It wasn’t always about the strippers. . . .

DSCN1434Despite the fact that I see the place practically every time I look out my apartment window, I’d never really paid much attention to the Penthouse Night Club (website NSFW, as you might guess) at Seymour and Nelson.

I mean, sure, they occasionally have billboards which are pretty entertaining, in sort of a giggly, junior high school, they’re talking about strippers kind of way, and I never really had any reason to doubt the “Founded in 1947” sign, but, honestly, the other sign which reads “Live entertainment nightly since 1947” never led me to think of any entertainment other than the clothes-peeling variety.

It turns out I was wrong.

Earlier this week I was thumbing through the pages of Backstage Vancouver, a pictorial history of Vancouver’s entertainment industry, when I found some surprising mentions of my neighbourhood’s saucy magenta-coloured landmark.

Before its incarnation as a cabaret, the Penthouse Night Club was originally an after-hours club, also known as a “bottle club.” The book authors quote Vancouver Sun columnist Denny Boyd, saying, “If, for example, a nightclub comedian finished up at one or two o’clock in the morning [presumably the time when liquor sales all over the city were required to cease], they could go to the Penthouse, get a bottle of bootleg hooch and a pretty good steak.” The Penthouse was also the home of Vancouver’s first authentic pizza oven.

And live entertainment was a constant feature. The club hosted, both as clientele and as paid entertainers, such names as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, and Mitzi Gaynor. Not a small-time establishment, by any stretch of the imagination. (See the Penthouse website’s photo section for photos of some of their other famous visitors, NSFW because they unfortunately choose to display photos of their more recent entertainers on the same page).

BackstageVancouver.jpgOver time, as the club evolved, the city’s higher class, or “high track,” prostitutes began doing business there rather than on the streets. The club’s wealthy clientele and late night hours proved to be a perfect combination for the escorts. However, the Vancouver police department was determined to break up the operation, which they finally succeeded in doing during a high profile raid and subsequent trial in 1975 and 1976. The case, according to John Bermingham’s article in Discover Vancouver, accused Penthouse owner Joe Philliponi of “running a common bawdy house,” and resulted in the club’s closure for a two year period and forced the prostitutes who had worked the club to onto the streets once more – one of the reasons the Seymour and Nelson intersection is a well-known prostitution location even now. (See more information about the area on the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver website, safe for work, at least that page.)

According to Backstage Vancouver, once the big ticket entertainers no longer frequented the club, and the prostitutes were all gone, the club’s business began to suffer terribly, so the Penthouse started hiring strippers as entertainment to keep the people coming in. In 1983, in what various accounts describe either as a robbery or possibly a mafia hit, Philliponi was shot execution-style in his club, and after his death, the transition of a once mighty Vancouver nightlife landmark to run-of-the-mill strip club was more or less complete.

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