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The Surprisingly Hip Banjo Club Heats up the Elk Lodge

Walking into the Elks Lodge on a Wednesday night is like stepping back in time. The paneled room with the long (a good 35 feet) rectangular bar, the long tables in the adjacent main room that invite conversation, and a wide stage visible to all where the Banjo Club is rehearsing. Pabst beer for $2! Yuengling for $1.50!

When the music starts, it's lively tunes from the past—hits like Yes, We Have No Bananas and I Found a Million Dollar Baby. The vibrant and cheerful sounds of banjos and trumpets fill the festive room, accompanied by the clapping and singing of the diverse audience, which is totally into it. Since this is a rehearsal, it's informal and casual with the tuning and tweaking of a string here and there.

The Pittsburgh Banjo Club brings back those halcyon days for its older audience members, and introduces that time and feeling to the younger crowd. The performance starts at 8, and if you only stayed an hour you'd think it's mostly older folks. By 10, you would notice the crowd is starting to get younger. Eventually it's standing room only, filled with 20-somethings to 80-somethings.

"There's quite a span in the ages," says Jerry Mansmann, a performance regular, who is unfazed. "We keep up with the young kids, and they learn a lot from us older ones."

Ruth Neely, 21, and a Pitt senior, who loves Banjo Club night, had a blast when she brought her mother and grandmother with her recently. She's in good company. At the recent and sold out Johnny Cash Day event also at the Elks Lodge, a number of people were buzzing about the popular Banjo Night to those who were making their first visit to the Club. ("What? You've never heard of Banjo Club?")

Mansmann, his wife and their friends have been meeting at the weekly Club rehearsals for the past 7 years. "It got to be a habit," he says. "We have the same table every week, and it's gotten to be a real nice affair."

While some find it a comfortable habit, others find it a refreshing way to shake up their routine.

Formed in 1988 by Frank Rossi, the Banjo Club consists of banjos, trumpets, a tuba and an occasional clarinet. Members of the Banjo Club range in experience. From newbies to seasoned professionals, the club is open to anyone who has an interest.

Rossi started playing banjo about 30 years ago as a hobby and was a member of the Long Island Banjo Club. When he retired and moved to Pittsburgh, he and a few others decided to start one here. "How did I know there were hundreds of banjo players in the Pittsburgh area," Rossi says. "We decided to start the club so we could preserve the style of music and entertain the people."

While the Banjo Club plays songs from the 20s and 30s, polka, show tunes and Dixieland, singing along is highly encouraged.

Norm Azinger, one of the founding members of the Banjo Club, has been playing banjo since he was 14. A good thing about the Banjo Club, a non-profit organization, he points out, is that they give all the money they earn to charities in the area.

"We just do it for the fun of it," says Rossi. "We raise a ton of money every year, and we give it all away."

The best part, though, is the camaraderie. "We're a family. Most of the people in this band did not know each other before they joined, and now these are all our friends," Rossi says. "Plus, we have a lot of fun playing this music and that transfers over to our audience."

The free Wednesday night rehearsals are the same show you'll get if you see the Banjo Club perform at an event, minus the uniforms. A list of upcoming events can be found on the Club's website.

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Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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