The Penthouse Club has survived criminal charges, murder, and even the Internet. But can it survive neighbourhood improvement?
January 2, 2009
At the Penthouse Club, a dancer with the stage name Kate Hudson pivots around a brass pole in an all-white snow-bunny outfit-pleated miniskirt, tiny hooded sweatshirt, and leggings-to 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” The bar, with its casino-worthy red carpeting, its Dijon-coloured walls, and the vintage photos of patrons like Jimmy Durante and Max Baer, echoes the louche glamour of the past without falling into kitsch. The crowd, about a third women, is mainly in its 20s and includes a corn-fed dude from Oregon who hurls a loonie onstage before a waitress settles him down.
Rayelle-the wispy 28-year-old whose nom de pole originated from her passing resemblance to the Almost Famous star-first took up exotic dancing a decade ago. When she returned to the job in 2005 after a long-term relationship ended, she found Vancouver’s strip-bar landscape had shifted drastically. “There’s a lot less bars,” she notes. “Honestly, I think it has to do with the Internet. You can get so much more access there than what we’re providing.”
In its seventh decade of business, the Penthouse Club has seen liquor laws and societal norms pass like buses at rush hour. The Seymour Street institution went from being the only nudie bar in town to one of several dozen in the early 1990s, when Vancouver was often touted as the stripper capital of the world. Now, at a time when the city’s shedding strip clubs like, well, a dancer peeling off undergarments, the Penthouse survives by capitalizing on its colourful history for movie shoots and stag parties and by attracting the square-jawed, Axe-cologne-wearing revellers from nearby Granville.
“We’ve been able to thrive as one of the few remaining bars with stripping,” says owner Danny Filippone, 45, whose competition is down to the soon-to-be-closed Cecil around the corner, Brandi’s in the financial district, and the No. 5 Orange on Main. “When you’re downtown and you’re out with your girlfriend or your buddies and you want to go out for a drink and want something different, you go to the Penthouse.”
Danny’s grandfather Giuseppe purchased 1033 Seymour, the house next door to the Penthouse, in 1933, before acquiring the Penthouse’s eventual address five years later. The 1019 Seymour location was first used as a nightclub in 1947, and was managed by Filippone’s father, Ross, and uncles Mickey, Jimmy, and Joe. Before obtaining a liquor licence in 1952, the Penthouse operated as a bottle club, serving ice and mixers to patrons who brought their own booze. The live, nude entertainment came around 1970 in the form of Vegas-style burlesque acts and, eventually, raunchier fare.
Prostitution was once closely linked to the Penthouse. In the 1970s, the city closed the club after Danny Filippone’s father and Uncle Joe were charged with living off the avails of prostitution, a charge they eventually beat on appeal. (Joe was killed in a robbery in an office at the Penthouse in 1983.) “The Penthouse was known for its prostitution,” says Filippone, “and the truth is-I’ll tell you straight up-people would come here and get a girl.”
A gregarious, barrel-chested man with light hair and a ready smile, Filippone speaks about the past with a gimlet-eyed glint. In the office that once belonged to his father and that is covered with both show posters and portraits of his two boys’ soccer teams, he explains how, as a child, he would visit at night, entering through the kitchen and crossing the stage between performances. Later, when he was in Grade 10, a math teacher proudly flashed his Penthouse Club VIP pass at him. “Those Gold Cards were never charged for,” he says. “They were always earned.”
Danny Filippone worked with his father for over 20 years, until Ross died in 2007. For a number of years, he has been responsible for the club’s evolution. In 2001, the Penthouse, which had the dingy charm of a small-town legion hall, was gutted and rebuilt. “I could see that downtown was really starting to take shape, because there was a long time where the Granville Mall was pretty stagnant,” he says. “The Penthouse was becoming old, but what was becoming trendy was old.” The walls were repainted to their original colour, and the photos, many of which came from a stash discovered in Joe’s office, were restored and framed. The Penthouse took a half-step back to its nightclub roots, occasionally bringing in live music and magic shows, even as it served as a set for the CBC show Intelligence and the upcoming Halle Berry flick Frankie and Alice.
It’s been the movie producers who’ve insisted that the Penthouse retain the burgundy stucco exterior. “It’s one of the biggest arguments I have with my wife,” says Filippone, who’s dressed in dark jeans and an embroidered black shirt. “We fixed up the inside of the bar, but when people drive by they think it’s the same place.” Renovations like Roman columns are still being planned, but Filippone insists the club will keep its marquee-the name emblazoned in neon lettering under a cityscape lost to history.
Since the 2001 renovation, Filippone has also kept the Penthouse away from the seedier aspects of stripping. The hookers are long gone, and although the club offers private dances, the dancers must keep three feet away from patrons. “You can send your boyfriend out on a stag and know nothing bad’s going to happen,” says Rayelle, who dances at the Penthouse every fourth week between stints at clubs in Surrey and Chilliwack. “But he’s going to have
a great time.”
A large part of the club’s success is also due to the reemergence of the Granville Street entertainment district, where restaurants and nightclubs are overtaking the porn shops and pawn brokers. Charles Gauthier, executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, attributes the area’s transformation to both civic policy and economics. “City hall placed restrictions on pawn shops and adult bookstores,” he says. Nearby establishments that leased their property, like nightclub Richard’s on Richards and massage parlour Madame Cleo’s, have seen the ground sold from under them.
Gauthier, who’s quick to say he’s never visited the Penthouse, remains skeptical about its future. “I know a lot of people thought the Cecil would be there forever,” he says about the rival club that’s becoming a condo tower. “It’s the nature of development pressures.”
Filippone runs the Penthouse with family, which includes his mother and two siblings. “I’m not obligated, but delighted,” he says about being responsible for his family’s legacy. “I feel it would be a shame to let all the work that my dad and my uncles put in to make the Penthouse go to waste.”
The family recently sold a nearby parking lot for development, and Filippone says that he’s been offered millions for the Penthouse land. “I’m not silly. I look at every offer.” He admits he’s still struggling with his father’s death, “but in the past two or three years, our business has never been better.”
The club is eager to welcome new visitors, but Filippone insists there’s still a place for the regulars. “There are customers who’ve been coming here for literally 40 years,” he says. “There’s one guy who comes in with his housecoat and slippers on, with his personal limousine out front. For a lot of people, this is their spot, was their spot, and will always be their spot.”