Saturday, February 11, 2012

Shadyside Wil Shiner

Will Shiner image from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Willard Shiner and his wife, Ruth (who was an equal partner in all their ventures), formed a real estate company in 1945, and zeroed in on laid back Shadyside, then a quiet community with just a handful of shops and restaurants in the neighborhood.

It boasted of an Isaly's, fruit and vegetable markets, a tailor, a butcher and several laundries. There was also The Shadyside Variety Store, Rolliers Hardware, Schiller's Pharmacy and the Shadyside Theater along with a post office. Boy, would that lineup change.

Before retailers reclaimed Walnut street in the past three decades, the Shiners helped convert Shadyside into a destination spot for local night life. Starting in the sixties, the places they opened - the Encore, Gaslight Club, and Pizza Pub - led to an explosion of activity.

The street bustled with watering holes like Nick Fratangelo's Lou's Shadyside Grill, Mardi Gras, Taylors, Fox Cafe (a long time establishment), Casbah, Raspberry Rhino, the Hollywood Social Club, and the Balcony, transforming the East End neighborhood into a 'Burgh Bohemia.

Music flowed through the streets from every open club and barroom door, the sidewalks were jammed with a young, fashionably hip crowd and their wanna-bes, and the corners were filled with street musicians, buskers and hawkers. If there was ever such a thing as Pittsburgh cool, Shadyside in the sixties and seventies was its epicenter, with Shiner's Encore and Gaslight Club at the head of the class.

Wil Shiner grew up in neighboring Squirrel Hill and graduated from Taylor Allderdice. He went on to Pitt briefly, but left school to help support his family, going to work for his dad by repairing pinball machines.

From servicing clubs to opening one wasn't a huge leap. Shiner opened the Encore on 5505 Walnut Street in 1959, and it became one of the first area cocktail clubs to feature jazz instead of lounge acts.

And we're not just talking run of-mill jazz. Sonny Stitt, George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus, Mary Lou Wlliams, Roy Eldridge, Yank Larsen, Earl Hines and Morganna King were among the top shelf musicians who played there. The locals were well represented too, when Harold Betters left them an open date.

Trombonist Betters made the Encore his home base, playing five nights a week with a Saturday matinee. He recorded two live albums at the club, including his well known Gateway slab of wax "Harold Betters at the Encore." In fact, the Encore was often touted as "The House that Betters Built."

Managed by the capable duo of Art Swiden and Bobby Davis, the club booked top acts and even spread the wealth around, arranging for their artists to do promo cameos, like for WQED's "Jazz Beat" show. Their work paid off. The club drew lines to get in, from politicos and sports figures to bookies and Pittsburgh's hoi polloi.

Shiner started to get out of the business in the early eighties. The Encore became Brendan's Restaurant in 1982; Shiner sold his share in 1985 after becoming ill, but maintained ownership of the building, which led to a long-term clash of lawyers over back rent. He had planned to bring back the jazz, but that never materialized. The building is now a Victoria's Secret. Other tenants were Cozumel's and Azul's, which both went the way of the Encore.

The next Shiner jazz spot, The Gaslight Club, on 738 Bellefonte Street, opened in 1961 and immediately ran into trouble. Part of the decor included nude paintings (copies of old masters, not Art Cinema posters), and then-Public Safety director Louis Rosenberg threatened to padlock the club before it opened, but relented an hour before the doors swung open. But he did have the final say, making sure that all the cars illegally parked for the opening (and in Shadyside in the early sixties, that was about all of them) were ticketed.

It was a private club that featured a posh - some say decadent - disco style lounge and a restaurant. At its heyday, it sported 5,000 members. A fire closed it for two months during 1975-76 holiday season. The renovated club had just a temporary reprieve on life afterward. It shut down in the early eighties and now houses retail shops.

He also opened the Shadyside Pizza Pub, the Pup Tent, and the Liberty Avenue Encore II in town, all also long gone.

Shiner was more than a club owner, though. Beside his real estate ventures, he served on a number of City boards, including the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Planning Commission and was on the seventies Convention Center Advisory Committee. His bride, Ruth, ran a bi-weekly community paper called The Shadyside Voice and was a high school teacher. She passed away in 1998 at the age of 73.

Willard Shiner died of a heart attack on Sunday, October 26th, 2003. He was 81.

Harold Betters "Tall Girl"


Anonymous said...
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Shawn M. Cohen said...

Hello...not only did I work there...I really know this lay of Shadyside land well and am writing my own experiences of it. You can read my blog on it and about Art Swiden here: Thanks for giving credit where it is long overdue...Will Shiner and The Encore both I and II, The Gaslight Club and Shadyside in the 1960's and 70's and all who frequented there are forever in the minds of who not only heard the best jazz ever(!)...but for us who worked was an experience none of us will ever forget.Thanks for the memories, Ms. Shawn M. Cohen from Pittsburgh, living in London, England