Bottlerocket: former church social hall resurrects 70’s retro charm
When Chris Copen first walked into the former St. George Lyceum church social hall that is now Bottlerocket Social Hall, his initial thought was, “This is what you think of when you think of Pittsburgh.”
Decked out in wood paneling, the walls are covered with a mix of concert posters from Pittsburgh venues throughout the years (Bruce Springsteen at the Stanley Theater, ZZ Top at Three Rivers Stadium, U2 at The Decade, David Bowie at the Syria Mosque, Danzig at the Electric Banana, and Fleetwood Mac at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown) and vintage photos from the ’70s Pittsburgh found in the Heinz History Center archives. Smiling pictures of teenagers at Kennywood, a family on the Mount Washington Overlook, an old Steelers tailgate, Copen and his girlfriend Gracie Dickinson’s families working at US Steel, and shots from the original social club create a homey feel. There’s even red velvet wallpaper that is, in fact, authentic and original from the 1970s.
A trip to the Allentown music, comedy and literary venue and bar is like stepping into a wrap that transports guests to a social club from yesteryear. “[It’s] Pittsburgh to the bone, and I didn’t want to change that at all,” says Copen, owner of the venue. So he didn’t.
Growing up in Walkersville, Maryland, Copen dreamt of being an Imagineer at Disney, building themed environments that take visitors’ encounters from ordinary to extraordinary. He and the Bottlerocket team view their space the same way. “It’s a full experience; it’s not just the shows you’re going to see,” says Copen. “It’s the environment you’re seeing it in that’s important.” Copen believes that the decision to let the space live in its retro glory makes the venue stand out from others in the area — that, and the neighborly warmth that permeates the air.
“What makes the bar really special is that we have a really great community of people. The bar used to be a social club, and I feel like that comradery of a social club is still alive in the bar today,” he says. “People who may not even know who these comedians are or know who these bands are, they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s at Bottlerocket? I want to go see that.’ That’s our secret weapon, and it’s kind of born out of our curation.”
Because everything, from booking to production, is done in-house, Bottlerocket can have strict curation over the type of performances at the venue, and they refuse to be put into a box. Comedy, literary events, and concerts running the gamut of indie rock, folk, and punk rock genres pepper their schedule. “Being just one type of venue of anything – whether it’s music or comedy or anything – that’s pretty lame,” says Copen.
Opening a multiple-performance space wasn’t the plan going in, however. Initially, Copen, Dickinson and a couple of friends wanted to run a comedy venue. “We tried to do that in Dormont, and it fell apart immediately,” says Copen, who has a comedic background. “So we picked up the pieces and found a cool bar in Allentown.” Slated at one time to be a Kevin Sousa restaurant, that bar became Bottlerock Social Hall.
“We were looking for a name that felt nostalgic but still youthful,” Copen explains. “Right after we toured the building for the first time, we went to an antique store and found an old Bottlerocket, which is now hanging above the bar, and we knew immediately that was the name.”
For the first three months of Bottlerock’s existence — it opened in May 2022 — the venue focused on comedy performances. But it quickly expanded from there. Copen and his small team began connecting with different Pittsburgh area DJs and bands, including String Machine members David Beck and Dylan Kersten. The pair wanted to be involved in booking, and Copen agreed to take them on. “They’ve been taking the reins on the music end while I take the reins on the comedy end,” says Copen. “[But] we have so many types of events.”
For example, on June 15, Bottlerocket Social Hall launches Liner Notes, a new performance series with WYEP-FM’s own Joey Spehar, where attendees are taken through a historic musical journey. The first event will focus on yacht rock, the soft rock style of music popular in the ’70s and ’80s, and Spehar will give mini history lessons on the genre in between songs by a house band.
The series is a spin-off of Bottlerocket’s Needle Drop programming, a recurring monthly event where local musicians team up to cover famous albums from start to finish. So far, Pittsburgh creatives have played cover-to-cover renditions of Carole King’s Tapestry, Abba’s Voulez-Vous, and Led Zeppelin IV.
Bottlerocket’s one-year anniversary party on May 19 culminated the venue’s wide-ranging offerings with an evening-long showcase that included a DJ set from WQED’-TV’s Rick Seback, along with comedy and musical performances from a handful of Bottlerocket’s favorite acts from the past year, like Mekki Leeper, Speedy Ortizand Formosa, to name a few.
There’s a good chance you’ll see the faces of those acts on the Polaroid wall under a large deer head inside the venue. Every entertainer that has performed on the main stage has had a Polaroid taken to join the photo collection. But it’s not just performers on the donning wall.
“There’s County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and my dad,” Copen says, offering one example.. “When we talk about community, that wall is the biggest part of that. How many other places have an autographed photo of Rich Fitzgerald and [comedian] Conner O’Malley on the same wall?”
Bottlerocket Social Hall is located at 1226 Arlington Ave.
Support for WYEP’s music journalism is provided by the Hillman Foundation.
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Jordan Snowden is an award-winning Pittsburgh-based writer whose work has been published in The Seattle Times, Apartment Therapy, Pittsburgh City Paper, and elsewhere. She also runs @jord_reads_books, a book-focused Instagram account where she connects with other bookworms. In her free time, Jordan can be found with a book or hula hoop in her hand, baking, or DIYing something with her husband.