Jeffrey Wheeler had always dreamed of opening his own bar. As a certified bartender with eleven years of experience managing the now-legendary Pegasus Lounge, it seemed like a natural progression, despite the fact that he didn’t really have the money or know-how needed to actually do it.
One day, Jeff and his then-partner Gary Altavilla, were dropping off a car for inspection at Baum Boulevard Automotive when they saw that the straight strip club across the street, Anthony’s Lounge, was empty and sporting a “For Rent” sign. They set up a tour of the space and, even though it was the first and only location they looked at, Jeff knew this was the place for their bar.
Over the course of the next year, Jeff and Gary completely gutted and renovated the place with a self-imposed deadline of spring 2007 looming on the horizon. “We knew that the guys from The Holiday (a landmark Pittsburgh gay bar in operation for 40 years) were ready to retire,” Gary remembers, “so we wanted to coincide our opening with their closing.” Not only that, the guys modeled their bar after The Holiday, taking Anthony’s bar setup (with the bar tight against the wall) and replacing it with a “cruise bar,” which allowed patrons to walk the whole way around the bar.
During renovations, Gary suggested installing a window at the front of the bar. That might not seem like a big deal but, at the time, this was an uncommon move for gay bars as “you didn’t want anyone outside knowing what was happening on the inside,” Gary says, “in case of heckling, vandalism, things of that sort.” But around that time there was a notable shift in gay culture. Gay bars were starting to emerge from the seedier parts of town and open in nicer areas. Confident that this location on Baum Boulevard would be more welcoming, the window was added.
P-Town had its grand opening on March 15, 2007, and Jeff was blown away by the crowd that night. “Not only did I have my personal friends, I had my friends that used to come into Pegasus all the time,” Jeff says. “I knew we had something special because the bar was jam-packed. I didn’t expect it to be like that, to have all my friends come in, it made me feel really good.”
We’ve all heard the cliche about how gays moving in tends to spruce up a neighborhood but with P-Town Jeff and Gary were determined to do just that. Anthony’s Lounge was something of a nuisance bar with public urination, drug deals, and other illegal activity creating problems for nearby establishments. It was so bad that when the guys approached Baum Boulevard Automotive and Pep Boys about using their lots for evening parking, both businesses said, “absolutely not.” Over the first couple of months it took a lot of convincing to win them over, including patrolling the lots after-hours for any stray bottles, cans, etc., but the P-Town team has had a great relationship with their neighbors ever since.
There was one aspect of the former Anthony’s Lounge that Jeff and Gary wanted to keep around, though. “Let’s face it…sex sells” Gary says, and since Anthony’s had offered nude dancing, P-Town was grandfathered in so they opted to continue the tradition. They were, in fact, the first gay bar in Pittsburgh to offer totally nude dancing. “Back then, that was a novelty but that was before the internet,” Gary laughs. “Now, you could see all the sex and nudity you wanted” online so it kind of lost its appeal and P-Town discontinued the nude dancing in 2012.
As far as the bar’s name goes, the guys wanted to appeal strictly to a gay clientele by evoking the small coastal town/popular gay vacation destination Provincetown, MA, despite never having been there. “If you’ve ever been to Provincetown and you come to our bar, you’re going to say, ‘there’s nothing about this bar that has to do with P-Town,’” Gary laughs, “other than the name.” In case you haven’t guessed, in this instance, the P in P-Town stands for Pittsburgh.
As we all know, the pandemic presented plenty of problems for small businesses and P-Town was no different. As Jeff puts it, they survived “by the grace of God…and our core customers.” But Jeff also says he cannot stress enough how important the staff is to the bar’s success. “They keep us afloat…and help make P-Town what it is.” Despite all the challenges, the pandemic did, however, give the P-Town team a chance to do some deep-cleaning and remodeling; there is no longer any smoking indoors and they created the Baum Shelter (get it?), a new back bar with a more industrial feel. It should also be mentioned that with the creation of this Baum Shelter, the nude dancing has returned so celebrate accordingly!
Since reopening, P-Town has been booming. In fact, a recent indoor/outdoor event brought 960 people through the door! With such large crowds, they have been asking for proof of vaccination at their events and thankfully there has been little to no opposition to that requirement.
After 14 years, though, Jeff decided it was time to retire from P-Town. He will continue to work his full-time job teaching mandated reporter training courses for the state of Pennsylvania but as he says, after “11 years at Pegasus, 16 years at P-Town, I would like to finally have weekends off, to just lay on my couch on a Saturday night and watch TV…which I haven’t done in 27 years!”
Jeff says the aspect of P-Town he will miss the most is meeting new people and seeing those new faces become regulars and having those regulars become friends. “The place has got my handprint on it and it is something I’ll never be able to walk away from forever.”
P-Town has different offerings every night of the week including karaoke, game nights, food trucks, and more, so check out their calendar of events and also be sure to stop in to see the new Baum Shelter!