Nothing makes a night at the theater more magical than several ounces of bottom-shelf merlot.
As 21-and-over crowds descend on Downtown Pittsburgh for various holiday shows and other performances — primarily at the Cultural District’s main venues, the Byham Theater and the Benedum Center — they have the option of elevating their experience with the adult equivalent of a sippy cup. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, in a valiant effort to fill seats, has, for over a decade, offered a sublime marriage of lidded, theme park-style drinkware and cheap booze, giving patrons the chance to build a serious buzz while taking in an opera, ballet, or touring Broadway musical.
I first experienced the Trust sippy cup while attending a production of A Musical Christmas Carol, an annual local crowd-pleaser based on the classic Dickens holiday parable. The venue’s bar offered a limited selection of beer and wine, and after choosing what was probably a cheap cabernet sauvignon, the bartender asked if I wanted to add the sippy cup. It was pitched as not only a great deal in the short term but over time, as bringing it to future Trust shows would mean discounts on an alcoholic beverage of choice.
My husband and I both bought one and spent the show sipping our room-temperature drinks through bendy, reusable straws, laughing as a wealthy misanthrope was terrorized by ghosts. The Trust-branded cups now sit in our cabinet awaiting the next round of semi-drunken culture appreciation.
Pittsburgh City Paper reached out to the Trust about the origins of this welcome addition to the local arts landscape. What is known formally as the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Reusable Art Cup was initially proposed by Marc Fleming, the organization’s chief marketing officer and vice president of Broadway programming. It debuted in 2012 at the Benedum Center when the venue hosted the national tour of Jersey Boys.
“During the first three years following the reusable art cup’s debut, the branded logo cup was available at the Benedum Center and Byham Theater,” reads a statement. “This guest experience concessions initiative was a successful revenue builder for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and was later woven into several Pittsburgh Cultural Trust fundraising campaigns.”
While alcoholic beverages had long been available in the theater bar and lobby areas, the Art Cup, with its snap-on, spill-proof cover, allowed for guests to enjoy boozy treats at their seats during performances.
The Art Cup adds to entertainment venues slowly adopting more lax attitudes toward alcohol, especially in Pennsylvania, a state notorious for its puritanical laws around beer, wine, and liquor sales. The historic Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill renovated its lobby in 2012 to include a full-service bar, and permits patrons to bring drinks into screenings. Various Carnegie Museums have, for years, hosted 21-and-over nights that invite patrons to drink, dance, and carouse among ancient artifacts and classical art.
The evolving rules may appear gauche to those who would rather plastic wine cups and high-brow art not mix. However, history supports blending the two — for instance, a synopsis for the 2021 book Feasting and Fasting in Opera: From Renaissance Banquets to the Callas Diet by Pierpaolo Polzonetti states that, from the 17th to the 19th century, food and drinks were “available when desired” at opera venues, “showing that high art and refreshments are not incompatible” (this was before famed composer/total buzzkill Wilhelm Richard Wagner imposed “new rituals of opera going based on self-abnegation and abstinence to enforce absorption”).
Similarly, in Shakespeare’s time, theaters often attracted raucous crowds that loudly drank and ate, as well as heckled cast members, during performances. “You wouldn't have heard the quiet crinkling of a candy wrapper coming undone, but the much louder noises of someone cracking open oysters, digging into a meat pie, or loudly belching after taking a swig of beer,” reads one 2023 Grunge article.
Over the last decade, the Art Cup has gone through several redesigns and rebrands — this includes a special edition release in 2013 promoting a national public art project that brought an enormous yellow rubber duck to The Point in Downtown Pittsburgh. Another Art Cup, released in 2019, commemorated the much-anticipated, highly-successful Pittsburgh premiere of Hamilton at the Benedum.
The cup has also expanded beyond the Byham and the Benedum and gained entry into the O’Reilly Theater, Harris Theater, and Greer Cabaret Theatre, all of which are owned and managed by the Trust.
This year, the Arts Cup has, once again, been rebranded with new art featuring the famed Benedum chandelier and ceiling lights. Beyond the promise of the occasional blitzed ballet or touring Broadway show, the vessels offer other perks — for $25, guests receive two cups (available to purchase at either the Benedum or Byham) and a Partner Member membership offering deals on tickets, restaurants, and more. The Trust has also added disposable lidded cups to their lineup for frugal and/or pocketless patrons, though these lack the aesthetic panache of the bedazzled Art Cups.
So take it from me — if you’re looking for a gift for the local theatergoer in your life, you could do much worse than a cup that overfloweth with wine and deals.