Sunday, January 29, 2012

Club Laga

Club Laga - Image from The Allman Brothers

Club Laga was a 800 seat club in Oakland, located at 3609 Forbes Avenue, between Atwood Street and Meyran Avenue. It operated from 1996-2004, and brought hundreds of up-and-coming bands to Pittsburgh.

It was kind of a funny set up, with three clubs in one place in 1996. Ron Levick started the ball rolling in 1992, managing The Attic, a pretty successful lounge, sharing space with a DJ lounge, the Upstage, which had been around since the early eighties (he took control of it in 2000). Levick opened Club Laga as an all-age dance club and concert venue in the same building (it has four stories, with Laga on the top floor).

Club Laga sputtered along in the beginning, booking some bands along with DJs. That changed in the following year, when Levick and Joker Productions' Jon Rinaldo hooked up. Rinaldo was looking for a new hall after leaving the Graffiti Showcase (and to a lesser degree, the New Decade), and the spacious Laga filled the bill. The club became promoter Rinaldo's home base, and he booked a couple of hundred acts there every year.

Laga took off from that point. It soon became a destination spot for alternative bands touring the east, and was ranked among Pollstar magazine’s Top National Venues for sales from 2000 to 2004. Club Laga's playbills featured:

Vanilla Ice, P-Funk, The Dropkick Murphys, Public Enemy, Macy Gray, The Roots, Ja Rule, Ghostface Killah, Danzig, Wu Tang Clan, Insane Clown Posse, Flogging Molly, Everlast, Dashboard Confessional, Brian Setzer, John Mayer, They Might Be Giants, The Derek Trucks Band, Trik Turner, The Dead Kennedys, The Donnas, Erykah Badu, Taking Back Sunday, Bone Thugs N Harmony, Death Cab For Cutie, Maroon 5, Coheen and Cambria, Jimmy Eat World, Less Than Jake, The Dresden Dolls, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, George Clinton and Smashmouth among many others.

The locals weren't ignored, either. Anti-Flag, Brownie Mary, Don Caballero, Juliana Theory, The Clarks, The Buzz Poets, The Berlin Project, and Punchline all strutted their stuff on Laga's stage. All in all, over 1,000 bands came through Club Laga during its run.

The club was was a college hangout with a vaguely industrial look. The bar was fenced in, and you needed one of its infamous hand stamps to get a drink (and to remind you where you were when you woke up the next morning) because many of the shows were all-age. There was a stage and fair-sized dance floor, with an arcade filled with vending machines and video games for the gang without cards.

The Attic was a lounge and the classiest of the three clubs, with abstract artwork, neon lighting and a sofa/chair setup. It was connected to upper-level Laga by a spiral staircase. The Upstage, on the second floor, was a dark room generally described as a dive, but the dance crowd never seemed to have a problem with its decor, or lack thereof, and merrily boogied the night away to its DJs.

Making all three of the clubs a challenge was navigating the stairway, (the first floor was occupied by retail shops), and many an Oakland pub crawler had their sobriety (and balance) tested by the steps. To offset the lack of amenities, the cover charge was usually a pretty modest $5-10.

But it all worked for awhile, with a couple of casualties. The Upstage, which had WYEP's "Harry the Wire" Wagner spinning until the early nineties, shut down in 1999. It reopened in 2001 under Levick's ownership, only to go out of business forever in 2006, when the club had insurance problems after a customer fell to her death through a broken stairway window. The Attic closed shop in 2003. Club Laga was soon to follow.

In October of 2003, the building's owners decided to renovate the upstairs into student apartments, always a lucrative business in housing-starved Oakland. Laga was on its last legs. The curtain came down on April 2, 2004, preceded by local band The Berlin Project, which had been a regular act at the club.

Levick blamed a fall off in attendance at his nightclub venues and the difficulty of turning a buck for his all-age shows. Pong will never replace beer as a revenue generator for concert venues. And the local industry was hurting overall at the time. Even mighty Metropol ended its run in the fall of 2003, with Laga hosting many of the shows it had booked.

Rinaldo and Joker Productions moved to the Strip and bought the old Rosebud, calling the club World. It lasted a year, and then Rinaldo shifted operations to Club Café in South Side, and he eventually got out of the business in 2011. 

Now Club Laga is an apartment house, with the top two floors of the building rented out to students. The second story is being run by Levick again, except now it's a IGA supermarket. The street level, as always, is a roiling storefront of retail businesses. Plastic or paper has a whole different meaning now.

Godsmack at Club Laga performing "Now Or Never"

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Kaye Stevens

Kaye Stevens was a throwback to the earlier days of show business. She was not only a highly sought club performer who played Vegas and the big lounges between tours with the Rat Pack and Bob Hope, but a movie, stage and TV actress and talk/game show celeb. She was all that, a veritable "It" girl, during the sixties, seventies and eighties.

Stevens, an only child, was born on July 31st, 1933 in Pittsburgh as Catherine Louise Stephens. Her mother Helen thought she had a great future as a writer because she was born on the same date as Ernest Hemingway and the same year as Germaine Greer. That's about the only part of show biz Kaye didn't master. Momma should have known her girl was destined to be an entertainer when she began singing as a five year old.

Her family eventually moved to Cleveland, where Stevens got her start as a drummer and singer, touring with her own trio as a twelve year old and sometimes drawing crowds of 1,500. (Her day job after high school was selling cemetery lots; no wonder she took to singing.) She married bandleader and trumpet player Tommy Amato, and the couple performed together throughout the east.

That’s how she was discovered by Johnny Carson sidekick Ed McMahon, who caught her while she was playing with the band in a Cherry Hills, New Jersey club. He provided her with a foot in the door that opened to Las Vegas and The Tonight Show, her first big break.

Her second big break came at the Riviera in Vegas, where she was working the lounge. The evening's star attraction, Debbie Reynolds, became ill and Stevens filled in for her to rave reviews, launching her headliner cabaret career. She played at the Plaza Hotel's Persian Room, New York's Waldorf Astoria, and Caesars Palace, The MGM Grand, The Riviera, The Desert Inn and The Flamingo in Vegas.

She toured with Rat Pack members Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop. Stevens released a half dozen albums, including Liberty's "Live At The Copa" and Gordy's “The Temptation Show" soundtrack along with a handful of 45s.

Stevens started out in film in 1962 in "The Interns" and its 1964 sequel, "The New Interns," which earned her a Golden Globe nomination. In 1963 she appeared in "The Man from the Diners Club" and "Jaws 3," and had roles in a total of six films during her career.

She also starred in Broadway shows like Mame, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Sweet Thursday, Destry Rides Again, Annie Get Your Gun, Nunsense and Gypsy.

Her television credits included parts in CHiPS, Police Woman, Family Affair, The Adventures of Superboy and B.L. Stryker, and as a guest on the Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Johnny Carson variety shows. A TV game show regular, she appeared on Hollywood Squares, Tattle Tales, To Tell the Truth, Toast of the Town, Celebrity Sweepstakes, Match Game, $25,000 Pyramid, The Price is Right and Password.

But Steven's main claim to TV fame was made between 1974-1979, when she played Jeri Clayton on the soap opera Days Of Our Lives. She portrayed a singer at "Doug's Place" and used that role to introduce the tune "You Light Up My Life" to TV, which later became a monster number one song and Grammy winner for Debby Boone in 1977.

With all that going on, she pulled the plug on show biz after appearing in 1992's "Miss America: Behind the Crown" TV movie to concentrate on a musical ministry. She had always been a religious girl, but a USO tour knocked her off stride for decades.

Stevens went with Bob Hope to Vietnam in 1965. She and Hope, as a result, became great friends. He named her in her book "Five Women I Love" and she sang at his funeral at the bequest of Hope's wife Dolores.

Moved by the miserable conditions the boys were serving under, she passed out pairs of her signature gloves to the troops, and told them that if they ever came to one of her shows, all they had to do was show her the gloves and the night was on her to show her appreciation.

But the promise of a free night out didn't erase the impact 'Nam had on her. Stevens carried those memories with her, and like many of the troops she entertained, had trouble coming to grips with them when she returned home. Eventually she became an alcoholic and divorced Amato.

It took her twenty years, but in the mid eighties she received some counseling, overcame her demons, and dedicated herself to her new calling.

Beginning in 1994, she was a regular on Rev. Robert Schuller's Hour of Power television show aired from his Crystal Cathedral, singing and testifying in front of 30,000,000 viewers. During the last twenty years of her life, Stevens raised money to build St. Vincent's Church and was a tireless worker in the non-denominational Christian movement and for veteran's issues. She would, in fact, only sing Christian or patriotic music.

She also became quite the icon for her retirement home of Margate, Florida, and the town fathers named a park after their most famous citizen and calling card for putting them on the map.

Stevens suffered from breast cancer and clotting problems, and slipped away to meet her Maker on December 28th, 2011 at the age of 79. She left behind a legacy of song, stage, TV and movie stardom and a life lived the right way.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Electric Banana

The Electric Banana (Image from Mondesi's House)

The Electric Banana, located on 3887 Bigelow Boulevard in Oakland, began as a go-go/disco/covers club in the seventies. But it hit its stride between 1980-99, when it reigned as Pittsburgh's punk central after owners Johnny and Judy Zarra, better known as Johnny and Judy Bananas, made the switch from mainstream cover bands to the underground sound.

The club name itself is popularly associated with English folkie Donovan, who sang of an "electrical banana" - a vibrator - in his 1966 tune "Mellow Yellow." (Remember, it was a go-go joint when it opened in 1970.) Flip's Electric Banana dance club in Monroeville was popular in the late sixties, so a little copy-catting is also possible. There are other more or less plausible stories floating around; it may have simply sounded cool.

During its twenty year punk run, the club featured national hardcore acts like the Butthole Surfers, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Hüsker Dü, Dead Milkmen, Descendants and They Might Be Giants, who mentioned the Banana in their song "Pittsburgh." Though mostly about Mr. Small's, TMBG sing "I still have dreams about a place, Called the Electric Banana where we're falling into space!"

Local acts found a home there too, with bands like the Cynics, Half Life, The Five, Cardboard, ATS, Little Wretches and Carsickness playing the bar often and loudly.

Why go punk? For the money, doh. The other genres were dying off or booked to the max. It didn't help that The Banana was located in an isolated part of Oakland closer to Bloomfield and the Hill, away from the campus walk-about scene that orbited around the Decade and other clubs. They needed a draw.

The story is that Karl Mullen of Carsickness (later of Ploughman's Lunch and a variety of other musical & artistic projects) came in and asked Johnny for a gig. He got it, the Zarras got their full house, and the punk boom began. (Karl, by the way, was virtually an adopted son of the Zarras and was an early habitue of The Banana.)

Nascent Pittsburgh punk was a college phenomena, and drew the artsy kids from Pitt and CMU. Within a couple of years, though, the genre became far more blue collar and rowdier. The Zarras discovered a second benefit from the transition - the club hardly required any upkeep or fancy accouterments like mirrored globes to keep the kids happy.

The Banana had a 2' drum riser that was the stage's high point, a sound system and the bands set up their own equipment in the back of the building under a string of Christmas lights. The drop ceiling was home to a family of racoons. The commode...well, don't go there (unless you really, really had to).

But it worked. Early punkers played out of apartments, basements and rented halls, so the hardcore fans weren't looking for plush surroundings for their head-banging. Nor did their behavior usually warrant the velvet glove treatment.

"The Bananas" were legendary for their "good cop, bad cop" act with the crowd and artists. Banana regulars all have their favorite story of Johnny chasing audience members and sometimes bands out of his club while waving a pistol.

But earth mama Judy, who had been a go-go dancer at the club, would take young bands under her wing and whip up a meal for them, while her hubby, tough as nails on the outside but kindly at heart, would slip struggling players a couple of bucks to get a meal when the show was done, with 24-hour eateries White Tower and Ritters in the vicinity.

And they often needed a little TLC. Johnny's policy was to set the band's pay according to the amount collected at the door, with no guarantee. While he booked acts, often from a pay phone or with a nod and handshake, he wasn't about to promote them, so the night's success was laid at the bands' feet.

Some of the groups that had a little business savvy got the word out to their followers and public, and they did OK (although often suspicious that Johnny kept the lion's share of the door receipts. Hey, caveat emptor! After all, Johnny was the lion king of his den.)

Others, happy to find a warm place to play while ignoring the equally important business end, often found out they were performing an unplanned charity gig. And it wasn't just local acts that had to toe Johnny's line; so did the national punks.

The most famous lore involved the Scottish band Exploited, who played the club in 1991. Their frontman, Wattie, was busy smashing the few pieces of equipment provided by The Banana, mics and stage lights, during the show. After the performance, a brouhaha broke out when Johnny wouldn't pay them, claiming the gate didn't cover the damage done.

It's alleged he chased them out of the building at gunpoint, and the band camped outside in protest. They never did get paid, although true to form, it's said that Johnny drove past them a couple of times during the night to make sure they were OK.

The punks had a two decade run at The Banana, but eventually all clubs come to an end. Hardcore had other venues to choose from, and the Zarra's, surrogate parents to a generation of punkers, turned the building into an Italian restaurant in 2000. It's called "Zarra's: A Taste Of Southern Italy." Good food, and slinging pasta is a heckuva lot saner way to make a buck.

But the club still lives on. First, it left a punk legacy that fueled the City's hardcore scene, and the Cynics, Anti-Flag, Kim Phuc and a number of other bands still carry that torch. And its history is retold through a couple of collector items, like the hippy-inspired op-art posters that adorned local telephone poles and the Warhol/Velvet Underground banana motif used on its signage and matchbooks.

The Electric Banana may be gone, but its scene survived and thrived. So has its no-frills reputation as the birthplace of Pittsburgh punk.

Karl Mullen's Carsickness, The Electric Banana's first punk act, with 1981's "Dull Days"