Take A Walk on the Wild Side!

July 28, 2012

Review of walk with Will Woods and Aaron Chapman.

It was an awkwardly warm but grey Saturday morning when I pulled up on my bike to meet the group of morning walkers after losing my way to Granville St. (for Vancouverites, this is an embarrassing mistake to admit), just in time for the beginning of our walk with Will Woods (Forbidden Vancouver) and Aaron Chapman (historian and musician). We met at the Orpheum Theatre where Will introduced the collaboration between Artists Walking Home (Director Catherine Pulkinghorn had invited Will to join her in providing walks on Granville Street this Summer), Viva! Vancouver and Forbidden Vancouver. Our first course of action was to cross the street for a better vantage point of The Orpheum, which, with its glorious facade on Granville St., is what Will described as the perfect example of penny pinching architecture. While the original building entrance was located on Granville St., the prime street of the entertainment district, the 3000-seater theatre extends all the way onto Seymour St. – a much cheaper piece of real estate, both when the theatre was built, and now. Talk about brilliant planning! I learned on a walk with Catherine that the two additional entrances were eventually ordered by a fire marshal to avoid any disasters during emergencies.

We began by discussing the history of performance and theatre, starting with Vaudeville. Prior to 1880, Vaudeville, otherwise known as variety shows, used to be gaudy and lure, catering shows to men, allowing drinking, rude and offensive slanders on stage. After the 1880s however, theatres began to incorporate families, bringing forth the end of drinking in the theatres. Will asked for a few volunteers from the crowd to hold up some old images pertaining to the entertainment field of the 1900s. One of the images hosted an advertisement for a Minstrel Show; a highly racist act where white actors painted their faces black and made cruel and naive impersonations of black people as a form of entertainment. Will noted it was odd, how this form of ‘entertainment’ was once appropriate, and yet ironically saying words like “hell,” and “damn,” on stage were strictly forbidden. It is odd and highly disconcerting to reflect that only a hundred years ago, explicit racism was regarded as a family-oriented act. Of course, on the other hand, I can take solace in the fact that a hundred years later we see an active reversal and attempts to diminish racism. In 1927 when Vaudeville was being replaced by none other than sound film, Orpheum Theatre architect B. Marcus Priteca knew that he was no longer designing a theatre for Vaudeville, but rather for film viewing. Granville St. transformed into “Theatre Road,” with the Orpheum being the largest – in fact, there were two Orpheums at one point! The Theatre Road era lasted until the 1970s. Eventually, movie theatres began to open up everywhere, marking a change in attitude towards Granville St. as a key entertainment hub for the region – it was no longer necessary to travel all the way from Richmond or Burnaby to Downtown Vancouver in order to see a movie. Though many theatres were destroyed, there were campaigns to save the Orpheum. Eventually, the City of Vancouver bought it, along with the Playhouse and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. I love witnessing the remnants of these flashy, fluorescent, high entertainment periods of Vancouver; both on Granville and Hastings Streets, you can find these beautiful ghosts of the past, despite the transformation of recent years.

Aaron walked us to an alleyway just between Granville and Seymour on Smithe, named Ackery Alley after the Orpheum Theatre manager Ivan Ackery. Although rarely anyone knows the name of the alleyway, the space has seen some of Vancouver’s largest celebrity populations! Ackery’s Alley used to offer refuge for celebrities, as Ackery would smuggle them in and out through the alley, allowing them to avoid autograph and paparazzi hounds. For this reason, tour buses make their way on this route to denote this piece of history. While the alley isn’t named on a map, Aaron diverted our attention to a tin sign denoting the alleyway. It had never even occurred to me that alleyways had names here of their own. It looked, as far as alleyways go, like your average garbage decor with a touch of vertigo; yet when Aaron explained that, up until very recently, this alleyway was home to hundreds of well-fed street rats, I appreciated just how much more sanitary it is now. The Orpheum Theatre was once known for its advertising gimmicks – one time, they brought a live bull onto the street to claim that their movies were “no bull.” Aaron explained that since the actors had performed their acts so many times, they knew exactly when and how long to pause for to account for laughter from the audience; this practice ended up translating into the movies, allowing movie viewers laughing time as well!

Moving over to the primary focus of the walk, we walked back onto Granville St. to discuss the Vogue Theatre. Built in 1941, it is a national historic site. Will explained the Art Deco style birthed from the interwar period that ended up influencing all designs – a response to austerity and hardships of the First World War. Other Art Deco architecture in Vancouver includes the City Hall, and the Marine Building – the latter of which is heralded as Canada’s finest Art Deco building. Will commented that he personally prefers the Vogue Theatre, as it embodies the personality of Art Deco. In the 1920s the world witnessed a mass transformation of transportation; the creation and distribution of the automobile, cruise liners, etc. allowed people to get to places faster than they had ever been able to before. Of course, this had its domino effect on design – even buildings began to be designed to resemble cars! We stood to observe the Vogue Theatre’s sisterhood appearance to the automobile. Tall and symmetrical, Will alluded to the face of a car metaphorically present in the facade. The one element missing – the headlamps – used to exist in the form of spotlights, but have since been removed. At the very top of the neon sign (one of the few real neon signs remaining in Vancouver) sits the Roman Goddess Diana, who represents hunting, wild animals, the moon, childbirth, women, and wicans. So many attributes to this one Goddess, and yet, we are not quite certain why she is there on The Vogue! This is not the first time in my experience as an Artists Walking Home intern that we have made note of an artistic decor that has either gone by unexplained or miscommunicated. Certainly the use of a Roman Goddess pays homage to the large columns embodying Roman architecture in the Vogue pylons. It’s interesting to see an architectural conglomeration of these two vastly opposing yet complementary styles – the stiff and stoic Roman columns denoting a great era of human accomplishment, and the rapidly evolving fast-paced technological boom both causing and propelled by the automobile. As a prior resident of the West End and four year Vancouverite, I have spent some time on Granville St., and yet walks this summer have painted a new internal reflection for me on the history of the area and its architecture. In the late 1950s, the Vancouver International Film Festival began here at the Vogue. The Vogue Theatre was also once in danger of being shut down – for a short while, they had publicized a potential kitchen on stage with the intention of running a supper club for high-end clientele. While this got a lot of press, they decided against it in the end. For the last 20 years it has been used primarily as a music venue, despite its deep history as a movie theatre.

We then crossed Granville, a temporary pedestrian-only street for the weekends, courtesy of Viva! Vancouver, to go inside The Vogue Theatre. There we witnessed a beautiful and mysteriously dark interior – deep red and gold carpets with large circular patterning, round indented light fixtures in the ceiling, an old fashioned bar, dark wood railing and stunning old typography on off-white signposts labeling each room. I found myself quite enamoured with the interior, and yet I still felt an emotional reservation as a result of the dim lighting and historic aura. Plunging straight into this indulgence of fear, we began discussing the supposed supernatural history of the Vogue Theatre; regarded as one of the more haunted venues in Vancouver, we revelled in first hand stories from Aaron and the ex-house Manager and tour-participant Bill, followed by quite a handful of second-hand stories from each of them! While many of the witnesses had no relation to one another, and little-to-no means of communicating, the descriptions of an apparition have each been surprisingly consistent and attributed to one single being – a thin male with a stern face, dressed in white. Visits from this spirited individual have ranged from disembodied whispers (“be careful, be careful, be careful, be careful…!”), to full body appearances. In 1997, they brought in a spirit medium, who had sensed a tragic stage accident; general sightings have helped determine that the ghost, assuming it was an individual spirit, had worked there as staff. Although I am not quite certain if I am sold on its existence, I definitely enjoyed listening to the stories and clinging on to the slight chance that a translucent being had once stood where I now stand. My favourite piece of information was that the corridor below the stage, itself an eerie place with adjacent rooms filled with mirrors and dimmed makeup lights, was dubbed the Ghost Highway for its high rate of non-corporeal appearances.

Following this haunting walk we moved on towards our final destination on Seymour Street: the Penthouse Night Club. Seymour Street, currently a residential street peppered with some late-night prostitution, has changed tremendously over the years – with the exception of the Penthouse. Its resilience has survived every attempt of closure, including the police, fires, and architects hoping to reclaim this building set on CPR property. In the early 1930s the Filippone family moved into the building adjacent to the Penthouse, where they ran a delivery and trucking business. Two of the four sons were eager to start a business together, so they purchased the land on the building where the Penthouse currently stands on the corner of Seymour and Nelson. Initially built for a cab, tax and delivery company, they strove to turn it into a community centre. Back in 1941, they offered boxing during the day! This was all at a time when BC had severely restrictive liquor laws; so the Filippone brothers began an after hours club (with no business license.) Until July 1946, they managed to pull the place off as a “home parties by donation” venue. When the Vancouver Police Department staged a raid and found fifty bottles of whiskey and thrice that amount of beer, they were hit up with bootleg charges and further scrutiny. The Penthouse management learned to adapt to all of these curve balls.

Between 1950 and 1968, the Penthouse, much like the Commodore Ballroom, simply operated without a liquor license by implementing a bring-your-own-booze policy, allowing clients to purchase overpriced soda and ice. Even though the VPD often staged raids, the Filippone brothers placed spotters on the rooftop to notify those inside, and installed grooves under their tables disguised as spots for ladies purses, in which to hide liquor. The Penthouse became an attraction point for celebrities for the booze as well. Surprisingly, Louis Armstrong came in here one time – to cook Italian food in a chef’s hat. As Aaron aptly mentioned, this would have been a remarkable photograph to behold! The Penthouse has historically been “remarkably colourblind” – while Vancouver at this time had very few photos of cross cultural gatherings, the Penthouse was a vastly liberal organization.

By the 1970s, the Penthouse had earned its name as the centre for prostitution. While prior to this prostitution had been vastly confined to hotel lounges and nightclubs, the Penthouse hosted approximately a hundred prostitutes in a Madmen-style era full of smoking, music and booze. The Filippone brothers were not pimps, but they did welcome everyone, from City of Vancouver officials to diamond thieves, pimps and drug dealers. Chief of the VPD Don Winterton placed Inspector Vic Lake in charge of the task force to eradicate prostitution in Vancouver, who put his focus on the Penthouse; unmarked police cars began photographing entries. The Police had determined that the family had been living off of the girls selling their bodies; they tapped the office phone, and eventually the payphone downstairs as well. Finally, after gathering enough evidence, they won the case to shut down the Penthouse in 1975. After three years, however, the Filippone brothers won an appeal, and re-opened the ever-resilient Penthouse. During the time of their closure, Aaron explained, prostitution poured out of the Penthouse and made its way to the streets of Vancouver, leading to quite an interesting turn of events – but for more amazing facts about the Penthouse and historical Vancouver, I would recommend looking into Aaron Chapman’s upcoming book, Liquor Lust and the Law.

After this plunge into the Vancouver’s darker history, we made our way to the last stop where we were each promised a surprise – a Canadian quarter! This did come as a confusing surprise, at first, until we were informed that at the very back of Movieland Arcade on Granville Street, we would find 25 cent peep shows of 1960s and ‘70s porn, playing on original film projectors – the last of their kind still functioning in North America! Unfortunately, I had forgotten my ID and felt too shy to go in. Suffice it to say, one day I will bring myself together to catch a minute’s worth of raunchy ‘70s pornography on outdated one-of-a-kind technology.

We had a fun and informative walk with Will and Aaron on Granville Street, and are, as part of Artists Walking Home, excited to be producing these events for the public.

Essay by Aska Djikia