Increasingly forested by glass towers and
modern developments, Vancouver isn’t good at hanging on to its history. But one
racy new tour aims to shine a light on the not-too-distant past by taking
visitors behind the curtain at downtown’s infamous Penthouse strip club.
Opened in 1947, stars such as singing
legend Frank Sinatra and actor Errol Flynn used to party at the glitzy venue.
But when the golden age of glamour clubs began to fade
in the 1960s, the Penthouse descended into liquor
raids, vice squad visits and the 1983 gunshot murder of owner Joe Philliponi,
known as the “Godfather of Seymour Street” after the club’s city centre
While contemporaneous Vancouver clubs have
long since closed, the Penthouse – still run by the Italian-Canadian family
that started it – has endured. And according to author Aaron Chapman, it now acts
as a time capsule link to a period that intrigues many history-loving locals.
“There’s an appetite for Vancouver
heritage right now and I think it’s because the city is changing before our
eyes,” said Chapman, whose book Liquor, Lust, and the
Law: The Story of the Legendary Penthouse Nightclub triggered the creation of the Secrets of the Penthouse tour.
For 38 Canadian dollars – which covers the
tour plus a buffet dinner and a burlesque show by local
troupe, Cabaret Torlage – Chapman and Penthouse owner Danny Filippone serve
juicy tidbits from the club’s past as they walk groups through the venue. It
was a time when patrons hid drinks in paper bags (the club belatedly received
its liquor license in 1968) and the family illegally ran booze around the city
in taxi cabs.
The tour takes in the disused Green Room,
where Rat Pack crooner Sammy Davis Jr hung out and even slept over one night, and
the labyrinthine upstairs area where the piano from the club’s former Steak
Loft restaurant remains. Jazz musicians Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson once
tickled its keys at a time when many other Vancouver venues barred black
“Imagine yourself stepping back into the
past,” Filippone said as he led groups past a faded poster of burlesque legend
Big Fannie Annie and into the main bar and stage area. Here, the walls are
studded with signed photos of Penthouse guests including Sinatra, American
boxer Joe Louis and Brazilian singer Carmen Miranda.
“There are hardly any places in Vancouver
with this kind of link to the past – especially one that includes bootlegging,
strippers and a murder trial,” Chapman said. “But it’s because Vancouver
is transforming so quickly that a strip club of all places can attract people
with an interest in local history.”
The event, which runs on the first
Thursday of the month, is organised by history-themed operator Forbidden Vancouver, which also runs additional
guided tours around the city. Ticket are bookable online.
John Lee is the Vancouver Localite
for BBC Travel