Seven Days in Pittsburgh – The Hunt for Inexpensive Entertainment

Sparkledragon's Magical Emporium's interior basks in the midday sunlight. Photo by Hannah Harley
Sparkledragon’s Magical Emporium’s interior basks in the midday sunlight. Photo by Hannah Harley.

By Hannah Harley

For 28-year-old Eric Swader, the energy was unbelievable and almost tangible when he experienced his first “Second Saturdays,” an improv dance night at the Space Upstairs.

A mixture of taxidermy, bizarre weaponry and medical tools all come together in Trundle Manor, Pittsburgh’s “old fashioned part of roadside America.”

Kyle Longsdorf, the producer of Bonus Stage at Arcade Comedy Theater, said a night of comedy guarantees that every single show is completely different . 

While a week’s worth of culture in most American cities would ring many colleges student dry in Pittsburgh, PA the best entertainment comes cheap. Often hidden in the quiet corners of the city, these quirky treasures are the best kept local secrets to enjoy inexpensive nights.

Promising “drinks, prizes and pummeling,” a casual late night of dodgeball kicks off the week at Ace Hotel in East Liberty. Open to the public and organized by City of Play, an organization whose mission is “enhancing interactions between people, places and ideas,” the Monday night dodgeball games are unlimited from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. for only $5. From 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., a bracketed tournament breaks out, formed by the players from the first three hours of play.

Referencing the cult classic “Dodgeball”, City of Play jokes that they’re “more Average Joe’s than Globo Gym” and that games “are co-ed, no skill required and never taken too seriously.” Following the games, it’s customary to go to the bar inside Ace Hotel to continue the revelry, and thanks to a cheap menu ($2 to $6) of oysters, corn dogs and ice cream sandwiches, it won’t break the bank either.  

For many, roaming into the realm of the magical seems like a daunting task, but at Sparkledragon’s Magical Emporium, the magical is an everyday experience. Lovingly referred to as the Goddess, Joyce Crock is the staple of the emporium. Her customers rave that her space was more of a community center than a shop. It acts as a safe haven for anyone who is hurting and looking to heal through the magical arts.

Crock offers $5 Tarot card readings and $5 – $10 henna tattoos at her shop on Tuesdays, and while she has standard hours, it’s always good to call ahead. Her hours depend very much on the spiritual energy of the day, but she does purposefully plan to have late night hours. “The difficulties tend to come at night for most people, so I try to be open for them. To help them get through it,” she said at her shop on Sunday.

Matt Vanwormer, 25, was getting a Tarot card reading, in which 78 cards are shuffled to help guide the individual, on Sunday. He says that he found a lot of coincidences between his circumstances and the advice the Tarot cards gave him, but he is hesitant to call it magic. In response to his first Tarot card reading, he said, “It was a really cool and fun experience though. A welcoming and pleasant place.” A quick stop at Sparkledragon’s Magical Emporium will give individuals a short glimpse into the magical realm.

America’s native instrument is often overlooked in urban entertainment, but thanks to the Pittsburgh Banjo Club, a free concert is held every Wednesday at the Allegheny Elks Club in Northside at 8:00 p.m. The event is always free to the public, and any donations are distributed to local charities. Having been in Pittsburgh since 1988, the Pittsburgh Banjo Club has generously donated their performance fees and donations, totaling over $100,000, to local charities.

Consisting of sing-alongs, vocals and solos, the Pittsburgh Banjo Club’s program has graced the stages of Heinz Hall, Three Rivers Stadium, the Civic Arena and the Carnegie Music Hall. While their long list of accolades is impressive, they promise to play at “any gathering where the happy sound of the banjo is needed.” Head over to the Allegheny Elks Club to support local musicians, who also happen to be inductees of the Banjo Hall of Fame, and celebrate this up-beat, four string instrument with club regulars and old timers.

While Bischer Barmada, 21, tends to do his homework at the Carnegie Museum of Art, on the third Thursday of every month, he finds himself dancing through its marble halls from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.. This event, appropriately titled “Third Thursdays,” is a late night activity dedicated to reworking the existing art museum atmosphere. A myriad of DJs and bands play on while guests enjoy refreshments, dancing and the existing collection of art.

This relatively new monthly event is only $10 for adults and $5 for students, and each month has a different theme and musical line up. Barmada, who attended the first “Third Thursday” event, recalls stumbling across an unlocked door to the side of the museum that houses the Natural History. As the music streamed in through their headphones, which is a signature element of a ‘silent disco’, he and his friends danced in the darkness, “partying in between the bones,” which were lit up by a few safety lights. “Since then,” he jokes, “they’ve been very diligent about locking their doors.”

View Pittsburgh's landmarks during a Pittsburgh Historic Landmarks Foundation guided tour each Friday from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. Photo by Hannah Harley
View Pittsburgh’s landmarks during a Pittsburgh Historic Landmarks Foundation guided tour each Friday from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. Photo by Hannah Harley.

A Friday exploration of Pittsburgh’s historic landmarks will provide interested individuals with a more detailed understanding of Pittsburgh’s spectacular architecture. These small tour groups tend to feature an eager group of listeners, encouraged by a Pittsburgh Historic Landmarks Foundation guide with a microphone.

From May to October, these free tours focus on a different area of Downtown, Pittsburgh. Reservations are encouraged, but not required. As one tour participant, Joan Brennfleck, noted, “I work downtown and walk the streets everyday, wondering about the history of the buildings. I loved touring all of the oldest buildings in Downtown, Pittsburgh.”

On Saturday, a visit to Trundle Manor will challenge any existing perceptions of what a combination art house, taxidermy museum and performance art experience could be. The welcoming Mr Arm and Velda Von Minx act as hosts and artists, guiding guests through their impressive mix of eccentric memorabilia. Lovingly referred to as the culmination of years of insane collecting, Mr Arm, whose obsession with taxidermy began at a young age, looks to continue his joyful collecting for years to come.

Mr Arm and Velda Von Minx stand in their parlor, surrounded by their collection of oddities. Photo by Hannah Harley
Mr Arm and Velda Von Minx stand in their parlor, surrounded by their collection of oddities. Photo by Hannah Harley.

As interesting as the art itself, Mr Arm and Velda Von Minx personify the home’s charms and oddities in their mannerisms and dress. Their first date was a lesson in taxidermy, in which Von Minx assisted Mr Arm in creating a pair of small rodents dressed as a bride and groom. Years later, and with Mr Arm and Von Minx’s wedding quickly approaching, the stuffed rodents stand to be a centerpiece at the event. Their April 30th wedding is a public event, featuring 12 bands, five belly dancers, a gourmet waffle truck and a guarantee of endless insanity.  

Currently, the headquarters of the Secret Society of Odd Acquisition and an amply stocked absinthe bar, Trundle Manor aims to “creep out” their guests with their old world charm, taxidermied animals and sadistic medical devices. Following the 45 minute guided tour, guests will be sure to struggle to explain the experience to friends and family. All tours are donation based, but Mr Arm stresses that while monetary donations are appreciated, odd items, creepy stuff or hard liquor are all acceptable forms of donation. Reservations and an open mind are definite requirements for this eccentric part of roadside America.

Following a trip to Trundle Manor, a visit to the Space Upstairs is another staple in donation-based entertainment. “Second Saturdays”, an improv dance night, takes over the warehouse gallery loft in the East End. A new musical act is featured during each event, and the core dancers, instructed and joined by resident artists, invigorate the space with performance. As Eric Swader, a “Second Saturdays” regular, notes, “The performances begin kind of reserved and more steadied. The space is filled with their potential energy. As the night progresses, the dancers unleash themselves and the whole place comes alive, a nebula of dance bursting through the crowd.” As the night’s activities slow, the audience is invited to dance, turning the “witnesses” into “creators” and allowing the creative energy to infuse each individual.

A final stop at Arcade Comedy Theater will end the week in a fit of laughter. It’s an improv night called Bonus Stage, which is an hour of comedy coordinated by Arcade’s in-house comedy teams. It features long form, short form and musical comedy in a relaxing, low-key atmosphere.The current hosts, Sarah Turocy, Michael Quigley and Sarah Wojdylak all have their specialities, and it is through this wide variety that Bonus Stage hits its stride with a diverse audience. At only $5, the weekly event is sure to leave each audience member smiling.

Kyle Longsdorf, the producer for Bonus Stage and a performer with Warp Zone, a long form in-house comedy group, finds great reward in encouraging beginner comedians. “One of my favorite things,” he said in an email on Tuesday, “is when after a show an audience member says, ‘I want to do that.’ It may sound corny, but knowing that your group has had such a strong impact on someone is a really great feeling.”

Each night, Pittsburgh comes alive with an impressive variety of low cost events and experiences, guaranteed to provide interesting alternatives to more traditional entertainment. With some preplanning and an open mind, Pittsburgh’s eclectic entertainment is at your feet.