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Gender + Sexuality

Ten Legends of Vancouver's Penthouse Nightclub

TYEE LIST #29: New book chronicles one sensational family business.

Aaron Chapman 8 Dec

Aaron Chapman is a writer, historian, and musician with a special interest in Vancouver's entertainment and crime history. Liquor, Lust, and the Law is his first book.

[Editor's note: Those who've lived in Vancouver for a time no doubt have crossed paths with the Penthouse Nightclub, with its boxy sign and neon green lettering. Few may know of the Seymour St. club's storied past, and the Family Filippone behind it all. In a new book, Liquor, Lust, and the Law, Aaron Chapman collects some of those stories. It started over five years ago, when Chapman was commissioned to write about the nightclub's 60th anniversary for the Vancouver Courier. After the story was published, Danny Filippone, the son of one of the Penthouse's founding brothers, Ross, said he and his father agreed it was the best, most accurate article about the club ever written. Chapman followed with a book, out now from Arsenal Pulp Press. We asked Chapman to summarize some of the Penthouse's legends from his book, and share them below.]

1. The Family Do-good: The Filippone family bought the land the Penthouse sits on in 1941, and began building the building that still exists there today. What originally housed the operations for their trucking and taxi business also found space for their Eagle Time Athletic Club, turning the building into somewhat of a community centre for over 500 local kids, with the Filippones sponsoring boxing, soccer teams, and baseball. The club already had its own boxing star with Jimmy Filippone a two time B.C. Golden Gloves champion. After the Second World War, in 1947 the Filippones began to expand the building and the business into what would eventually become the nightclub.

2. Satchmo and the sauce: While places like the Hotel Vancouver refused black entertainers such as jazz musician Louis Armstrong accommodations, the Filippone family not only booked black American musicians as entertainment, but also housed them. Sammy Davis Jr. performed at the Penthouse and stayed at the family home next door. In 1950, fresh from his set at Burrard Street's Palomar Ballroom, Louis Armstrong and his band headed to the Penthouse. Patrons in attendance that evening were delighted by impromptu performances and jam sessions by the group, who drank and socialized with customers. Some recall Armstrong mysteriously disappearing, and whispers that he was misbehaving with something or somebody in one of the upstairs rooms persisted for years. Like many things with the Penthouse, the truth is stranger than fiction. As Penthouse co-founder Ross Filippone explains in the book, "Louis really loved Italian food. He came in hungry and went to our kitchen, put on an apron, even a chef's hat and starting making his own spaghetti sauce, pushing our cook out of the way. It was really comical. The chef was standing there with nothing to do while Louis was stirring the sauce. What are you going to do, push Satchmo out of the way?"

582px version of Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald stops by the club. Photo courtesy of Danny Filippone and the Penthouse.

3. Chairman of the board: In 1957, at the end of Frank Sinatra's final encore at his sold-out show one night at the Orpheum Theatre, Sinatra announced from the stage, "That's it everybody, see you all at the Penthouse!" The audience rushed out of the Orpheum and down Seymour Street where a line quickly overflowed down the block bending over to Granville Street. Ross and Mickey Filippone had to sneak him through the back exit, where once inside he drank and socialized with club patrons. "I just wish he'd [turned up] on a slow night," said Ross Filippone. "We were already busy that evening."'

4. What does a guy have to do to get a drink around here?: Complainers who've critically dubbed Vancouver "No Fun City" should perhaps take a closer look at history. With no bars with liquor licenses as we know them today, the clubs and ballrooms of old Vancouver nightlife forced customers to brown bag their own alcohol. Drinking was relegated to beer parlours, which were dank, depressing places that served stale beer with a clinical joylessness. The beer halls could not have any music or entertainment, no radio or television, dancing or singing, and patrons couldn't belly up to the bar but were forced to sit down at a table and do little else but drink. Those out on the town with friends in nightclubs or to see performances were subject to the Vancouver police dry squad, who raided clubs and fined people for drinking inside all but private residences. Nightclubs like the Penthouse often had tables with hideaway drawers or pegs where bottles could be stashed. Was all of this in the roaring '20s of the Prohibition years? Nope. Outside of a small minority of hotel lounges, this was the atmosphere of Vancouver nightlife up until 1968. The same year the Penthouse got its liquor license.

5. A blackmailer's dream: Through the early 1970s, the party at the Penthouse was like nothing Vancouver has seen before or since. Cabs lined the street picking up and dropping off patrons at night to see shows and attend the infamous "Steak Loft" restaurant upstairs, and a litany of salesmen in town for a night blew their expense accounts on some entertainment that wasn't listed on the menu. For the last few decades Vancouver prostitution has been relegated to certain street corners, but in the 1970s it was not uncommon to find high-class prostitutes working out of hotel lounges and nightclubs. The Penthouse was just one such club where women plied their trade, but it was the best known and most targeted by Vancouver police. By the summer of 1975, with the Vancouver vice squad mistakenly convinced that the Penthouse owners were pimps, the squad bugged the business telephones and pay phone inside the club, stationed a van across the street, and took photos of everyone who came in and out. There were rumors that city council members, stockbrokers, provincial politicians, to Supreme Court judges were photographed, as the tape recorders captured phone calls that discussed gambling and money deals. One police officer said the growing file was "a blackmailer's dream." The police department classified many of the photographs, and whatever happened to them after all these years is described in Liquor, Lust and The Law. You'll have to read the book to find out!

6. Order in the court? During the 1976 trial of the Penthouse nightclub owners, the Filippones solicited the counsel of legendary Vancouver lawyer Russ Chamberlain. Chamberlain, then just 34 years old, fought the prosecutor and judge with headline-making vigor of his own. In his most dramatic move, while trying to explain the complex layout of various rooms within the Penthouse building, he suggested to the judge that the court adjourn to the Penthouse itself. The judge agreed, and 30 minutes later, escorted by two sheriff's deputies, the judge arrived with a clerk. Newspaper photographers captured the scene at the Penthouse front door, which ran in the next day's papers with the inevitable headline "Here Come The Judge." It was the only time in British Columbia's legal history that a portion of the proceedings took place in an exotic nightclub.

7. Bottle of Evermore: In addition to a wealth of Penthouse photo archives, many of which are printed for the first time in the book along with police files and city archive material, I was also given the Filippone family scrapbook of archives, which included dossiers of notes and old business records. In it I found a list of the famous personalities and entertainers who'd come to the Penthouse that Joe Philliponi had written. I discovered a note that Led Zeppelin had dropped into the Penthouse after one of their shows in town. Joe -- who was more of a fan of jazz and big band music like Les Brown and His Band of Renown -- probably wasn't sure who Led Zeppelin was. To a big old Italian like him in the early '70s the band was probably just a bunch of British longhairs that somebody in the bar told him was a big deal. He probably shook hands, bought drinks, and showed them a good time anyway. One can only imagine what it would have been like to be in the room that night, and what sort of trouble they got into!

8. The godfather of Seymour Street: With the legal troubles behind them and Expo '86 on the horizon, the future looked bright for the Penthouse in the 1980s, but it all went wrong on Sept. 18, 1983 when owner Joe was shot and killed in a bungled robbery attempt by two down-and-out lowlifes dreaming of the score of a lifetime when they attempted to rob the Penthouse safe. On Sept. 22, Vancouver saw one of its largest funerals when more than 800 people attended the funeral for Joe, who the press dubbed "The Godfather of Seymour Street."

9. The next generation: The memories of his father and uncles loom large for Ross's son Danny Filippone today, who's managed the club since the 1980s. Danny has successfully run the Penthouse without nearly any of the same hassle or tragedy that affected his forebears, though in November 2011 an early morning fire threatened to destroy the building. Danny has put his own stamp on the club. While the pictures of his father and uncles with Joe Louis, Gary Cooper, Harry Belafonte, and Victor Borge still hang up in the Penthouse, Danny has his own ever-growing wall of famous actors, musicians and athletes who stop by, from Halle Berry to Michael Stipe to Alex Zinardi. "Bruce Springsteen guitarist Lil' Steven Van Zandt came in on a night off just to get up on the club's stage and look out, saying he'd heard the stories and just wanted to stand on its stage," Danny says. (A sidenote: Danny Filippone and I presented Little Steven with a copy of the book when Springsteen was in town recently.)

10. Still the city's oldest stationary funhouse: The Province entertainment editor called the Penthouse "the city's oldest stationary funhouse" in 1968, when the club was just over 20 years old. The Penthouse marks its 66th anniversary next year, despite its history of everything and everyone from city hall, the police, family tragedy, the developers' wrecking ball, and even a fire trying to bring it down. It doesn't look like there's going to be last call on Seymour Street anytime soon.  [Tyee]

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