Within a year after Pittsburgh-bred writer David Rullo moved into the dorms at Point Park College as a freshman, The Beehive was born.
Ushered into existence in February 1991, the South Side establishment opened in the shadows of shuttering steel mills as a round-the-clock coffeehouse, serving up then-exotic concoctions like cappuccino and iced mochas when most Pittsburghers still were chugging 50-cent coffees from Dunkin’ Donuts. It became a staple of the neighborhood, running well into the 21st century, and was a linchpin of the artistic-minded residents replacing the shot-and-a-beer steelworker dives there with more colorful, eclectic fare.
“The Beehive was so important to the cultural scene of the city in the 1990s, and it flew under the radar for a lot of people,” said Rullo, a Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle senior staff writer who grew up in North Versailles and today lives in Dormont with his wife, Kim, and their son, Jackson.
The era of The Beehive unfolded before cellphones, before the internet. Even then, the venue, which went on to host live music, serve alcohol and become a de-facto art gallery, harkened to another time, belonging more to Greenwich Village’s 1950s Beat scene than post-industrial Pittsburgh.
And pinball — there was lots and lots of pinball.
“We started going there right away,” said Rullo. “Not only was it one of the only places to go. But we were musicians and writers and painters. And that’s where you ended up.”
Arcadia Press released Rullo’s new book on The Beehive’s lore, “Gen X Pittsburgh: The Beehive and the ‘90s Scene,” on Oct. 30.
The book’s publication will be celebrated Nov. 1 with a party at the Tiki Lounge on East Carson Street. Pittsburgh Gen X icon Liz Berlin of Rusted Root and Mr. Smalls fame, will perform. So will members of Circus Apocalypse, which debuted at The Beehive, and Bingo Quixote, whose lead singer was the venue’s art curator.
Rullo doesn’t remember the first time he walked into The Beehive. But his depictions of the place are vivid and bizarrely real, as if you’re sitting next to the author with an Italian soda as a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke — this is before the city’s smoking bans — lingered above the nightly crowd.
“It was packed from the get-go,” Rullo said. “It was sort of like a nexus of people gathering.”
(A second Beehive location opened on Forbes Avenue in Oakland years later. It didn’t have the staying power of its East Carson Street cousin.)
But The Beehive was more than a cool hangout. The frequency of your attendance — at one point, Rullo was going there at least four times a week — was a cultural calling card.
“It became sort of a beacon for artists and the strange kids,” Rullo laughed. “Someone told me, ‘The blue-haired old ladies were afraid of the pink-haired kids moving into the neighborhood.’”
They soon found there was little reason to worry. Many of the artist types who frequented The Beehive took a gentle kind of ownership of their newfound community, Rullo said.
As the bars started to get more and more crowded and the neighborhood got a little rough around the edges, one loosely defined group — which went by the Teddy Roosevelt-referencing name “Bull Moose Collective” — started a nightly, post-closing-time “march” to ensure women felt safe walking home.
“There really was a sense of ‘This is our space,’” Rullo said, “’and it’s our job to keep it safe.’”
Other businesses sprouted up, as well. Nearby on East Carson, the clothing store Slacker opened. Across the street came Groovy, which dabbled in vintage toys.
“There were constantly new businesses opening that were catering to this ‘alternative’ crowd,” Rullo said.
The block became peppered with art galleries and independent-minded retailers. A Chinese food vendor set up alongside the street. Everything had “a grunge or industrial tint to the lens,” Rullo said.
The Beehive might not have flourished in the age of the iPhone. It was “the sort of place where you met everybody and you figured out your plans,” Rullo said. Text messaging would have negated the need to convene there.
It also became a South Side staple.
Rullo — and many, many others — frequently would start the night there, after a day of working in Pittsburgh’s radio market or studying part-time at Point Park.
At 10 p.m. most nights, he’d head to Pete’s Wild Life — “a horrible, horrible, horrible singles club” — for the $1 mixed drinks that ran ‘til midnight. (One, dubbed “Red Death,” was concocted from six different boozes. Rullo said it tasted like Kool Aid.)
At midnight, he and his clan would head to Upstage, where 25-cent drafts were served ‘til 2 a.m.
Then, it was almost always back to The Beehive.
Around 1996, Rullo started to pare back on his South Side agenda. He had been hired, at age 24, to work full-time at KQV and his shift each day started at 7 a.m. sharp.
“Seven a.m. doesn’t line up very well with drinking all night and spending a lot of time in a coffee shop,” he said.
The place closed in 2019 or so. Rullo frequented the venue regularly in its last months. Though his earlier experience at The Beehive stretched the better part of a decade, his new book only took him about a year and change to write, though he interviewed more than 80 people for the tome.
Scott Kramer, who co-owned The Beehive with Steven Zumoff, said Rullo’s book is “pretty exciting.”
“A lot of people were involved with making The Beehive what it was, being regular customers there,” said Kramer, who lives in Squirrel Hill and is working to launch an Amazon store.
Kramer has his own stories.
“When I opened The Beehive, I didn’t drink coffee,” he laughed. “We taste-tested, though — we tried the coffee!”
Though born in 1964 — does that make him a Baby Boomer? — Kramer said he may identify more with a later generation. And that seems to fit the narrative Rullo has crafted.
“Those were the days where I was out partying every night,” Kramer said. “I probably more associate myself with that crew, the Gen X crowd.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.