Places We Love: Mr. Smalls Is Millvale’s Rock Temple

The unconventional concert hall has grown from a converted church into a pillar of local nightlife and culture.
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There are plenty of places in Pittsburgh custom-built for music and performances of all stripes. Mr. Smalls isn’t one of them.

Originally constructed as St. Ann’s Catholic Church in 1924, the space reopened as Mr. Smalls in 2002. While the hillside complex has housed a variety of spaces — once including a skatepark, and currently including the smaller venue Mr. Smalls Funhouse — its primary space is an arching concert venue that both honors and subverts its religious origins.

With confessional-booth doors hanging above the crowd and the shell of the chancel serving as a backdrop for performances, it’s clear what this place was. And yet events with a hint of counter-culture — packed shows from punk and emo bands, pro wrestling, the occasional night of drag or burlesque — seem the most at home here. There’s a DIY, let’s-put-on-a-show feeling to Mr. Smalls that adds considerably to its charm.

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This is also a place without a playlist; just about anyone, and anything, will show up on the calendar. This month, Mr. Smalls will host hip-hop icon Gza (March 10, performing the seminal “Liquid Swords” in its entirety), alternative stalwarts Yo La Tengo (March 21), Pittsburgh standouts the Ghost Club (March 18) and more. In June, the venue will launch Mr. Smalls Theatricals, a long-gestating in-house company dedicated to musicals and opera, with a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion.”

Even for an anything-goes venue, that’s range.

And, notably, that’s vitality. Even successful venues in the area frequently go dark for stretches, with a week or more passing between shows. Between its big and small venues, Mr. Smalls rarely goes more than a few days without welcoming guests — and, from Thursday to Saturday, you can hang out during daylight hours as well, grabbing a meal at Mr. Smalls Cafe.

Plenty of Pittsburgh spaces have been converted into other uses; few have had a second life that has become so thoroughly ingrained in the fabric of the city. When it opened, this was a former church; now, it is almost iconically Mr. Smalls.

Insider’s Tip.
Looking for a great view — and a guaranteed seat — in the main theater? Buy a Balcony Upgrade along with your ticket; it’ll get you a reserved seat in the second or third tier overlooking the floor. (Just remember to buy both a ticket and the upgrade; the upgrade alone won’t get you in the door.)

While You’re Here:
Old school or modern mixology? If you’d like a hearty meal in Millvale’s most enduring establishment, plan a pre-show dinner at the venerable Grant Bar & Restaurant. If you’d like a drink in a rising new favorite, check out Harold’s Haunt.

Categories: Places We Love