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Heyl: Upstage bar in Oakland holds memories

| Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, 11:38 p.m.

That fresh fruit is sold where the beer once flowed freely remains an incongruity to many of the people who once flocked to the Upstage.

For nearly six years, the second floor of the Strand Building in Oakland has housed the Market on Forbes IGA, a full-service grocery primarily serving students in the densely populated shadow of the University of Pittsburgh.

But for nearly a quarter of a century before the space was stocked with produce and paper goods, it housed the Upstage. The large, legendary nightspot was where the sweaty masses went to drink, dance and engage in occasional debauchery.

The Upstage closed for good in 2006 before being converted into the market, but the ensuing years have not lessened the affection former patrons have for the place.

That's evident by the Upstage reunion being planned for June at the Teamster Temple in Lawrenceville.

Most of the regulars during the club's heyday in the 1990s now stare middle age in the mirror. Among them is Frank Halling, 46, of Aliquippa, who rented the hall and is promoting the event on the Upstage's surprisingly active Facebook tribute page.

“I decided to do it after I put up this (Facebook) question a couple of weeks ago asking people what their favorite memory of the Upstage was,” he said. “It ended up getting dozens and dozens of comments.”

Many people mentioned the enduring friendships they made there — along with 25-cent draft nights, seeing the Red Hot Chili Peppers before they were famous and the floor at the end of a typical evening: a “beer-soaked slurry that would put off the owner of a Tijuana slaughterhouse.”

Also mentioned were the club's all-black walls, its large mirrors, and the music played by two of the best-known DJs in the city, unfortunately now both deceased: Harry “The Wire” Wagner and DJ Spike.

Ron Levick was the Upstage's last owner and he operates the grocery that replaced it. He long ago got used to the handicapped-accessible bathroom occupying the area where the DJ booth used to be.

Levick, 46, of O'Hara isn't surprised that people want to keep the old club's memory alive. Or that Halling is predicting the reunion will attract a capacity crowd of about 300 to the Teamster hall.

“The Upstage had a great feel about it, and there's been nothing like it since it closed,” Levick said. “It had a really strong group of regulars. It didn't matter if you were in your 20s, 30s or 40s, you could go there and fit right in.”

While Levick said he might attend the reunion, he doesn't regret the decision to shutter the Upstage.

“No desire to go back to doing something like that,” he said. “The nightclub industry isn't the same as it used to be.”

Perhaps it's not so incongruous that you can find fresh fruit where the beer once flowed. More than the nightclub business has changed. So have the Upstage's former patrons. So has Levick.

“I used to get people drunk,” he said. “Now I sell them bananas.”

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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