One boozy night at the North Side Elks Lodge, Ben Soltesz told Stephanie Brea about an idea that had been simmering in the back of his mind for years: Wouldn’t it be fun to throw parties at Pittsburgh’s myriad social, ethnic and members-only clubs?
Even after she sobered up, Brea thought it was a great concept. And so the Roaming Social Club was born.
Last Saturday, the organization held the first of its monthly events at the Kollar Club on the South Side. Founded in 1912 by Slovak immigrants, the John Kollar Slovak Literary and Library Society meets in a small, unassuming building along Jane Street, far from the hustle and bustle of East Carson.
About 80 people — old and young, male and female — showed up to mingle with regulars and get a history lesson. Some attendees even paid $20 to become card-carrying Kollar Club members.
“It’s sort of like a New Pittsburgh-meets-Old Pittsburgh collaboration,” says Brea, 37, co-organizer of gathering places such as Bayardstown Social Club in the Strip District and Weather Permitting in Shadyside. “We’re creating a community.”
A VIP membership, which includes visits to the remaining 11 spots the group will hit this year, costs $120. You can also pay $60 to go to any six. Paying $15 at the door is another option for non-committal folks.
Future stops include the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Lawrenceville, the North Side’s Teutonia Männerchor and the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center in West Homestead.
All events will be different, based on the parameters of each club. Some will have live entertainment and food. Others will feature drinks and dancing.
Soltesz, 44, a Spring Hill resident who co-founded Deutschtown Musical Festival, is a member of several different clubs, including his neighborhood Elks Lodge.
“It’s cool to me to have all of these membership cards in my wallet and to support all of these places,” he says, adding that many of the establishments are hard to find or can be intimidating to outsiders.
All of the organizations he approached about participating in the Roaming Social Club have been receptive to the idea because it pumps new blood into groups, many of which have low or aging membership bases.
On Feb. 24, the Roaming Social Club will visit the Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 23. The Irish-Catholic fraternal organization, founded in 1903, boasts about 325 members in its Lawrenceville location and around 1,000 active members throughout Allegheny County.
A.O.H. likes visitors, having hosted everything from baby showers to funeral wakes. When Roaming Social Club guests drop by in late February, they’ll get a St. Patrick’s Day preview. “Irish identity is still on full display at the A.O.H., where the color green is prevalent, pictures and memorials of prominent Irishmen abound; and you walk over Irish soil to enter the building,” says Treasurer Jason Donaldson, who comes from a long line of Hibernians.
“At Cheers, everybody knows your name,” he says. “At the A.O.H. everybody knows your name, your family, where you’re from, what you do for a living, what you have going on in your life, etc. It’s not uncommon to see a 22-year-old sitting at the bar with a 70-year-old and carry on a conversation for hours, which is not something you see as much of at other bars.”
Learning about the history behind these secret societies and the buildings they occupy appeals to Brea, who grew up in Greensburg and was a member of multiple social clubs.
During its inaugural year, the Roaming Social Club isn’t veering far from the ‘burgh. But, in the future, Brea and Soltesz may charter a bus to hit places beyond the city limits. (An organization in Donora, Washington County, invited the pair and their followers to try out duckpin bowling.)
In the meantime, the two friends are focused on their 2018 lineup. If last week’s packed Kollar Club is any indication, they’re going to make some new friends.
“I worked the door at the Kollar Club, so I was able to observe what was going on,” Brea says. “To have all of these people from all walks of life together and talking and drinking … I mean, I didn’t cry, but it was very heartwarming.”