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Heyl: Blawnox nightspots owner Moondog Esser shines on food bank as volunteer fundraiser |
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Heyl: Blawnox nightspots owner Moondog Esser shines on food bank as volunteer fundraiser

Since 1994, Ron Esser has helped the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank raise more than $2 million.

Moondog’s free time always is at a minimum.

For two decades, Ron “Moondog” Esser has juggled various duties as owner of two legendary Blawnox nightspots while coordinating the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s signature annual fundraiser.

Esser has helped raise $2 million for the food bank by organizing The Pittsburgh Blues Festival, but his story doesn’t end there. He spearheaded efforts that started similar events for food banks in Erie and Toledo.

That didn’t leave Esser many moments to devote to his 42-foot Friendship sloop, Momentum, which represented Maine in the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. So he moored it in Erie, where a program serving at-risk youths uses it for free.

“Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?” Esser, 56, said when asked why he is driven to charitable causes. “Aren’t we supposed to help the people who need help?”

Yes, but not everyone recognizes that, and not everyone is recognized by others for doing it. Esser, the proprietor of Moondog’s, the region’s best blues bar, and the Starlite Lounge, once spotlighted on the Food Network’s “Diner’s Drive-Ins and Dives” for its incredible pierogies, is an exception.

He will be recognized next week as the Association of Fundraising Professionals-Western Pennsylvania’s Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser at a dinner in the Sen. John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.

To Alyssa Jurewicz-Johns, the food bank’s director of community engagement, the honor is richly deserved.

“It’s absolutely fitting, and not just because of all the significant work he’s done for us,” she said. “Ron just wants to see healthy, strong communities. Anywhere he can help make that possible, he will. He’s fantastic.”

Esser became involved with the food bank in 1994, when a friend from his Point Park University days, local musician Phil Harris, approached him about lending a hand with the initial blues festival.

From its modest beginnings at Riverplex near Sandcastle water park, the festival bounced around at several locales before finding what has been its home since 2005 at Hartwood Acres in Indiana Township.

“The first few years weren’t really successful,” Esser recalled. “It took us a while to get our name out there and find an appropriate venue.”

It’s a testament to how successful the three-day, family-friendly festival became that food banks in Toledo and Erie reached out for assistance in organizing their own. Esser was happy to help.

He’s happy about the upcoming honor as well, but as usual he’s not taking the time to think about himself.

“When my mom died, people made donations in her honor to the food bank,” he said. “I’m still around, but I hope that when people who’ve enjoyed the blues festival see I’ve won this award, maybe they’ll decide to give the food bank something.”

E ric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7867 or [email protected].

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