Saturday, September 6, 2008

Pave Paradise...

The Syria Mosque from Pitt Digital Library

The Syria Mosque didn’t go down without a fight in 1991. Current state senator Jim Ferlo and the late Friendship gadfly John Murdoch tied themselves to the sphinxes outside the building in an effort to stay the bulldozers from a midnight leveling of the Mosque. The final chapter was written when Pittsburgh's finest carted them away. It was a fittingly dramatic farewell to the long-time home of the City’s most eclectic and eccentric gathering spot.

The Mosque was the clubhouse of Pittsburgh’s Syria Temple, a service group best known for its circuses and clowns tootling around on mini-cars while raising serious benjamins for children’s free health care in Shriner hospitals. After 40 years of existence, in 1916 the guys opened a meeting hall/entertainment venue in Oakland to further the cause.

The main entrance was on Bigelow Boulevard, with a side door on Lytton Avenue, across Fifth Avenue from Soldier and Sailor’s Memorial Hall. The building itself was a boxy terra cotta affair, designed by Huehl, Schmidt & Holmes of Chicago. It was hardly the stuff you’d think that historic preservation firefights are made of, but it did become one at the end.

It was tough to miss the doors – both were guarded by a pair of 2,500 pound bronze sphinxes, designed by Giuseppe Moretti, who also sculpted the panthers gracing the Panther Hollow Bridge by the Oakland Carnegie Library.

It had an Arabic motto above main gateway, which translated meant “Thou Hast Risen on the Horizon of the Kingdom Full of Mercy to Disperse What There Was of Dark Oppression and Justice.” It’s from an old poem (no, don’t know which one), and proved that the Shriners were righteous dudes, fez hats and all.

Two dozen stained glass windows adorned the 3,850 seat auditorium, along with a huge honkin’ chandelier. In a 1973 concert, the diva of kitsch, Bette Midler, told the crowd “I love the chandelier. They should sell it to Diana Ross for an earring.” She also asked her audience “What the blankety-blank is this, the Cairo Hilton?”

In fact, Mrs. Old Mon remembers that show well. She went during her Pitt years, and recalls that when Midler took her break, she introduced her arranger, who played a set while she changed wardrobes. It was the then-unknown Barry Manilow.

But the Mosque was built to attract a crowd and money for the Shriner’s kids, not stroke the Divine Miss M's sense of decor, and was an unqualified success. For many years, Pittsburgh’s Temple was the top fund raiser of all the Shriner chapters.

It would take on any event. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and JFK had campaign bashes there, and it was the long time home for the local Democratic Party’s endorsement votes. Malcolm X had a rally at the Mosque. Old Mon remembers Pitt’s Greek Week festivities taking place downstairs, along with many other university sponsored shows and events. Roseanne Barr did her schtick on its stage. But its raison d’etre was music.

Long before the Cultural District was a gleam in the civic fathers’ eyes, it hosted long hairs like Enrico Caruso, Artur Rubenstein, Van Cliburn, Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini, Eugene Ormandy, Roberta Peters, Isaac Stern, Richard Tucker, Mario Lanza, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Pittsburgh's own National Negro Opera Company, George Gershwin, Yul Brynner, Henry Fonda, Eleonora Duse (she died here a week later, and Pittsburgh was held at fault, even tho she was 64 and had lung disease. Then again, the Smoky City of that era was rough on anyone's lungs, so...) and Anna Moffo. The Pittsburgh Symphony moved up the street from the Carnegie Music Hall to the Mosque in 1926, and the Opera Company came aboard in 1942.

It served the hoi polloi as well. Early acts performing at the Mosque were Satchmo, Sammy Kaye, Guy Lombardo, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillispie, Art Tatum, Sarah Vaughan, Bird Parker, Nat King Cole, Woody Herman, Liberace, Art Fiedler and the Boston Pops, Lawrence Welk, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, Dinah Shore, and even Spike Jones and Victor Borge.

In January of 1949, Slim Bryant and the Wildcats appeared on the first broadcast of WDTV/KDKA. It was from the Syria Mosque, as was Pittsburgh's first national broadcast, a live take of Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" show on June 3, 1951.

And when rock and R&B became the next big thing, the Syria Mosque opened its arms to welcome them, too. It hosted Chuck Berry, James Brown (he was blacklisted after a particularly, um, vigorous performance in 1963), Bo Diddley, Etta James, Big Joe Turner, LaVerne Baker, Clyde McPhatter, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Danny and the Juniors, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Bill Haley and the Comets (he was banned after a wild 1956 show), Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Paul Anka, Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon, Miles Davis, Dave Bruback, the Drifters, the Coasters, the Platters, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy, Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, S&G, the Allman Brothers (it was Duane Allman's last show - ever), the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Who, the Band, Van Morrison (it was his only Pittsburgh appearance), and Pink Floyd.

In case you're wondering how Elvis missed that list of acts, the explanation is simple. His hot hip-swiveling, lip-sneering performance was banned in advance by the hall. The Shriners had a keen eye for community standards, and wouldn't touch the King with a ten foot pole, no matter how much loot his act would bring the box office.

On August 7th, 1946, it hosted a Pittsburgh Courier-sponsored “Night of Stars” featuring Maxine Sullivan, Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine, Errol Gardner, Lois Deppe, Ray Brown, Roy Eldrich and Buddy Bowser. No false advertising there.

The Skyliners grabbed the stage in 1959 as part of Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars.” Porky Chedwick held his “Groove Spectaculars” at the hall, as did KQV and its "Rock Festivals."

No self respecting Rock and Roll tour showcasing local and national acts would pass the Steel City without booking a night or three at the Mosque, even though it nearly scratched rock acts off the list when 700 seats were destroyed after a 1963 Chuck Berry show. Promoter Joe Rock eventually sweet talked the Shriner suits into another chance.

David Parr of the LaRells, who played the Civic Arena but never gigged at the Mosque, recalled the national R&B revues fondly, and got to meet groups like the Shirelles and Bobbettes backstage after the show. His first memory of the Mosque was from his younger days:

"When I was a child, I loved Frankie Lymon. I remember going to the Mosque to see him. Although he was headlined on the bill, he never appeared on stage. (Lymon was notorious for being a no-show during his tours.) At the end of the show, I went back to the box office and told them I only came to see Frankie Lymon. I got my money back."

Try that today and see where your money ends up.

In 1971, the Symphony and Opera took their show downtown to Heinz Hall. But far from folding its tent, the Mosque just went out and signed some more rock acts to fill the empty dates. After all, between Pitt and CMU, it had a huge captive audience of young fans to separate from their money.

Isaac Hayes, Earth, Wind and Fire, Public Enemy, Taj Mahal, David Bowie, ZZ Top, Mott the Hoople, Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Santana, AWB, the Bee Gees, the Doobie Brothers, the Beach Boys, Seals and Croft, the Eagles, Sha Na Na, the Four Seasons, BTO, Kris Kristopherson, Lou Rawls, the Pointer Sisters, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Gladys Knight, Yes, Kansas, Genesis, America, Janis Ian, Helen Reddy, the Carpenters, Billy Joel, Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck picked up the slack.

They were hit with another blow in 1977 when Dicesare-Englert, Danny Kresky, and the Electric Factory all took their acts downtown to the Stanley. That created a bit of a lull, but in 1984 the City snapped up that venue to build the Benedum, and they came back, heads tucked under their tails.

The name acts continued to grace the mosque auditorium. Dire Straits, Smokey Robinson, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, New Edition, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, the Cynics, the Cure, the Ramones, James Taylor, Debbie Boone, Perry Como, the Cars, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Bruce Springsteen all took to the stage, along with every edgy, indy, or punk act that could draw enough warm bodies to pay the rent.

The last spotlight, as best we can determine, shined on the Kentucky Headhunters on March 23, 1991.

The decades had taken its toll on the old Mosque. There was no AC, too few restrooms (if you’re a vintage lady fan, you’ll recall, not too fondly, that the women’s loo in the ballroom had urinals until 1982), no elevators, tiny dressing rooms, lousy acoustics, and the building was an ADA nightmare.

The Temple estimated it would cost $23M to bring the Mosque up to City Code standards, and that was in 1990 dollars, when a buck was still more or less a buck. To boot, they were losing $500K a year operating the dinosaur.

So they put it up for sale, and a real circus broke out. The Shriners were hit with eight different lawsuits regarding the move, Pitt got into a bidding war for the property against its alter ego, UPMC, City Council preened, and generally bedlam reigned supreme over the whole affair.

Pitt won the rights to buy the site in 1991 after some favorable judicial opinions and $10M to the Temple. What’d they get? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, which in a bit of irony is now used by UPMC. And the City finally got a bona fide historic society, Preservation Pittsburgh, birthed from the experience.

But it wasn't the age or architecture of the Syria Mosque that made it historic. It was the ghosts of performances past that gave it a history, one many people thought should have been its salvation. Tradition is more than bricks, mortar, bronze sphinxes, and glitzy chandeliers.

A new Mosque went up in Harmar Township, but its days as a music Valhalla were over. A few reminders of the old hall - the sphinxes, stained glass windows, main chandelier, and a 1915 time capsule - were incorporated into the new Mosque. The rest of the building was sold piecemeal by the wreckers as souvenirs.

But the music can never be replaced. Forget Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Pittsburgh had its own in the Syria Mosque. And just like the Steelers in football, our version was better.

"The Weight" live by the Band at the Mosque in 1970

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