The Beehive — A Caffeinated Look Back

Jody DiPerna

With his new book, “Gen X Pittsburgh: The Beehive and the 90’s Scene” (The History Press) journalist David Rullo seeks to commemorate the end of the analog era in Pittsburgh and how the Beehive became a community center for DIY art, music and creation.

Rullo sat down to talk about his new book, appropriately enough, at an independent coffee house–in this instance, Redhawk Coffee in Sharpsburg. In his book about the iconic Beehive, he says that shops like Redhawk and Constellation, Commonplace and Uptown are the spiritual children and grandchildren of the Beehive. It’s hard to argue with that.

He started to think about documenting the halcyon days of the East Carson Street anchor when owners, Scott Kramer and Steve Zumoff, announced they would be closing the iconic coffee shop. 

“I called the same bunch of guys that I used to hang out with there and we went back,” Rullo said. “It was during that time I thought, there’s a book here. And the Beehive should be the main character.” 

So he set to work doing exhaustive research. 

When the Beehive opened for business in early 1991, the owners, employees and patrons were sensing the coming cultural moment. Pittsburgh’s South Side was not then what it is now. There were more retired steelworker bars, markets and hardware stores; it wasn’t a scene for the younger crowd. In a short time, East Carson Street became the place to be for disaffected artists, musicians and just any old square peg who didn’t fit in with mainstream culture in Reagan’s America. 

Rullo writes that Zumoff and Kramer were trying to create a feel as much as anything else, noting that the original sixty-page business plan included a long section titled “Atmospheric.” As Rullo writes, “Steven intended to create a ‘bohemian’ atmosphere that they believed would attract a clientele who disregarded conventional standards of behavior and had artistic literary interests.” 

In short, they were aiming to create space for artists and art lovers, writers and the bookish, musicians, deejays and the musically obsessed. 

Zumoff and Kramer had local artists paint and decorate the inside, including the mural painted on the back wall by Kevin Schlosser which became the visual calling card of the cafe. 

As well as the artistic, outsider vibe, the Beehive offered safe harbor to folks who didn’t want to hang out in bars, because they didn’t like drinking or because they were in recovery.

“One of the things that Steve said was that it was at a time when there wasn’t any place like it and it really became like a safe place,” Rullo said. 

“It was sort of the first Gen X spot where people wanted to hang out, but it didn’t revolve around alcohol.” 

The Beehive set the tone. People came for the coffee, but they came to hang out, read a book, plan an art project, play pinball and just be part of the scene. An element that made the Beehive feel different was that the coffee slingers were no different than the customers. A lot of times, they were the customers as people who made the Beehive their third space often ended up working there. 

At the same time, the old blue-collar South Side Pittsburghers didn’t quite know what to make of it all. One of the coffee slingers said she remembers many long-time neighborhood residents being stunned that anybody would pay more than a dollar for a cup of joe. She told Rullo, “They would say, ‘This is outrageous.’ They were scandalized.” 

Everybody who Rullo interviewed — the regulars and the sometimers and the coffee slingers and janitors — remembered a sense of comfort and shared creativity that felt like putting on a worn flannel shirt, an item of clothing often spotted at the Beehive. 

“I think I realized this to some degree, but it became much more apparent that there was a sense of ownership. Every person who was part of that core group really felt like this was theirs,” he said. 

Rullo also chronicles the business as it changed and as Kramer and Zumoff expanded, purchasing the old Kings Court Theatre in Oakland to turn it into the Hive 2.0. That was a big space and it sometimes struggled. It took some time to figure out how to use the space for the different clientele and draw folks in from outside of Oakland. As always, they did their own thing though and brought in bands, as well as utilized the facility itself by showing arthouse and second run movies. 

According to Rullo, the first run movie houses in town didn’t want the Beehive in Oakland cutting into their market so they were “making lemonade out of lemons. They figured out how to get weird, quirky movies.”

The Beehive showed things like “Slackers” and “Clerks,” the John Waters movie “Pecker,” and a double feature of Tim Burton’s 1994 film “Ed Wood” paired with Ed Wood’s actual 1959 release, “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” 

It’s all very specific to that time and Rullo said that he immersed himself in the culture of the era to get his headspace right while writing this book. 

“When I did the research for this, I did interview a lot of people,” he said. “I also bought every CD from Pittsburgh bands from the 90s and every book about Pittsburgh neighborhoods and things like that. I also got a whole bunch of DVDs from the movies of the era.”   

It also helped that Rullo could dig through the archives, actually see and touch art and artifacts from the heyday of the Beehive. 

“Scott didn’t throw anything away,” he said. “It’s almost like he knew that this was going to be something memorable. He totally saved everything — bins and bins. And that’s not even the stuff that the History Center has.” 

It can be hard not to just give in to nostalgia, but one of the lessons Rullo learned was that places are always in the process of reinvention and adaptation, even when it’s not easy to spot. He grew up outside the city and remembers passing steel mills and neighborhoods that were in a downturn. What he didn’t see then, but learned through this process, is that those place that look dead on arrival often still have a beating heart. 

“It’s certainly a Rust Belt story, but it’s also a Pittsburgh story,” Rullo said. “Everybody talks about these kinds of things, but there’s a certain tenacity to Pittsburgh. Should the South Side have been able to reinvent itself as this quirky little place, at least for those five or six years? But it became the home to this quirky little artistic community.” 

Communities can transform with vision and collectivity, even if the change is ephemeral. Something happened here and then it was over. But still, it happened and Rullo’s very Gen X book sets a lighthouse for future generations, as they look to transform Pittsburgh, too.

The Release Party for “Gen X Pittsburgh” will be held at the Tiki Lounge in the Southside on Wednesday, November 1st kicking off at 6:00. Books will be on sale at the event through Riverstone Books.