Pegasus, noted Downtown gay nightclub, relocating to North Side
December 7, 2009 5:00 AM
Scott Noxon, near a mural of Pegasus, first visited the bar in 1984, and bought it in 2005.
Drag queen Sasha performs at Pegasus, a gay nightclub on Liberty Avenue, Downtown. The club, a popular spot for three decades, is moving to the North Side.
Manager Rodney DeCecchis and owner Scott Noxon, in a bar area of Pegasus, have great memories of the parties, benefits and drag queen pageants.
By Marylynne Pitz Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the boom-boom 1980s, a sign with a red winged horse signaled the opening of Pegasus, a new nightclub Downtown. Gay men flocked down the steps, past a colorful mural, up to the bar and onto the dance floor.
"This was always known as the twink and drag bar," said Scott Noxon, the club's owner, adding that a "twink" is a thin, youthful man and "drag," well, some men look great in women's clothes, especially when they dance and do back flips in 4-inch high heels.
Nearly 30 years after it opened in June 1980, Pegasus closed its doors at 818 Liberty Ave. last night and moved to the first two floors of Pittsburgh Eagle, a four-story leather bar on the North Side that Mr. Noxon also owns.
Pegasus was often the first gay bar local young men visited, whether they boogied to Donna Summer's "Last Dance," sized up popular drag queens like Chi Chi La Rue or hobnobbed with actress Kathleen Turner while she was here starring in a play called "Tallulah."
"Everybody tried to outdress everybody. We used to dance with our shirts off and, of course, the straight women loved us," said Richard Vinski, a retired school teacher from Morningside.
Pegasus was Mr. Noxon's first gay bar. He ventured inside in 1984 and by the end of the night had attracted the bartender's interest. In 2005, he bought the club from Dave Morrrow and updated it with new lighting, a sound system and a stone bar flecked with gold and silver.
Pittsburgh boasts its share of gay bars, but gay nightclubs have a harder time surviving because they cost more money to operate, said Mr. Noxon, who is paying $4,000 in monthly rent to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, or about $10 per square foot for a 6,000-square-foot basement.
J. Kevin McMahon, who heads the trust, said he urged Mr. Noxon to keep Pegasus open.
"We hoped he would stay," Mr. McMahon said, adding that because the club is in a basement, "it's not probably the most rentable space. We have attempted ... to be acccommodating to his financial needs. He has never asked us to reduce the rent. This was 100 percent his decision to close down."
A greater acceptance of gay men, the city's dwindling population and a souring economy that caused a slowdown in business this past fall prompted Mr. Noxon's decision.
"Gay people don't need to go out anymore. They can go to straight nightclubs and not fear retribution for their lifestyle. We've demanded acceptance in the mainstream community and they gave it to us," Mr. Noxon said. Like heterosexuals, gays and lesbians also meet over numerous Internet Web sites.
Mr. Noxon estimated it would cost $500,000 to bring the space up to current building codes, including the installation of handicapped ramps and bathrooms.
But as they close up this morning, Mr. Noxon and Rodney DeCecchis, the club's manager for the past 15 years, will carry away great memories of Red Hot Halloween parties that were AIDS benefits, New Year's Eve festivities and drag queen pageants.
Richard Parsakian, owner of the vintage clothing store Eons, said Pegasus "was like an alternative universe" because of performers like Jolie London and Bambi.
"There was no drag queen who could not dance in heels," Mr. Parsakian said, adding that he helped these performers choose costumes and lent them jewelry for the Miss Pittsburgh pageant, held each spring.
When 2002 arrived, Mr. DeCecchis and three other revelers actually slept atop the wooden bar and awakened at noon on New Year's Day. The bar phone began ringing; friends wondered why he was still at work.
Mr. DeCecchis mused recently as he leafed through numerous photo albums in his office.
"Back in the day, every gay man in Pittsburgh had a mustache," he said.
In an era when "you could have lost your job if people know you were gay," Mr. Vinski recalled, Downtown's gay party circuit included cocktails at the Venture Inn, a stop at Cruella De Ville, where men danced in bird cages, Zack's Fourth Avenue, which had a great dance floor, and Pegasus, which, in its early incarnation, featured an elegant piano bar with primo cocktails on the upper level and a dance floor below.
"We hadn't had a bar so fancy. Herb Beatty did the decorating. You just walked in and your mouth fell open," Mr. Vinski said. "If you ever saw 'Queer as Folk' on TV, that's what Pittsburgh was like back then because we had so many bars."
Gay dance clubs, Mr. Vinski added, were the place to see new stars and hear new music.
"When they started putting the videos up, it was like being in Studio 54 in New York City," he added.
Running a nightclub means "meeting people and laughing a lot," but Mr. Noxon shed tears on a Sunday morning in April of 1997. The morning after the Ku Klux Klan marched here, he found multiple signs outside the Pittsburgh Eagle that read, "AIDS Kills Fags Dead."
"I don't remember how many I ripped up and threw away. I broke into tears that morning. What else do you do?" he said, recalling that he buried his first friend in 1985 and lost many others.
The club's previous owner, Dave Morrow, who died earlier this year, believed in offering a safe place to young gay people. Although it meant losing bar profits, he installed fencing to divide Pegasus into two areas. One side served liquor, the other juice and soda to customers ages 18 to 20 who came to dance and applaud the drag queens.
When Pegasus reopens on the first two floors of the Pittsburgh Eagle, guards will keep an eye on under-age patrons. But whether young people will drive to that neighborhood, which is not nearly as convenient as the Downtown location of Pegasus, remains an open question.
"I think Scott is trying to make it into a club for everyone," Mr. Parsakian said.
Besides its illustrious entertainment history, employees at Pegasus also served as an informal support group to young gays, offering them a place to stay temporarily if they had nowhere else to go, Mr. DeCecchis said.
Such kindness was key, said Mr. DeCecchis, who will never forget a 17-year-old gay friend from his native Johnsonburg in Elk County. The teenager struggled to accept his homosexuality but wound up committing suicide by shooting himself.
"If he could have walked down the steps of Pegasus, he'd still be alive," Mr. DeCecchis said.