The Pegasus Lounge on Liberty Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh has a long and storied history. According to Ancient Greek Mythology, the Pegasus was born from the blood spilled by Medusa, the most beautiful of the three sisters, who would live a life full of struggles and pain, and in death would ascend to heaven. The history of the site of Pegasus Lounge would suggest that this location shares a familiar history with that mythology by reflecting its own diverse affinity toward enlightenment, exploration of the arts, dance and music.
Mention Pegasus Lounge and fond memories to many in the LGBT community spill forth who experienced the heartbeat of excitement that awaited them after descending down the stairs to the basement club. Take a moment to picture it and allow yourself to rekindle, just for a moment, your fondest memories of the sights, sounds, laughter, spirit, and friendships that leaped forth between its walls. Those same feelings were felt by a diverse group of Pittsburgher’s on that site for over 100 years.
Its history can be traced back to Monday April 7, 1913, when folks took a street car downtown for 5 cents which left them off at the corner of 9th and Liberty. It was the grand opening of the Liberty Theater and a large crowd had formed for the newest theater that will double as a venue for vaudeville and later in the evening as a moving pictures playhouse. From the outside the theater appeared small, but when you entered the lobby the word cozy seemed to describe it better. The lobby was walled with a variety of quaint, brown terra cottas and the doors were a pale green wood. The theater sat about 1,400 and was decorated in an eloquent light yellow offset by green curtains.
According to the April 8 edition of the Pittsburgh Gazette Times, the excellent bill of vaudeville performers included such acts as Emil Hoch & Company in “Love’s Young Dream,” horizontal bar experts the Orloff Brothers, monologist Glenn Ellison, instrumentalists Luce & Luce, comic Sadie Sherman, Sherman & McNaughton in a comedy skit, and the acrobatic delights of Three Bounding Gordon’s. Later in the day, moving pictures were also shown and tickets that day for general admission were 25¢ and 50¢.
In the early 20s, the Liberty expanded and added a cafeteria for hungry Pittsburghers who could get a quick bite to eat. During this time, the theater would face several challenges: the Great Depression, the new, larger Stanley Theater (now the Benedum) and the Penn Theater (now Heinz Hall). The challenge was just too great and in 1929 the location was converted into offices and stores. The original interior and exterior of the Liberty Theater would be altered as a result.
In 1934, entertainment would return to the Liberty Theater building, now called the Baum Building, with the opening of the first night club operated by Joe Hiller called “The Music Box.” 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. Pittsburgh singing star Jackie Heller was booked for a two-week stay in December 1934, and would eventually open his own night club called the Carousel at 815 Liberty Avenue, right across the street. The Music Box became a popular spot to catch dinner and watch a floor show and business was good until the great St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936. The muddy waters destroyed the basement club, and Hiller would move on to become a talent agent in Pittsburgh booking greats such as Perry Como, Vaughn Monroe, Sophie Tucker, Fannie Brice, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, Milton Berle, Helen Hayes, and George M. Cohan. Joe would retire in 1972 selling his Pittsburgh talent agency that year, and passed away at age 84 on April 16, 1973.
The second club to occupy the space would open in 1941 and was called the “Villa Madrid.” Band leader Etzi Covato owned and managed the club and billed it in ads as “Pittsburgh’s Newest and Best Rond D Vu” and “Pittsburgh’s gayest, newest, most modern restaurant.”
The third night club called “The Copa” would open in 1948, and would become one of the most famous. Run by Pittsburgh music promoter and entertainment writer Lenny Litman and his brothers, the upscale club featured big name performers and was a very popular night spot for eleven years. The Copa sat 287 guests for dinner, had a dance floor in the middle of the room and a long bar along the side wall. 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, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Callaway, Sammy Davis Jr., Mel Torme, Conway Twitty, Patti Page, Andy Williams, and Count Basie just to name a few. Facing competition from the larger supper clubs, the Holiday House and the Twin Coaches, Lenny closed the Copa on December 31, 1959. Lenny Litman would pass away at age 88 on July 29, 2002.
The fourth club would open in the early 60s and would be called the “Pin Up Lounge.” Billed as a rock and roll go-go club, live acts included the Del Monaco’s and the Tammy’s in 1964. Ads for the club ran through 1966.
In 1967, the fifth club to occupy the space was called the “Staircase Lounge.” Operated by Dolores “Dee’ DeMase and her husband Henry Sonny DeMase, 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 DeMase’s supported acts who wrote and performed original music and hired popular acts with established followings.
The Jaggerz performed on Friday and Saturday nights from 1968 until their break up in 1975. Other Staircase performers included Diamond Reo, guitarist Warren King, Norm Nardini, Wild Cherry with Donnie Iris and guitarist Bryan Basset, Seneca Trial, Sweet Breeze, Lou Christie, The Granati Brothers, B.E Taylor, The Rivers Blues Band, and the Shades of Time. When the Staircase closed in 1980, the Pittsburgh rock scene moved out of downtown and to the Decade, Fat City Lounge, and Morry’s Speakeasy.
The sixth and final club opened in 1980 by David Morrow was the Pegasus Lounge. It quickly became the social and entertainment hot spot for Pittsburgh’s LGBT community for nearly 30 years. Pegasus catered to a mix of business men, college kids, and was famous for showcasing some of the best drag entertainment in Pittsburgh. Representatives from the Pitt Men’s Study could often be found on-site as they recruited folks to participate in its HIV/AIDS study. Pegasus also played a large role in fundraising for many LGBT causes.
The entrance to Pegasus was marked by a winged red Pegasus figure. Once you descended down a set of steep stairs and through the door, you could head to a long bar on the right, to the dance floor in the middle, or to the main bar on the left which was decorated with a large crescent-moon statue with puckered red lips.
In 2004, Scott Noxon purchased Pegasus from Morrow and continued operating it until it closed on December 5, 2009. So famous was the location that writers would borrow its history and name in the hit Showtime TV show “Queer as Folk.”
In 2003, the five story former Liberty Theater building was purchased and its first floor renovated by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for use as an art gallery. The trust paid $2.15 million acquiring it from real estate entrepreneur Leon F. Thorpe.
The basement nightclub, where many generations danced, drank, ate, socialized, and enjoyed great music, now sits empty, its future unknown. But for many Pittsburghers it lives on in our hearts and minds forever.