'Egeszsegedre!' Pittsburgh's last Hungarian club closes

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For immigrants brave enough to start a new life in "Amerika," ethnic clubs were second homes, and the American Hungarian Social Association -- which operated around the clock -- was no exception. Even the cornerstone says "Magyar Home."

Today, this two-story brick haven in Hazelwood -- a spartan, smoke-filled forerunner of modern man caves -- passes into the hands of Pittsburgh Firefighters Local No. 1. The union, which paid $75,000, will use it for offices and a social hall after renovating the building at 120 Flowers Ave.

The last one remaining in the city limits, this Hungarian club was chartered in 1918, said Mike Kerekgyarto, a 37-year-old plumber who lives in Lincoln Place and is the organization's youngest member and its president. (The oldest member is Zoltan Palfy, age 92.)

"It was a place where everybody could sit down and talk about certain issues, political problems, family problems. You could always get advice," he said, adding that members included doctors, lawyers and judges, as well as the late Joe Chiodo, who owned Chiodo's Tavern in Homestead and whose wife was Hungarian.

Members said the causes for the closing included a 10 percent drink tax that took effect in 2008 and the club's dwindling membership, which has dropped from an all-time high of 1,500 to 35.

"The younger generation has strayed away from these kinds of organizations," Mr. Kerekgyarto said.

Since 1941, thirsty mill workers and women have gathered there at 4 p.m. on Fridays to speak the distinctive Hungarian language, play pool, share a glass of red "Bull's Blood" wine or white Tokay and debate the finer points of the Trianon Treaty.

The treaty -- which took effect on June 4, 1920, after World War I -- reduced Hungary's size by more than 70 percent and stripped the nation of its coal mines, salt mines and shipping ports.

"We needed a social life," said Miklos Szabo of McKeesport, a place for "a good talk, a good laugh and an argument." Those happy hours included watching movies on the building's second floor, celebrating weddings and even watching an occasional wrestling match featuring Bruno Sammartino.

"We had a number of people from different ethnic backgrounds," said Mr. Kerekgyarto, adding that people of Polish descent and even a Chinese man joined. Back then, saving money was a way of life.

"The members saved for 20 years so they could buy that building on Flowers Avenue," he said.

By the 1940s, more than 1,000 people belonged to the Hungarian club. On Friday nights, "In the 1960s, they used to have two bands, one downstairs and one upstairs. If you were not there by 5 p.m., you weren't getting a chair or a table," Mr. Kerekgyarto added.

Now, the small Hazelwood-based fraternity will move southeast to McKeesport's Hungarian Social Club on Walnut Street which has about 65 members.

When steel mills boomed and belched in the 20th century, ethnic clubs abounded in Hazelwood, including ones for the Irish and Italians. Hungarians operated businesses, and the streets were redolent of paprika and goulash.

"What South Side looks like today is what Hazelwood looked like in the 1950s," Mr. Kerekgyarto said.

The immigrants who began streaming onto America's shores in the late 1800s powered this region's mines, mills and factories. Hungarian clubs opened in Braddock, Coraopolis, Duquesne, Homestead, McKeesport and Springdale plus farther afield in Ellwood City, Daisytown, Leechburg, Brownsville, Beaver Falls and Zelienople. Clubs in Daisytown, Ellwood City, Leechburg and Zelienople are still in business.

Mr. Szabo -- who hails from Gyor, a town between Vienna and Budapest -- got married at home, then crossed the Austrian border with his bride, Maria. Like 200,000 other Hungarians, the couple fled when freedom fighters rebelled against Hungary's Communist rulers in 1956. Twenty divisions of Soviet tanks crushed the revolution on Nov. 3, 1956.

When Miklos and Maria arrived in the U.S. in 1957 as part of Operation Mercy, they were refugees and lived at an Army base, Camp Kilmer, in New Jersey.

"We had sponsors, so that's how I got to McKeesport," said Mr. Szabo, a machinist whose first job was working at an East End factory that made rifle scopes.

Miklos Milcsevics sailed to the U.S. from Southampton, England, arriving in 1960.

"For eight months, I couldn't get a job," said Mr. Milcsevics, who began tuning organs in churches while living with his mother in Hazelwood. He started his own business, M.J. Machine Metal & Fabricating Co., from which he retired four years ago. Now, he rides one of two motorcycles when he isn't sipping a soft drink with his buddies down at the club.

"We educate each other. We talk about women," Mr. Milcsevics said, his eyes twinkling.

On June 22, the club hosted its last gathering. Imre Nemeth of Whitaker and Mr. Milcsevics, a resident of "the gorgeous South Side," recalled when they played soccer on Johnson Avenue and ate kielbasa at the club afterward. On weekends, they danced half the night to the high-spirited gypsy violins of the Roma people.

The last supper at the club was decidedly American -- fried chicken, pasta with red sauce and a large yellow cake baked by David Watson, the new chef at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association in Oakland.

The talk of old times lasted until 2:30 a.m., and there were many toasts of, "egeszsegedre!" -- pronounced "eh-gav-sha-ged-re."

That's Hungarian for, "To your good health!"

neigh_city - lifestyle

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published June 27, 2012 4:00 AM


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