Owner Ron Esser, the ” Big Dog”, got his start in the music business managing the Graffiti Showcase Lounge in Pittsburgh for five years during the 1980s. Esser opened Moondog’s in 1990 next door to his family’s Starlite Lounge restaurant It is located at 378 Freeport Road on the main drag of the tiny 1,400 person mill town of Blawnox. Three miles North of Pittsburgh on the banks of the Allegheny River Blawnox was named after the town’s one time employer the Blaw-Knox Steel Company. Ron does everything at Moondog’s from booking the bands, cooking the food, stocking the beer coolers, bar tending, sound mixing, and sometimes singing. Esser also appeared on the Food Channel show “Diner, Drive-ins, and Dives” cooking perogies at the Starlight Lounge.
The giant dog bone sign above the sidewalk calls attention to Moondog’s. Inside, there is a large oval shaped bar on the left, tables on the right, and a deep floor level stage in the back. The room holds about 150 people. The right side stage wall has a mural of musicians painted as dog caricatures including Koko Taylor, Jimmy Thackery, Joe Grushecky, Norman Nardini, Phil Harris, Ron the Moondog himself and his cat Puddin’. It was created by former bartender Leah Silverman.
The first national blues act that Ron booked in 1990 were the Nighthawks.
Ron “Moondog” Esser is an accidental fundraiser, like so many people who find themselves in this field. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh and has definitely made his mark on the city. A graduate of Point Park University, he began his career as a firefighter, then turned manager of the famous Graffiti Showcase in Oakland. From there he opened Moondog’s, famous for its national Blues acts, and then Starlite Lounge, which was highlighted on Diners, Drive-in & Dives for their amazing perogies. In 2005 Moondogs was honored with the “Keeping the Blues Alive Award” from the National Blues Foundation in Memphis, TN.
But more than just an ardent supporter of the Blues, Ron has led the fight against regional hunger since 1994 by overseeing and coordinating The Pittsburgh Blues Festival, the signature fundraising event for Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Ron’s altruistic efforts do not begin and end with the $2,000,000 he has helped to raise through this event. He has since lent his expertise and talents to help launch two additional large fundraisers for the Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank and the Erie Food Bank.
Ron is also the proud owner of the historic Friendship Sloop “Momentum” located in Erie, PA.
Momentum was built in Friendship, Maine and represented Maine at the 1964 World’s Fair in NYC. She has been in a national print advertisement for Kodak and was awarded the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence. Momentum now sails with families visiting children at local hospitals and anyone who would benefit from some time on the water, under sail.
While all of this keeps him pretty busy, Ron still finds the time to support many other local fundraisers including the Holy Family Parish, The Homeless Cat Shelter, the Blawnox Volunteer Fire Department, and many local people in need.
The Pittsburgh Blues Festival was founded in 1994 as a fund raiser for the Pittsburgh Community Foodbank. Musician and music critic Phil Harris asked Esser to join the festival committee in 1994. Ron has played a key role since 1994 booking the national and local artists. Over its 18 year history the weekend long festival has featured blues superstars Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Five Blind Boys from Alabama, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Koko Taylor, Luther Allison, Mavis Staples, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Charlie Musselwhite, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Charlie Musselwhite , Taj Mahal, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Los Lobos, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Southside Johnny, Canned Heat, the Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Thackery & the Drivers, Dickey Betts & Great Southern, the Elvin Bishop Band, Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, Leon Russell, and Albert Cummings.
During its early years the annual festival was held at the Riverplex at Sandcastle and the I.C. Light Amphitheater in Station Square on Pittsburgh’s South Side. It moved the Pittsburgh Brewing Company in 2001. Seeking a bigger venue that would attract families the festival moved to Hartwood Acres in 2005. The Pittsburgh Blues Festival has raised over $1.2 million to feed those in need.
*Article provided by: Pittsburgh Music History
Moondog’s, founded and managed by Ron Esser, has presented national and local blues and rock artists for over 20 years in its small intimate club setting. The National Blues Foundation honored Ron Esser with the “Keeping the Blues Alive” award in 2005. In addition to Moondog’s Ron has promoted and supported blues artists as a founder and booker of the annual Pittsburgh Blues Festival and by financing blues recordings on his Moondog Records label.
At Moondog’s, Pittsburghers have enjoyed the live performances of Susan Tedeschi, Keb’ Mo’, Derek Trucks, Koko Taylor, Luther Allison,Junior Wells, Jimmy Vaughn, Tommy Castro, the Nighthawks, Jimmy Thackery, Maria Muldaur, Pat Travers, Candy Kane, Ana Popovic, former Beatle Pete Best, Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, Walter Trout, Tinsley Ellis, Shemekia Copela, Lil Ed and the Imperials and Long John Hunter. Moondog’s has hosted several generations of Pittsburgh area musicians including Norman Nardini, Bill Toms, Guitar Zack, Glen Pavone, Billy Price, Gary Belloma and the Blue Bombers, Jill West and the Blues Attack, the Jimmy Alder Band, Patty Spadero, the SPUDS, Nieds Hotel Band, Good Brother Earl, Bill Deasy and many more.
Ron Esser founded Moondog Records to support Pittsburgh area musicians. He has financed the recordings of Norman Nardini, Bill Toms, Glenn Pavone and the Cyclones, Room to Move, Stone Soup, The Pawnbrokers, Gary Belloma & the Blues Bombers, Cheryl Ann Hawk and other artists. Moondog Records paid for studio time, CD manufacturing, and printing. The artists pay back the financing as the sell their CDs. In interviews Esser said that he does not make much money from the recording. His goal to help bands get their music heard by as many people as possible.
One of Moondog Records’ first releases was the self titled debut album of Paul Tabachneck’s band Stone Soup in 1997. Recorded by Rick Witkowski it featured Carol Lee Espy and Rusted Root percussionist Jim Dispirito. In 1998, Moondog Records released Norman Nardini’s “There Was A Time”. 8th Street Rox released their Sittin’ Pretty” album on Moondog in 1999 with guest players Rick Witkowski, Norman Nardini, and Bill Toms.
Glenn Pavone and the Cyclones released their two CDs on Moondog Records “Twist That” in 1996 and their last “Cyclones R.U.L.E.” in 2000.
Moondog Records released Bill Tom’s “My Own Eyes” in 1999, “This Old World” in October of 2001, his “West End Kid” CD in 2005, and “Live at Moondog’s” in 2010.. Norman Nardini’s “Redemption” CD was released in April 2004. The Little Wretches released the acoustic album “Unimarts, Pit Bulls + Karaoke Machines” that was recorded live at the Mattress Factory in 2005. The Blues Bombers recorded their 2006 Moondog release “Departures” at Rick Witkowski’s Studio L. The Boss Diablo band released their debut CD “Don’t Act Right” in May of 2006. Drummer Mark Stutso’s album “Rock My Soul” produced by Norman Nardini was released in 2008.+