Inside The Penthouse: The good, the bad and the really, really interesting

A look back at the history of Vancouver’s most interesting strip club

March 2, 2016

By Max Fawcett

In a city where history is so often a casualty of economic development and urban densification, a rickety old building on Seymour that’s best known for selling lap dances and cheap beer has somehow managed to survive. That’s in part because that building is about a lot more than that, and in his 2013 book Liquor, Lust, and the Law writer Aaron Chapman catalogues the history of Vancouver’s most notorious cultural institution. It featured entertainers like Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington, played host to celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Errol Flynn, and always lived right on the edge of right and wrong—a line that its patrons would transgress from time to time. But the Penthouse wasn’t just a place where people could transgress the moral and ethical codes of their day, although that’s certainly why many people went there. It was also a vehicle for social justice and a venue for progressive attitudes and behaviours, and it still serves as a living monument to that history.

We wanted to know more about that history, so we tracked Chapman down and asked him a few questions about Vancouver’s favourite den of iniquity.

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What’s your first memory of the Penthouse?

My first memory of it was when I came home from school in September 1983 and saw the news about the shooting of Joe Filippone. I remember seeing my father react to it, that he knew Joe—my father was a lawyer who had done some real estate work for the family. But all I recognized at that young age, especially the tenor in the way that the news was portrayed back then with them calling Joe the godfather of Seymour Street, was that it was a mafia hit. And I thought, “Jeez… my dad knows mafia people?” This was not too far removed from when The Godfather and that wave of movies had come out, so that was a huge story in the news back then and it went on for a few days in the papers. I don’t know if there’s been a comparable story like that in Vancouver since then. The Filippone family was already a little notorious then, but that sealed the deal.

I was never necessarily a regular at the Penthouse, but I was walking down the street one day and I saw the sign that says “Established 1947” or whatever it says on the side of the building. This was in 2006 that I noticed that—one of the many times I’d probably walked past the Penthouse and didn’t notice it—and I thought it would be interesting to have a look back on the history of the Penthouse. I did a piece in the Vancouver Courier on that then, and the book sprang from that later on.

For those of us who grew up in Vancouver and only really knew it as a place where people got paid to take their clothes off, what do we need to know about its history? What did we miss?

It’s very easy to go by that odd-looking building on Seymour and wonder what it’s all about. The 1980s and 1990s were sort of a heyday in Vancouver for strip bars, and while a lot of other places went and installed showers and things like that the Penthouse maintained this kind of old-world thing where they weren’t following those trends. As a result, there were probably a few years there where it kind of lost its luster. Back in the day, though, it was a place where people would dress to the nines to go to and see bands and comedians and things like that before the strippers happened. And it was a place, because it was open late, where a lot of show business people, when they were in town, would go.

Time and time again, when I did research for the book and made connections to people who were working in the Vancouver jazz scene in the 1950s and 1960s, they told me about how a lot of the black entertainers from the United States who would come up to Vancouver. This wasn’t Mississippi, and we had different attitudes back then, but it wasn’t exactly one big happy family either. There were plenty of other racial biases here. And when Louis Armstrong first came to Vancouver, he was denied a room at the Hotel Vancouver because he was black. It was people like the Filippones who would call down there and tell them to give their friend Louis a room. They sometimes played up their own definitions of how other people saw them, and maybe played up that mafia thing to intimidate people—for a good cause.

The Filippones were some of the first concert promoters bringing in these acts. But in other parts of Vancouver where they were playing, they were meant to do their show and go back to their dressing room—no mingling with the crowd or trying to pick up local women or fraternizing with people. In some places, there was a very strong delineation—yes, we love your music, but you can stay in the dressing room. But at the Penthouse, the Filippones were saying that once they were done their show they wanted them to come down and meet the mayor or their friend who was a truck driver. Those entertainers would be mixing with the crowd, and you’d come in to have dinner at the Penthouse and you’d be sitting next to a famous jazz personality or a famous musician or actor. They were really made to feel very welcome, where in other places they may not have been—even here in Vancouver. That’s some of the interesting background that often gets overlooked when you talk about the Penthouse.

And there were some interesting dividends from that. After seeing a show at the Orpheum, you’d go have dinner at the Penthouse and the band would be there. You’d be able to have a drink with them, hang out with them, and maybe they’d be playing some music—the kind of music that they liked. Whereas an act like Louis Armstrong might be doing something like “Hello Dolly” or whatever else was the hit of the day, they wouldn’t be playing that after hours. They’d be playing real New Orleans jazz that you wouldn’t have a chance to hear anywhere within a 4,000-mile radius. There were a lot of special nights that were a product of the fact that the Filippones were very welcoming and very liberal people for the time.

That’s especially true with respect to their efforts to open up a lot of the liquor laws that were prevalent at the time. It’s very important to remember that Vancouver didn’t have liquor licenses, per se, until as late as 1968. There were a couple of cocktail lounges and there were beer parlours, and most often those were just in hotels and they were sad and dreary places where there was no music, no television, no darts, and no singing. You had to sit down and drink, and you couldn’t belly up to the bar. But at the Penthouse, even though it didn’t have a liquor license and whatnot, if you wanted to have a drink you could speak to the bartender about that and one would be produced. Of course, then there were liquor raids, and all this other stuff that went on until the late 1960s. But we take for granted in Vancouver how easy it is to go out, and there’s a lot more bars and selection. Back then—and that wasn’t really that long ago—it was a different time. The Penthouse was really on the vanguard of all that.

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Most of Vancouver’s old strip clubs have met the business end of a wrecking ball and been turned into condos, but the Penthouse has—thus far—managed to avoid that fate. How come?

I think it’s for two reasons. One, they’ve always tried to do something a little different than just the one thing. Sure, any night of the week you can go there and see dancers, but they do stuff for the comedy fest and the jazz fest, and they used to do New Music West shows. I was a musician and played a New Music West show there on the night that Marilyn Manson came in. So they’ve always done a few other things, and tried to showcase the history of the bar. A lot of people come in just to see the photos on the wall of the entertainers that have been there—Gary Cooper and Jim Backus and all these amazing names from American show business that came in back then.

But it’s also a lesson learned about numbers and math and the fact that they own that land and they own that building. When I did this interview with Ross Filippone for the book, he talked about remembering the bricks in the building going up in 1941. They bought that land for $1,400 back then. You can imagine how much it’s worth today. But the fact is that they’ve always had that as a base of operations and nobody’s been able to kick them off it. The family home is next door, that’s been their headquarters for several generations.

Is it fair to say that the Penthouse might be Vancouver’s longest-running family business?

I’d have to think it’s up there. Maybe there are some construction businesses or local hardware stores that have been run by the father and the son, but it must be up there. And that’s something that doesn’t get talked about that much. But the fact that there hasn’t been an occasion where another developer been able to come in and say ‘now that your lease is up, it’s time for you to go.’  At other nightclubs in Vancouver, from the Cave to the Starfish Room and Richards on Richards, that’s what happened. They [the landlords] simply said that when the lease is up, they were going to sell the land. But the fact that they [the Filippones] own that space has been the reason why they’ve endured—especially in Vancouver, where real estate has been so crazy in the last couple of decades.

What does it say about Vancouver that we seem to ignore the Penthouse’s contributions to our cultural history and the evolution of the city?

For many, many years, the history of this city as set by people in boardrooms and banks is what’s been discussed. We don’t hear much about the stories that have come up out of its night clubs. And that’s where people met an arguably much broader range of people. There’s a whole other history, and a cultural history, that’s revealed—especially at the Penthouse, where you had aldermen and judges and lawyers and businesspeople of the day mixing with safe crackers and show girls and everything else. You were bound to have sparks fly in a place like that.

In many ways, that’s just getting looked at now in our history—and there’s a very legitimate story there. We’ve done a very good job in Vancouver of bringing in the new, but we haven’t done a very good job of keeping the old. So often in Vancouver you talk about a story that happened somewhere, and it’s a place that’s not there any more. Some of the walking tours take you to a street corner and tell you what used to be there. What’s different with the Penthouse is that it’s still there. That’s the place where, in 1975, the police raided the place and arrested the Penthouse Six. That’s the place where Big Fanny Annie, the 300-pound stripper, did a show. The fact that it’s still there and you can go see it is important.

There are very few multigenerational places in Vancouver, where your parents and grandparents might have gone to and you can go to. You can go home on a Sunday night and say, ‘hey Dad, I was at the Penthouse the other night.’ And he can say, ‘jeez, when I was your age I went to the Penthouse as well,’ and your grandfather might pipe up and say ‘I met your grandmother at the Penthouse.’ We don’t have those places in Vancouver. Outside of the Penthouse, Stanley Park, the Orpheum, and the PNE, it’s a short list, because the city has turned itself over so much. There are streets and there are regions, but are there places that have lasted that long in Vancouver? Not many. You can count them on one hand.

The Filippones have reinvented the purpose of the Penthouse a number of times, but are they going to have to do it again? Is adult entertainment a viable business in 2016 with the Internet?

That’s probably a question that’s best for Danny Filippone, but who knows? In as much as you and I can see anything (and more) online, there’s still something to be said for going out and interacting with people in a space. You can look at tons of stuff on your phone, but you still can’t download that experience of going out and seeing it. Take music—the recording arm of the industry doesn’t wag the dog anymore. Now it’s the live section that’s doing that. People still want to go see something. Sometimes maybe that’s superficial, and they just want to take a selfie at the festival or the gig and show that they went there. But even that still shows the importance of experience and going out and seeing these places yourself and seeing them with your own eyes. In terms of what’s going to happen next at the Penthouse? I don’t know. But I know their business has never been better down there, in a way—and that’s fun to hear.

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In conjunction with Forbidden Vancouver, you do a tour called “Secrets of the Penthouse”.  What’s someone going to learn when they go on your tour that they might not expect to?

The Secrets of the Penthouse tours are great because Danny Filipone talks about working in that bar since he was a teenager. Usually, we have a retired member of the Vancouver Police Department come down and tell their side of the story—the very guys that used to do surveillance on the place, or were involved in the liquor raids. It’s not me telling you their story—it’s actually from the people that lived it. And I chime in with some historical references to a few things. We also visit some of the upstairs rooms that are closed to the public and only get used for film shoots or TV things. And it’s a chance to tell those stories in a place where they actually happened. That’s a rare thing in Vancouver.

The next Forbidden Vancouver tour of the Penthouse takes place on April 27 at 6:30 and 7:45 p.m., and costs $49 per person ($39 if they’re Heritage Vancouver members).

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