The owners of Mr. Smalls Funhouse, Liz Berlin and Mike Speranzo, have purchased the former Millvale United Methodist Church across the street from their popular concert venue with plans to convert it into a neighborhood café, secondhand music equipment store, and recording studio for local youth.

They plan to call the building, located at 192 Butler Street, The Sanctuary at Mr. Smalls.

An opening date is not yet set but once it is open it will be home to Creative.Life.Support, the nonprofit arm of Mr. Smalls.

Among its many programs, CLS hosts an annual “We Rock” 18-week residency program in conjunction with Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services. Now in its seventh year, the program is designed as a way former and current foster children can open up through the arts.

Inside the Millvale United Methodist Church. Rachel Kim photo.
Inside the Millvale United Methodist Church. Photo by Rachel Kim.

“The focus is in creating spaces for at-risk youth to experience tech and understand how to work through traumatic experiences by expressing themselves through music and art,” says Speranzo.

The basement of The Sanctuary will hold a professional studio with remote capabilities that will allow students to record shows happening in-house or across the street at the theater. Berlin and Speranzo envision students with an interest in audio or video tech enrolling in a short program to gauge the extent of their interest without the time or financial commitment needed at most full-time vo-tech schools.

“This gives us the opportunity to expand into a year-round program teaching audio and video skills in addition to music programming,” says Berlin.

It’s the latest in a series of changes to take place at the Millvale concert venue, which just a few years ago was in forbearance for debt but has since added a new restaurant, downstairs bar, and VIP balcony seating to the 850-person capacity venue.

“There were tough times,” says Speranzo. “Last year was our first year of being able to not fear the bank taking the keys.”

Opened in 2002 in the former St. Ann’s Catholic Church, Smalls has welcomed hundreds of national touring acts over the years, including Snoop Dogg, Interpol, Smashing Pumpkins, and many others.

In April they opened The Funhouse @ Mr. Smalls, a 175-person capacity venue within the Smalls complex itself where local and regional acts can perform more intimate sets. If there are two shows the same night guests to the Theater can stop in The Funhouse to check out local performers for free.

The venue continues to upgrade their balcony area and they are also looking to double the amount of weddings they host in 2017. They’ve also upgraded their sound system with the addition of a Soundcraft mixing board.

Shaunden Smith, director of events, says the upgraded sound system has helped in booking shows as bands “know what they’re stepping into” well before the performance.  That and other upgrades are the product of management and ownership listening to suggestions from fans, visiting bands and their tour managers over the years.

“The driving motive is always how can we become a better organization for the people who want to come and experience what we have to offer,” says Speranzo.

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.