Bottlerocket Social Hall wants to spark comedy scene in Allentown

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CP Photo: Amanda Waltz

Bottlerocket Social Room

Before the interview even begins, the rotary telephone plugged into the paneled wall rings.

“I can’t remember the last time I was interrupted by a landline,” I laugh as Bottlerocket Social Hall co-owner and artistic director Chris Copen trots across the bar to answer it as ” The Who’s Pinball Wizard” plays softly in the background.

After a short conversation, he comes back saying, “A lot of that stuff was already there.” Besides the old telephone, Copen refers to the red velvet wallpaper on the rear staging area, the U-shaped bar and the light fixtures, all left over from the days of the Allentown space as St. George Lyceum, a social club that served neighborhood residents until it closed in 2017.

Now Copen, girlfriend Gracie Dickinson and friend Ben Helinski have decided to make Bottlerocket a destination where Pittsburgh residents can see some of comedy’s most innovative new voices, all in a time-warped space since the 1970s. To mark this, the 100+ seat venue officially opened in May with an event featuring comedian, actor and former TV host Chris Gethard.

Much of the decor remains intact, and all of the updates seem to blend seamlessly with the old setup. The walls are covered with found or reprinted posters for concerts that took place in long-closed Pittsburgh venues. New stage lights, a “state-of-the-art audio system” and a 150-inch projection screen all coexist happily with a recording jukebox and cathode ray televisions.

Even though the space looks set to accommodate a younger crowd, Copen and its partners still honor its history. There are even old photos of Lyceum patrons hanging on a wall, like a mini shrine to space’s past.

“It’s funny, a lot of people from the Lyceum still live here,” says Copen, a graduate of Point Park University. “And they came and drank here and hung out and they really like the space. And they say, ‘You haven’t changed anything. I like it.'”

Its future as a comedy club differs greatly from its original fate, something with a wink with an “Arlington Beverage Club” sticker displayed on a corkboard with an accompanying Post-It that reads ” RIP 🙁 2020-2020.” Bottlerocket operates in what was supposed to be celebrity chef Kevin Sousa’s vintage Pittsburgh-inspired bar. This, along with Sousa’s other Hilltop-based project, Mount Oliver Bodega, both been abandoned after much fanfare in the local media.The Bodega says it has “closed indefinitely” until the new owners figure out its future.

Rather than reveling in the demise of the Arlington Beverage Club, Copen shrugs it off, perhaps because he knows how difficult it can be trying to create a new space. He had banked on another alt-comedy concept, Dad’s Basement in Dormont, which he says “collapsed spectacularly” after what he claims were issues with the building’s landlord, mostly over regarding the provision of an ADA compliant bathroom.

Now, Copen and its partners can finally embark on their dream of bringing a more interesting and potentially less toxic brand of comedy to the region than what’s on offer at club chains and major live music venues.

Copen says the vision allows him to use the skills and relationships he formed while working for a talent management company in Los Angeles, where he rubbed shoulders with people writing shows for Apple TV and took the job. elevator with Will Ferrell.

When the pandemic ended his talent management work, he moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where his family lives, and began looking for ways to continue working in entertainment. He says the failure of Dad’s basement coincided with the Arlington Beverage Club fallout, so he knew the building existed and considered it a second chance.

“And then I saw it was listed one day, and I was working at a hotel at the time,” Copen says. “As soon as I saw it was on the list, I ran out of reception and called, like, ‘I have to talk to someone tomorrow. I’m ready to pitch this idea.

Copen says the building’s owner, community development company RE360, was “really receptive” to the idea of ​​Bottlerocket.

For now, the space is open on weekends, showcasing a variety of events from comedians to film screenings, including one hosted by beloved local documentarian Rick Sebak.

Copen says they want to provide access to comedians who might not otherwise be reserved for Pittsburgh, as well as be an alternative to a comedy scene that has become tainted by big stars more concerned with being “crazy than to be funny” and to take pictures in such a way – called “cancel culture”. This is reflected in the reception of Gethard, who has addressed mental health issues on his shows, including speaking candidly about his own suicide attempt. Throughout July, BottleRocket will host comedians Michael Cruz Kayne, Martin Urbano and Marcia Belsky, a feminist comedian/musician who caused a stir with a song about NASA giving 100 tampons to Sally Ride, the first female astronaut to go in the space.

Copen says they’re also looking forward to leaning into the 1970s vibe of Bottlerocket with a big Fourth of July party inspired by the country’s bicentennial in 1976.

In August, Copen says they hope to be open five days a week and add live music, dance parties and other types of events to their repertoire. They also want to use an adjoining warehouse to host larger festivals or larger concerts.

Ultimately, Copen says they hope Bottlerocket could do for Allentown what Mr. Smalls Theater did for Millvale, being a “neighborhood creative focal point” for artists and audiences that also helps support more. other local businesses.

“I mean, our general rule is whatever we think is interesting, we’ll do everything we can to try to make it happen and try to facilitate it,” Copen says. “And so people come to us with pitches and we’re like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Either way, we will. »

Bottlerocket social room. 1226 Arlington Ave, Allentown.