Even before the interview begins, the rotary phone connected to the wood-paneled wall rings.
“I can't remember the last time I got interrupted by a landline,” I laugh as Bottlerocket Social Hall co-owner and artistic director Chris Copen rushes across the bar to answer it as “Pinball Wizard” by The Who plays softly in the background.
After a short conversation, he returns, saying, “A lot of this stuff was already here.” Besides the ancient phone, Copen is referring to the red velvet wallpaper on the back staging area, the U-shaped bar, and the light fixtures, all left over from the Allentown space’s days as the St. George Lyceum, a social club that catered to people in the neighborhood until it shut down in 2017.
Now Copen, his girlfriend Gracie Dickinson, and friend Ben Helinski have set out to make Bottlerocket into a destination where Pittsburgh residents can see some of the most innovative new voices in comedy, all in a space time-warped right out of the 1970s. To emphasize this, the 100-plus seat venue officially opened in May with an event featuring comedian, actor, and former television show host Chris Gethard.
Much of the decor remains untouched, and any updates appear to meld seamlessly with the old setup. The walls are plastered with found or reprinted posters for concerts that took place at long-closed Pittsburgh venues. New stage lights, a “cutting-edge sound system,” and a 150-inch projector screen all happily coexist with a working record jukebox and cathode-ray televisions.
Even as the space seems primed to welcome a younger crowd, Copen and his partners still honor its history. There are even old photos of the Lyceum’s clientele hanging on one wall, like a mini shrine to the space’s past.
“It's funny, a lot of the Lyceum people still live up here,” says Copen, a Point Park University graduate. “And they’ve come in and drank here and hung out and they really like the space. And they're like, ‘You didn't change anything. I love it.’”
Its future as a comedy club differs greatly from its original fate, something winked at with an “Arlington Beverage Club” sticker displayed on a corkboard along with an accompanying Post-It that reads “RIP :( 2020-2020.” Bottlerocket operates in what was supposed to be celebrity chef Kevin Sousa’s vintage Pittsburgh-inspired bar. That, along with Sousa’s other Hilltop-based project, Mount Oliver Bodega, were both abandoned after much fanfare in the local media. The Bodega says that it has “closed indefinitely” until the new owners figure out its future.
Rather than revel in the Arlington Beverage Club’s demise, Copen shrugs at it, perhaps because he knows how tough trying to set up a new space can be. He had banked on another alt-comedy concept, Dad’s Basement in Dormont, which he says “collapsed spectacularly” after what he claims were issues with the building’s owner, primarily in regards to providing an ADA-compliant bathroom.
Now Copen and his partners can finally embark on their dream of bringing a more interesting, potentially less toxic brand of comedy to the area compared to what’s offered at chain clubs and big concert venues.
Copen says the vision allows him to use the skills and connections he formed working for a Los Angeles talent management company, where he rubbed elbows with people writing shows for Apple TV and rode the elevator with the likes of Will Ferrell.
When the pandemic ended his talent management job, he relocated to Johnstown, Pa. where his family lives, and began to look at ways to continue working in entertainment. He says the failure of Dad’s Basement coincided with the Arlington Beverage Club’s fallout, so he knew the building existed and viewed it as a second chance.
“And then I saw it was listed one day, and I was working at a hotel at the time,” says Copen. “As soon as I saw it was listed, I ran away from the front desk, and I called, like, ‘I need to talk to someone about this tomorrow. I'm ready to pitch this idea.’”
Copen says the building’s owner, the community development company RE360, were “really receptive” to the idea for Bottlerocket.
For now, the space is open on weekends, presenting a variety of events ranging from comedians to film screenings, including one hosted by beloved local documentarian Rick Sebak.
Copen says they want to offer access to comedians who may not otherwise be booked in Pittsburgh, as well as be an alternative to a comedy scene that has become tainted by big stars more concerned with “being mad than being funny” and taking shots at so-called “cancel culture.” This is reflected in hosting Gethard, who has addressed mental health issues in his shows, including speaking candidly about his own suicide attempt. Throughout July, Bottlerocket will host comedians Michael Cruz Kayne, Martin Urbano, and Marcia Belsky, a feminist comic/musician who made a splash with a song about NASA giving 100 tampons to Sally Ride, the first female astronaut to go into space.
Copen says they also look forward to leaning into Bottlerocket’s 1970s vibe with a big Fourth of July bash inspired by the country’s 1976 bicentennial.
By August, Copen says they hope to be open five days a week and add live music, dance parties, and other types of events to their repertoire. They also want to use an adjoining warehouse to host larger festivals or larger concerts.
Ultimately, Copen says they hope Bottlerocket could do for Allentown what Mr. Smalls Theatre did for Millvale, being a creative “focal point of the neighborhood” for both performers and audiences that also helps to support other local businesses.
“I mean, our general rule is anything that we think is interesting, we will go out of our way to try and make happen and try and facilitate,” says Copen. “And so, people come to us with pitches and we're like, ‘Yes, let's do it. Whatever it takes to do that, we will do it.'”
Bottlerocket Social Hall. 1226 Arlington Ave., Allentown. bottlerocketpgh.com