For most people, the disco era conjures up a series of familiar images: packed dance floors, late-night revelers, unmistakable fashion, and lots of flashing lights. But what did the disco scene actually look like in Pittsburgh during its heyday? According to Harrison Apple, not much different than you'd expect.
“Obviously, disco explodes in the 1970s, not just in New York and San Francisco and Europe, but also in Pittsburgh,” says Apple, who serves as co-director of the Pittsburgh Queer History Project and, since 2015, has been researching after-hours bars run by gay men and lesbians between 1960-1990 as part of their dissertation at the University of Arizona.
They add that Pittsburgh clubs like The Library, House of Tilden, and Heaven in the Fulton Building, now the site of the Marriott Renaissance Hotel, cashed in on the disco craze by investing in “up-to-date jukeboxes” and “really talented DJs.”
“People always called it Pittsburgh’s answer to Studio 54,” Apple says of Heaven. “It was enormous.”
Almost four decades after its decline, disco has returned, somewhat, through local events like Jellyfish, the monthly queer dance party.
“Like the classic disco era of the past, we're trying to capture a spirit of unity, love, and sexiness,” says Adam Shuck, who created and DJs at Jellyfish with Ricky Moslen and Steph Tsong. He credits his interest in disco to local after-hours events presented by Hot Mass and Honcho.
Apple speaks to the importance of Jellyfish, which not only captures the inclusivity of disco, but focuses on playing more than “the hits” with its mix of European Italo disco, as well as later genres influenced by disco, like New Wave.
“It’s very contemporary in a way,” says Apple. “They’re interested in making [Jellyfish] a space where you can feel something unique and maybe liberating, I hope it keeps on going.”