Monroeville's Holiday House offered memories of different time
By Kyle Lawson
Published: Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Sue Bradley was a little girl the first time Frankie Avalon sang to her backstage at the Holiday House on Route 22 in Monroeville.
She said the 1960s teen heartthrob rescued her from a swarm of screaming teens outside of his dressing room.
Booking reservations at the Holiday House was more than a job for Thelma Gold of Monroeville. After losing her husband to a heart attack in 1970, it was an escape from her tears and financial security for her teenage boys.
Roger Greenbank spent 10 years in an unmarked van outside of the Holiday House, snapping photos from across the street. The FBI transferred Greenbank to Pittsburgh in 1979 to help dismantle the Pittsburgh mafia.
When the lights dimmed on the final performance at the Holiday House 25 years ago, it signified the end of an era. For decades, chart-topping singers played intimate shows where they were practically sweating on their audience.
The 900-seat entertainment venue on William Penn Highway that at one time included 200 hotel rooms, three banquet halls and a disco was operated by the four Bertera brothers and talent buyer Bert Sokol, who married into the family.
“Every week, I'd book a big show,” Sokol said. “People came from everywhere. There's nothing like it anymore.”
It was Jan. 26, 1973 when Bradley met Frankie Avalon.
“That date is etched in my mind,” Bradley said.
Bradley was sitting near the stage with her sister who was celebrating her 17th birthday. After the show, Bradley said she was escorted backstage by a waitress, her big sister in tow. The hallway filled with fans. Bradley remembers being trapped against the wall.
Avalon peeked out of the dressing room and spotted her. “You're gonna get killed out here little one,” he told her.
He pulled her in to his dressing room and her sister followed.
“I'm looking at him like, ‘Holy crap, I'm standing here with Frankie Avalon,' ” Bradley said.
When she told him her name, he belted out a few lines from “Wake Up Little Suzy.” He sang happy birthday to her sister and told the girls to keep in touch.
Sure enough, when Avalon returned to Monroeville, the girls were invited backstage and in the performers' suite. They would watch the guys play cards and occasionally answer Avalon's fan mail, Bradley said.
Avalon still tours but could not be reached for comment on this story.
For many who worked at the Holiday House, it was like a second home.
Gold was a grieving widow with two teenage boys in 1970 when co-owner John Bertera offered her a job. She spent the next 17 years booking reservations for the show room, alongside a co-worker who became a lifelong friend. The phones never stopped ringing, Gold said, laughing.
“I'll never forget, we had seven phones ringing,”she said. “One day Josie and I wouldn't answer the phones and we just sat there and laughed, because if we didn't laugh we would've cried. It was so busy.”
Every Saturday night was like New Year's Eve, she said.
“The kitchen was a riot,” she said. “Sometimes they would have to serve 1,500 people a night and everything had to be hot.”
Singer Al Martino cooked his own meals.
“He loved to cook, so he'd be in there cooking,” she said
The staff and the performers often operated like a big family, said Pittsburgh icon Bill Cardille. He was a television host know affectionately as “Chilly Billy.”
“The people who worked there, and the family who owned it, they were an institution,” Cardille said. “It was a constant happy time for many, many years.”
Sokol said the staff was loyal.
“When they worked the Holiday House they stayed there forever,” he said. “The place was always busy and everyone did well.”
For decades, there were rumors that “everyone” included members of the mafia. But Greenbank said the FBI could never prove that they had a hand in the business.
“They really had their run of the place,” Greenbank said. “These guys would meet up with broads and take them to rooms and leave without paying for anything.”
But there also were benefits of having them in the club, Greenbank said.
“People knew that you weren't (going to) start any trouble in a place like that.”
And while just about everyone who worked there knew, nobody talked about it, Gold said.
“They got the respect they wanted and they were welcome,” she said.
Undercover agents were cycled in and out of the building, Greenbank said.
“We had agents with concealed cameras who could take photographs,” he said. “But many of the pictures we took were from a concealed location, like a van in the parking lot or across the street with a long lens.”
A federal trial in 1990 struck a blow to the crime syndicate and a second trial in 1997 all but dismantled it in the region.
It was the end of an era both for organized crime, and live music and dinner venues in Pittsburgh.
The nation's top acts were scouted and booked to play the Holiday House by Sokol.
He booked teen idols such as the Four Seasons and crooners such as Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra; comedians such as Milton Berle and pop stars such as the Temptations and Three Dog Night.
Performers mentioned the Holiday House on talk shows, Sokol said.
“Johnny Carson put Monroeville on the map.”
By the time Jay Leno replaced Carson on the “The Tonight Show” in 1993, supper clubs outside of Las Vegas had faded. Entertainment managers and record executives were moving top acts to 30,000-seat arenas. Hotels stopped hiring live bands and wedding planners were turning to DJs.
Live entertainment has never been the same, said Rick Purcell, a trumpet player who performed at the Holiday House with the Temptations and Vic Damone.
“There was such a vibrancy about that era, and about that place,” Purcell said. “The excitement of dressing up with your girl and having some drinks, and you're sitting three rows back from someone who you usually see on TV.”
The Holiday House was demolished in 1989 and replaced with the Holiday Plaza strip mall.
“There's no question it was a loss to Monroeville and to Pittsburgh,” said Monroeville Historian Louis Chandler. “People always will tell us about special recollections or special evenings that they had there.”
It was a different time, according to those who hit the town on a Saturday night in Monroeville.
Women wore cocktail dresses. Men wore suits. Everybody smoked and drank, and underage drinking was loosely enforced, Purcell said.
“It was just different,” he said.
“I don't know if it was better, but it was more fun.”
Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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