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National acts rockin' out in the 'burbs

| Saturday, July 1, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
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Legendary concert promoter Pat DiCesare poses for a portrait at The Palace Theatre in Greenburg on Feb. 27, 2015.
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Billy Bob Thornton performing at Jergel’s Rhythm Grille in Warrendale;
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Bret Michaels at Jergel's Rhythm Grille in Warrendale

When Michael Langer took over as president of the Westmoreland Cultural Trust a decade ago, one of the first things he noticed was an under-utilized resource. The Palace Theatre had been a Greensburg landmark since opening in 1926 as the Manos Theatre. A point of pride in the community, Langer thought it had untapped potential.

Ten years ago, the Palace hosted about 30 national touring acts. Since then, $2.4 million in upgrades in infrastructure and technology have made a huge difference. This year, Langer expects the theater will host a little more than 80 concerts and touring productions featuring national acts.

“We recognized that our role in the community was to change the perception of the Palace from a local, countywide theater to a regional, tri-state theater,” Langer says. “We knew we had the ability to do that if we put those requisite conditions in place.”

Many of the major acts that come through Western Pennsylvania still play at venues within Pittsburgh city limits. But there has been an increase in national acts at venues including the Palace Theatre; Jergel's Rhythm Grille in Warrendale; the Oaks Theater in Oakmont; and the Lamp Theater in Irwin. They join Moondog's in Blawnox and Mr. Small's in Millvale in providing a concert experience that is, in some ways, less demanding for patrons.

“I kind of liken it to the difference between flying out of Latrobe Airport and flying out of Pittsburgh (International Airport),” says Joe Marini, a drummer who has performed at the Palace and Jergel's, and attended shows at both venues. “If you fly out of Latrobe, literally 15 minutes after you land you're in the parking lot and driving home. Whereas if you're flying into Pittsburgh … it's a nightmare. It's definitely easier dealing with the clubs in the suburbs.”

Unlikely venue

At first blush Warrendale seems an unlikely location for a concert venue. About 18 miles north of Pittsburgh, it is best known for a sprawling industrial park complex just off Route 19. But when Jergel's opened 5 12 years ago, the goal was to attract national touring acts according to talent buyer and production manager Michael Lamanna.

The timeworn real-estate maxim – location, location, location – was important in the club's business plan. Jergel's proximity to Interstate 79 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and the northern tier of suburbs in Allegheny County, were factored in when deciding on the club's location.

“We have a lot of people coming from the north and Ohio,” says Lamanna. “We are fortunate the northern part of Pittsburgh is a pretty good demographic as far as the population. It's not an accident we're here.”

Without a proven track record, it was at first difficult to book national acts. But this year Jergel's has hosted acts including Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Joe Diffie, Mr. Big and Phil Vassar. Lamanna says agents and promoters now call the club offering acts. One of the first breakthroughs came when Bret Michaels, the Lyndora, Butler County, native, agreed to play the venue.

“I think Bret and his production crew and his tour manager were really sold on us,” Lamanna says. “As often as they come back to Pittsburgh, they knew that this was pretty much their place.”

Hidden costs

Jergel's, like any other club outside Pittsburgh, does not have to pay the city's infamous 5 percent amusement tax that's long been cited as burdensome by producers and club owners. But Lammana, Langer and Pat DiCesare, the veteran Pittsburgh promoter, all say the tax is inconsequential when competing for acts.

“I think the amusement tax is a very small part, in my opinion,” DiCesare says. “A better way to think about it is cost structure.”

Since starting to promote concerts in the early 1960s, DiCesare always sized up the risks associated with any concert. When booking shows in Pittsburgh, the biggest risk factor he faced was wages paid to stagehands and other union employees. For the last show DiCesare brought to Pittsburgh — a Beatlemania show at the Benedum Center to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles concert at the Civic Arena in 1964 (a show he also promoted) — the expense for the stagehands was more than the entertainers: approximately $12,000 for a concert that, according to DiCesare, required minimal equipment and staging.

“I had somebody else operate the sound, but the union said we want our man to be there, too,” DiCesare says. “Now he had nothing to do with the sound, but you had to pay a union stagehand for a job someone else is going to do. No. 1, the unions in Pittsburgh are too expensive. You go to Greensburg at the Palace Theatre and instead of spending $12,000, you might spend $1,200 or less.”

Little differences help

Patrons also have additional expenses when attending events in Pittsburgh.

At the recent U2 show at Heinz Field, parking was $60 at stadium lots. Parking further away from the venue was incrementally cheaper, with some lots on the North Side charging $30.

A few concertgoers said they parked at lots in the city for $5 and took the T to the North Side.

Contrast that to parking for the Toto concert at the Palace Theatre in June, where spots at the lot across the street were free.

“Just that little thing, it might not seem like a big deal, but it is a big deal,” Marini says. “Just the vibe, that the city of Greensburg is not trying to squeeze every last drop out of that show and out of you, I was very appreciative.”

Langer says the success of the Palace Theatre is due to many factors, including more aggressive marketing and scheduling. It might seem like a minor detail, but Langer says because the city of Greensburg permits tractor trailers to park in front of the theater for loading in and out, it's become a competitive advantage.

But most of all, the Palace is thriving because the community at large has bought into the Trust's vision.

“The growth of the Palace and the Westmoreland Cultural Trust in general is the result of community partnerships,” Langer adds. “We would not have been able to do this on our own; no theater in a community can. It has been a specific concept of the cultural district to partner with many entities that have allowed us to fulfill our mission.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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