1991: Life and death of the Syria Mosque
For today’s post, you can thank the Monday blues.
We had ‘em, so we googled our second favorite Monday song (the first is by the Mamas and the Papas). We found it on YouTube — a live version of “Manic Monday” by the Bangles, filmed at the Syria Mosque in 1986.
Ah, the Syria Mosque. Thus began another search. We found on the web several live performances at the Mosque — Genesis (1976), the Band (‘70), James Taylor (‘76), Allman Brothers Band (‘71), Edgar Winter Group (‘72). Most are just audio files, but a few contain video of performances in what was once the city’s prime concert venue.
The Syria Mosque was a colorfully regal presence on Bigelow Boulevard, across from Soldiers & Sailors Hall. Most people today may remember the 3,750-seat hall for the rock and roll shows it hosted. But in its 75-year life, the Mosque was home to much more.
Pittsburgh’s chapter of the Shriners celebrated the Mosque’s opening in 1916 with a week of festivities, one of which was captured in a picture published in The Pittsburgh Press on October 29 of that year. The image shows the hall crowded with hundreds of children, many holding American flags and wearing Shriner hats. The caption says “moving pictures and a luncheon” kept the children entertained.
Over the years, the Mosque was home to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Opera and the National Negro Opera Company.
Then there was jazz. The list of performers includes:
— Louis Armstrong (three appearances, beginning in 1949)
— Duke Ellington (in ‘54, he shared a bill with Armstrong and Billy Eckstine)
— Count Basie
— Benny Goodman (‘41)
— Miles Davis (‘55)
— Charlie Parker (‘50)
— Art Blakey (on a number of occasions, including a concert in 1955 with the Jazz Messengers)
— George Benson (‘76, ‘77 and ‘86)
We could go on, but you get the point. The Pittsburgh Music History website offers more detail than we can provide here.
Now let’s talk rock:
— Bill Haley and the Comets (in ‘55, with Bo Diddley and the Drifters; tickets ranged in price from $1.75 to $3.75)
— Buddy Holly (four performances ’58, the last in October, four months before his death)
— Bob Dylan (in February ‘66, six months after going electric at Newport; also played in ‘64 and ‘90)
— Bette Midler (forgive us for lumping her with rockers, but she had a great quote in her ‘73 show: “We’re on a tour of the tackiest city’s in the world, of which Pittsburgh is without a doubt No. 1”)
— The Who (in ‘69, the year of the rock opera “Tommy,” and ‘90)
— Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (‘74)
— Bruce Springsteen (in ‘75 and ‘76; his manager Jon Landau called the Mosque “one of the finest theaters he has ever played in”)
— Linda Ronstadt (‘75)
— Bob Marley (‘77)
— James Brown (‘76 and ‘86)
— Ramones (‘88)
— R.E.M. (‘85 and ‘86)
— Bon Jovi (‘84)
Can’t forget the comedy:
— Robin Williams (‘86)
— Richard Pryor (At the height of his career, in ‘78)
— George Carlin (‘84)
— Bill Cosby (‘71)
— Jack Benny (‘50 and ‘63)
— Bob Hope (‘50)
Of course, these are just partial lists.
Time was up for the Mosque in 1991. UPMC, then known as Presbyterian University Health System, bought the building for $10 million. What followed was one of the most intense preservation battles in the city’s history. It ended with a handful of protesters, including then City Councilman Jim Ferlo, getting arrested in an unsuccessful attempt stop the bulldozers from advancing on the Mosque.
Today the site is a surface parking lot.
— Steve Mellon
Top picture: Demolition crews at work in 1991. (John Heller/The Pittsburgh Press)