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Humble Origins; Big Ideals

The Back Story of The Smallest Show in Town

By Chris Leone

While living in San Francisco I was involved in a thriving music, writing, and arts community. I recognized the potential to share our collective creativity so, in 2003, I came up with the idea of The Smallest Show in Town based on two ideals: 

1) The venue: Our priority from the start was to choose a venue for our shows that permitted performers a quiet and attentive audience. The first venue was The Hemlock Tavern because it had a separate performance space, isolated from the din of bar banter.

2) The concept: I've always loved the variety show format as a way to bring both audiences and performers together to share a common experience. Writers and readers mixing with musicians and comics, etc. was entertainment rife with possibilities for pleasant paradigm shifts.


With the support of my band at the time–The Lipsey Mountain Spring Band—and a large network of artists, writers, musicians, and friends, the show was an immediate success, packing the Hemlock’s back room every month! 

The intimate feel of the show and the attentive audience were unique in the performance scene at that time. Audiences could see performers in an acoustic setting that they may never have seen before. Performers were excited (and sometimes unnerved) to perform to a silent room with everyone listening attentively. The grilled cheese was always comforting.

Once word got out about the show and its success, people were clamoring to be involved.


Positive articles and reviews like those linked below soon began to appear in local city publications.

In San Francisco, many audience members of varying talent experience asked to be considered for performance spots. Both new and seasoned performers wanted to perform in this unusual setting where an attentive crowd was the norm.

In the reincarnation in Pittsburgh, our audience is less "performer-based" and more "spectator-based." We attract folks who appreciate live, performing talent and recognize the positive and restorative nature of sharing a live show with a positive message. 

Since resurrecting the show in 2016, we have performed the show at the Arcade Comedy Theater, the Spirit Lodge Ballroom, and several church spaces that double as performance spaces and have had all types and ages of audiences as we strive to make the content accessible to everyone.

My goal has always been to create a space that would foster unexpected things to happen—encouraging audience members to take a crack performing or even emceeing!

With the addition of improv comedy, many more unexpected things have happened. These magical moments are too numerous to mention and they stand out as the highlights of the show. Most significant for me personally was at a Mother's Day show when I sang a solo song for the audience that I have often sung for my mother in her years of illness. From the audience in the back of the room, a group of women vocalists who were also performing that night, joined in on the chorus in multiple harmonies to create a very powerful moment. I was blown away by the power of that unplanned and unexpected moment.

Past Performers
  • Joanna Newsom (songwriter & harpist)

  • Carrie Bradley (The Breeders fiddle player and founding member of Ed's Redeeming Qualities)

  • Jolie Holland (Be Good Tanyas)

  • Sherrie Flick (Pittsburgh author)

  • Sonny Smith (musician)

  • Beth Lisick (author)

How the Grilled Cheese Made Its Debut

A good friend and prominent member of the SF music scene, Jeff Stevenson, used to sometimes make and sell grilled cheese sandwiches on a hotplate at the popular SF Mission hang out--The Make Out Room (or was it the Latin American Club?). I LOVED the idea of selling grilled cheese during our show. I knew it would add a different flare--when people go into a room to see entertainment and there is someone cooking grilled cheese sandwiches, they know they're in for something special! It just made sense to have food at this show to help create the intimate, homey feel that I was looking for. It's also representative of me--who I am, what I value and what I wanted this show to feel like. It's hard to smell butter frying and not think warm and welcoming thoughts. There was no question that this element of the show would have to remain in Pittsburgh.


Alistair Spatz took on this role with a passion that has served him, our customers and the show. We get countless unsolicited praises that his grilled cheese sandwiches are the best that audience members have ever had! To date, in Pittsburgh alone, we've sold over 1000 grilled cheese sandwiches (including vegan and gluten free versions).

How it all Ended up in Pittsburgh at the Arcade Comedy Theater

I always knew I'd resurrect The Smallest Show in Town from its San Francisco roots. My wish to be closer to family and a growing interest in improv theater performance brought me to Pittsburgh. The addition of comedy to The Smallest Show experience seemed to complete it.

​Nick Stamatakis, a friend and co teacher, was often looking for new and experimental acts to perform at a program he was doing. I proposed our revamped format, Nick agreed, and we set a date. That first show was a big success to a full house at Arcade.


While the rebirth in Pittsburgh has been a success from the start, it has also been a slow and deliberate evolution in many ways. The show today is different from our first show in 2016. Having committed to a consistent program schedule the third Saturday of each month (see Shows & Tickets), we intend to continue to evolve to our greatest potential as we continue to crystallize our format and grow the show in 2018 and beyond. We hope to see you there!

Articles, S.F. Shows
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