Steve Hofstetter’s life sounds like the plot of a romantic comedy: A jaded L.A. stand-up comedian leaves sunny California, moves across the country, transforms an old church into a nonprofit arts foundation and ends up falling in love … with Pittsburgh.
Last year the veteran touring comic purchased the former Stanton Heights United Methodist Church and began converting it into Steel City Arts Foundation, a place where comedians and other creative types can live, work and play. When it opens in the next six to eight months, it will be billed as the only venue of its kind in the world.
In the meantime, Hofstetter is just trying to be a good neighbor. That’s easy to do when you live in a place Mister Rogers called home.
When the Rex Theater closed on the South Side, operator Ben Penigar donated $80,000 worth of AV equipment to Steel City AF.
To pay it forward, Hofstetter says he’ll donate the gear he doesn’t use to area schools and arts organizations. He’s also added accessibility ramps to the former church, added sound-absorbing panels to the windows, installed an HVAC system that circulates clean air every 20 minutes and commissioned a parking study to help ease congestion when Steel City AF opens.
The organization is in talks with an elementary school down the street to use its parking lot after hours. As a thank you, Hofstetter would like to offer a comedy class for kids. The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles runs a similar program, which was attended by comedian Tiffany Haddish, who Time magazine named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2018.
One of the most influential people in Hofstetter’s life was — and continues to be — his dad, Martin Hofstetter. After the patriarch died in 2014, Hofstetter established the Martin Foundation in his honor to provide $1,000 grants to comedians to help with rent, car payments and other bills. Now, Steel City AF is taking the spirit of giving to a new level.
The 42 Club — a reference to both the year Martin Hofstetter was born and MLB player Jackie Robinson’s number — is made up of donors who gave $42 or more to Steel City AF. The organization is halfway to its goal of raising $10,000.
The 15,000-square-foot building at 4721 Stanton Ave. in Stanton Heights sits atop one of the highest points in the city. Hofstetter, who grew up in Queens, New York, still can’t get over the breathtaking views.
Early in his career, with an act that catered to college crowds, he played a lot of shows at local universities but didn’t fully embrace Pittsburgh until he became a resident.
Now he’s excited to give his fellow comedians a taste of yinzer life … and that doesn’t mean plying them with pierogies.
Due to its geographic location and low cost of living, Pittsburgh is the perfect place for a comedy HQ. There’s a strong comedy culture here thanks to institutions such as Arcade Comedy Theater, Steel City Improv Theater and the Pittsburgh Improv. The Burgh is also within a six-hour drive of 18 comedy markets and a 2.5-hour flight from more than half the population of the U.S. and Canada.
Steel City Arts Foundation will boast a 300-seat performance space in the chapel, a recording studio (the previous owner of the building was a music producer), a 40-seat comedy theater with digital broadcasting capabilities, living space and a curated comedy library.
It will also be a place where funny folks from around the world can write and test new material and find a quiet reprieve from life on the road.
The property boasts a detached, three-bedroom home where comics can live, rent-free, for up to nine months at a time. Applications for the residency are now being accepted.
They can relax around a backyard fire pit, do laundry, take classes to hone their skills, utilize shared office space and exercise in “The Jim,” a fitness studio decorated with photos of comics like Rodney Dangerfield swinging a golf club in “Caddyshack.”
There are nods to Hollywood royalty throughout the facility, including a Masterpiece AF gallery featuring portraits by artist Leedy Corbin of the 25 greatest dead comedians painted in the style of 25 of the greatest dead artists. There you’ll find Joan Rivers as Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and Robin Williams as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”
Local mural artists Sean Coffey and John Muldoon have created colorful tributes to Pittsburgh’s history, its famous entertainers and its role in Negro Leagues.
After taking a short break from touring to concentrate on construction during the height of the pandemic, Hofstetter is back on the road. The industry is slowly returning to normal with patrons visiting old haunts and new venues (and even a comedy bus) popping up around town.
Hofstetter is serious about preventing his fellow comedians from becoming pandemic punchlines and with Steel City AF, he believes they can make a fresh start.
“Pittsburgh is similar to many comics; it’s gritty, full of heart and underrated,” Hofstetter says. “We’re looking for talent, drive and kindness. We see this as an opportunity to learn from each other and collaborate. This isn’t a business, it’s a charity.”