Arcade Comedy Theater and the Carousel
“There’s still a perception of downtown and Liberty Avenue,” Kristy Nolen told the Pittsburgh City Paper at the time. “First of all, that nothing goes on here. Secondly, that people don’t go downtown after dark. I don’t think everyone in Pittsburgh is aware that there is an up-and-coming arts scene emerging downtown.”
Although they themselves were unaware of it at the time, the founders of the Arcade Comedy Theater picked the perfect location for their endeavor as the 800 block of Liberty Avenue once contained another entertainment venue known as the Carousel. Little Jackie Heller, a nightclub singer born in the Steel City who went on to become a Las Vegas headliner, opened the Carousel shortly after the conclusion of World War II and brought a steady stream of A-list entertainers to the venue during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, for instance, performed one of their earliest shows together at the Carousel, while everyone from Chico Marx, Jackie Gleason, Victor Borge, Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett likewise took the stage at 815 Liberty Avenue, just doors away from where the Arcade Comedy Theater now resides.
“I had no idea,” Tessa Karel, the director of the Arcade Comedy Theater’s family improv series Penny Arcade, says of the newer club’s proximity to the old Carousel. “Although I did feel that there was an open portal of energy that would float into the theater and possess me to reach higher planes of comedic enlightenment. I guess the Carousel’s ghost explains that one. It is our duty to carry on the spirit and do our best to fill and expand upon whatever comedic void the Carousal left behind! We owe it to our forefunny mothers and fathers. Were there any mothers? At least we now have a lot of woman helping out with this task!”
The members of the Arcade Comedy Theater not only share a legacy with the Carousel but an affinity for the legendary entertainers who performed there. “Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis helped pioneer the tenants of my favorite kind of comedy,” Tessa Karel further explains. “As performers that both perfectly foiled one another, and in their duo, it also was apparent that they both thoroughly enjoyed one another. The audience got a wide range of comedic styles out of those two—who were almost always improvising and relying on their interaction to dictate their stage show—and they got to see joy up on the stage. It’s hard not to enjoy a show where variety and visceral joy are at the forefront of the comedy show. My favorite improv teams are with people who bring a variety of comedic approaches and yet all love and respect each other enough to show some give and take and have fun while doing it!”
Ben Mayer, coach of the Arcade Comedy Theater’s 8-Bit Classic, has a more personal story when it comes to the acts that were once booked at the Carousel. “Regarding Don Rickles, he once tried to kill my grandfather,” he says. “My grandfather was stricken with heart problems at an early age. He had his first heart attack at about 32 years old. Once, in his forties, my grandfather went to see Don Rickles in the Catskills. He started to perform, and my grandfather started laughing so hard that he got chest pains and my grandmother had to take him out of the room and seek medical attention. That is a true story. Performing anywhere close to where Don Rickles performed is an honor, but also a bit scary for me for that reason.”
“I don’t know as many old time comedians as I would like too,” admits Brian Gray, who coaches another Arcade Comedy Theater house team, Change Machine. “The only one I know in more than name is Victor Borge. I was obsessed with Victor Borge in college. I have a VHS of Victor Borge Live! and I used to listen to some kind of ‘best of’ CD of his as well. Like many performers I love, it was the variety of the show for me. Here was this classically trained pianist who could sell a decent house playing a piano but could sell out a huge house spending minutes on end avoiding playing the piano for comedic effect. Also, his precision and command of language were so incredible to me.”
Although best known as one of the four Marx Brothers, Chico Marx was also an accomplished pianist and performed solo at the Carousel on at least two occasions, in 1949 and again in 1951. Those shows were a homecoming of sorts for the former vaudeville and film star, who lived in Pittsburgh for a brief period at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Chico Marx’s musical inclination led to his employment at the Shapiro and Bernstein Company, which sold sheet music during an era when even phonographs were nonexistence. In order to entice customers to make a purchase, “song pluggers” sang the songs for them, and Shapiro and Bernstein hired Marx for the position in their New York store before naming him manager of their branch location in the Steel City. Chico Marx returned to the Big Apple on 1908 and joined his brothers four years later in one of the greatest comedy acts of all time, but for one brief, shining moment he was a Pittsburgh resident nonetheless.
The building that housed Shapiro and Bernstein at 302 Fifth Avenue has since been demolished, and Little Jackie Heller was forced to close the Carousel in 1954 as newer, larger entertainment venues began opening in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Sixty years later, however, the improvisational stylings of the Marx Brothers and the legacy of the Carousel live on at the Arcade Comedy Theater.
“I was not aware of the Carousel club being in the area, nor was I aware that such big names once performed nearby,” says Addi Twigg, director of music programming at the Arcade Comedy Theater. “I would love to explore that nightclub side of Arcade a little more. I think in some ways we already honor that history. There are the obvious ties to the performers—I’m pretty sure one of the album covers used to decorate Arcade’s lobby is Hello Dummy! by Don Rickles—but we also keep the spirit of the nightclub alive in many ways. Arcade is a place you can come to see your friends, have a drink, have some laughs, be entertained, and just generally let loose for a while. It’s not so large of a venue that it feels unfriendly like a formal theater. On the contrary, it’s rather intimate and inviting. Comedy clubs are an offshoot of nightclubs, and I love the idea that Arcade Comedy Theater is carrying that torch in downtown Pittsburgh.”
The plethora of comedic talent that once graced the stage of the Carousel would no doubt agree.