Staircase played host to many talented bands over its 11 year run. One of the first bands to play the Staircase in 1969 was the Racket Squad led by singer Sonny DiNunzio.  After the Raquest Squad broker up Sonny returned with the band Sebastian in the 1970s.   The Staircase offered the Bluebirds, Rock Garden, and the Jacks in 1970.  The band Universal Joint, that featured guitarist Bob Parissi who founded Wild Cherry and bassist Joe Macre who became a member of Crack The Sky and the B.E. Taylor Band, appeared in 1970 and 1971..

The Skyliners made the first appearance at the Staircase when the reunited to perform at Madison Square Garden on New Years Eve in 1972.  The Pittsburgh super group Sweet Lightning with David Letterman guitarist Sid McGinnis, Pete Hewlett, Ron Foster played the Staircase from 1972 through 1975. Pete Hewlett returned to the Staircase in 1975 to perform with his group Windfall. 

Diamond Reo with Frank Cruzi, guitarist Warren King, and Norman Nardini played the Staircase every Friday Night in 1974 after the release of their national hit single "Ain't that Peculiar”.  Wild Cherry played the Staircase in 1978 with members Donnie Iris and guitarist Bryan Basset. Seneca Trial made appearances in 1974.  Sweet Breeze with singer / drummer Don Marsico played the club from 1974 through 1979.  Lou Christie headlined in January of 1978 backed by Sweet Breeze. Also playing the Staircase were B.H.Q and the band WHAM from Steubenville.  The Granati Brothers, B.E Taylor, The Rivers Blues Band, the Shades of Time, and Sweet Breeze were acts that appeared in 1979.  

The Pittsburgh rock scene moved out of downtown Pittsburgh when the Staircase closed in 1980.  The Decade, the Fat City Lounge, and Morry's Speakeasy became the clubs for original rock in the 1980s.  

Pegasus Lounge

The Pegasus Lounge was opened in famed Liberty Avenue basement by proprietor David Morrow in 1980. It was a social and entertainment hot spot for Pittsburgh lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community for over 30 years. The entrance was marked by a winged red Pegasus figure. Down a set of steep stairs was a long bar on the right that was divided into an alcohol section for thoses over 21 and an alcohol-free section for college-age patrons. The dance floor was in the middle of the room and the main bar on the left was decorated with a large crescent-moon statue with puckered red lips. Scott Nixon who owned the club for its last five years bought it from David Morrow in 2004. With a monthly rent of $4,000 Noxon felt that expenses were too high for a basement. He closed the Pegasus Lounge on Liberty Avenue on December 6, 2009. Noxon opened a new Pegasus Lounge on the North Side

Cultural Trust

The five story Baum Building was purchased and renovated by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust in 2003 for use as an art gallery. The trust paid $2.15 million acquiring it from real estate entrepreneur Leon F. Thorpe. At the time it housed the Pegasus bar and an exotic novelty gift shop.

The first floor of the Baum Building contains the cleverly named 'Space" a seldom used large empty art gallery. The basement nightclub where several generations of Pittsburghers danced, drank, ate, and enjoyed great live music now sits empty gathering "Cultural Dust".
The Jaggerz
Liberty Theater -1913
800 Block Liberty Ave. 1936 -Joe Hiller's Music Box
Villa Madrid Ad 1941
Copa Club Grand Opening 1948
Pegasus Lounge
800 Block Liberty Avenue 2012