Did you hear the one about the good-hearted Jewish comedian who went to buy a church in Pittsburgh?
No, that’s not a joke. That’s our story.
Steve Hofstetter, a Los Angeles-based comedian originally from the East Coast, is in the process of purchasing a church in Stanton Heights to help buoy the region’s comedy scene. He’s calling his project the Steel City Arts Foundation or, more appropriate to a comedy moniker, Steel City AF.
“I found this building and the more I looked at it and did my research on the city, the more it made sense,” Hofstetter told the Chronicle.
The former Stanton Heights United Methodist Church and rectory boast more than 13,000 square feet on about half an acre of land, according to current real estate listings. The main chapel, which Hofstetter envisions as a comedy space with seating for up to 300, is set up as an art studio; the basement is a recording studio, both used by the owner who bought it after the church closed. The main house is updated and ready for moving in.
Hofstetter, who wants to host comedy and arts events at the former church as well as offer housing there for visiting comedians, looks at the site — current asking price: $1.235 million — and sees a huge opportunity.
Pittsburgh presents great potential for touring comedians, Hofstetter said. It is within a six-hour drive of 18 different comedy markets and a “short flight” to about half the population of the U.S. and Canada, he said. Its low cost of living and great access to arts and culture also make it attractive.
“I’ve always really liked Pittsburgh — it’s probably one of the nine or 10 cities in the U.S. where I’d consider living,” Hofstetter said. “It’s a wonderful place for a comedian to be based. It’s a cool city.”
Hofstetter stressed, however, that all of his plans are tentative. The deal has not yet closed, and he added, above everything, he is highly aware that almost all of the properties around the church site are residential. He doesn’t want to become a thorn in anyone’s side.
“There’s a lot of interest [about the housing] and I’ve already gotten more than 100 messages from people being like, ‘When can I move in?’” he laughed. “But we want to be a good neighbor.”
To that end, Hofstetter is committed to attending community meetings and discussing use of the site with neighbors. Kaitlyn Brennan, president of the Stanton Heights Neighborhood Association, sits on his board of directors. (Jewish comedian Elayne Boosler sits on his board as well.)
“We’re working hard to communicate our ideas and listen to theirs,” Hofstetter said. “We don’t want to dictate ‘Here’s what we’re going to do’ as much as we want to listen.”
Hofstetter has a history in comedy philanthropy. He formed a nonprofit group to benefit comedians — the Martin Foundation — after the death of his father, who applauded the trade and helped Hofstetter cut his young teeth on comedy records as the younger Hofstetter grew up in New York. He’s also been involved with the Socially Distant Social Club, a virtual place for comedians to get a paid gig during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But is there any particularly Jewish meaning to Hofstetter’s Pittsburgh venture?
“What it means is I’m gonna have to get on a cherry picker and take a cross down,” Hofstetter laughed. “We’ve talked to another church about donating it — but it’s coming down.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.