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The writing is on the wall: Graffiti will close

Wednesday, January 19, 2000

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For 16 years, Graffiti Showcase Cafe has been a place for up-and-coming entertainers, favorite old bands and a launching platform for local talent. In April, it will become a place to store old cars.

The former warehouse near the corner of Baum and Bigelow boulevards in Oakland, home of Graffiti and Auto Palace Sales and Service, has been purchased by David Scaife, the son of Greensburg Tribune-Review publisher Richard M. Scaife.

Dennis Spernak, a former employee at the Auto Palace who is now working for the new owner, confirmed yesterday that the property had been sold to DNS Acquisition Real Estate, a company owned by David Scaife.

"The deal is done," he said, "but the people who bought the place don't want to give out any information at this time."

Terms of the sale were not available.

Mario Grande, former owner of the property and of the Auto Palace, said the sale of the building was finalized Jan. 12. Grande, recently retired and living in South Carolina, said that David Scaife will continue to run the boutique for luxury automobiles and use the rest of the building as storage space for his collection of cars.

Graffiti owner Tony DiNardo puts it another way: "They paved paradise, put up a parking lot."

DiNardo, of Armstrong County, said that the terms of the agreement require him to vacate the building by March 31. Scheduled shows, including the annual Graffiti Rock Challenge planned for Saturdays from Feb. 5 through March 4, are not affected by the move.

Since 1981, DiNardo has rented space in the red brick building from Grande, his cousin. Graffiti operated as a pub and after-hours club until 1984 when the 650-seat showcase room was opened. At the time it was the city's only "music showcase," a mid-level designation between small bars and theaters. Over the years the broad stage and clear sight lines attracted bands that were on their way up and established acts whose careers had plateaued at the club level. Before they were playing stadiums, bands including Nirvana, The Replacements, John Hiatt and Green Day played Graffiti. Established entertainers from Ellen DeGeneres to Dick Dale toured through the space.

The boom in new entertainment venues that rocked Pittsburgh in the 1990s cut into Graffiti's business, but the stage had already established its reputation as a launching point for local bands. Many Pittsburgh artists who signed national recording contracts -- The Affordable Floors, The Clarks, Rusted Root, Brownie Mary and others -- used the Graffiti stage as a vehicle to propel them beyond the bars.

Forced out by the building's sale, DiNardo says his future remains "up in the air."

"I'm going to chill for a while," he said. "[Opening a new music venue] is an expensive thing to do. I've been casually looking into the cost to purchase an environment where I could do this again."

DiNardo said he owns the rights to the name Graffiti Showcase Cafe and could reopen in another location.

"I believe in dreams, and I've always been very supportive of those who've chosen to explore those dreams in Pittsburgh," he said. "On top of bringing quality talent from around the world, [Graffiti] legitimized original local music and made it credible and worthy of support."

Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the trade magazine Pollstar, said the showcase had a good reputation among national touring groups.

"From a national perspective, clubs seem to come and go but Graffiti is one that has been around for a long time," he said. "My recollection is that Graffiti had a lot of high-profile club tours that stopped there. I don't think you'll lose any shows, though, because you still have a couple of active clubs in Metropol and Rosebud and probably some smaller ones as well."

But Mike Elko of Elko Productions, who books shows at Graffiti, said he's begun searching for an alternative 600-seat venue in which to place his shows. One show that would have gone to Graffiti, said Elko, is in limbo while he confirms another space.

Having recently stopped booking shows at Club Laga, Elko says he hopes to strengthen his existing ties to Metropol and Rosebud (both owned by SportsRock Entertainment) and is cultivating a new relationship with the Beehive in Oakland.

Beehive owner Steve Zumoff was unavailable for comment, but a man who answered the phone at the cafe and night spot confirmed that plans are under way to bring national touring bands to Beehive.

The loss of the room won't mean the end of music in Pittsburgh, said Elko, but Graffiti was an important stage venue in a city with lots of small bars and a few theaters and amphitheaters.

"Graffiti was great for an audience that was 30 to 55 from the legendary rock era and wanted to sit down and see a show," he said.

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