Our 2018 Speaker Series is well underway, and the legendary tales about “Vancouver Noir,” or Vancouver’s salacious history of crime and corruption from the ’20s onward keep coming. On May 2, bestselling Vancouver author and historian Aaron Chapman captivated a standing room only audience with his presentation “The Penthouse Surveillance: Secret Documents Revealed.”
Chapman kicked things off by explaining how his research on the legendary nightclub has expanded since the publication of his 2012 book, “Liquor, Lust, and the Law: The Story of Vancouver’s Legendary Penthouse Nightclub.” In addition to a recent reprint with new information and photos, he received a call sometime a few months back, from our very own Museum Director, Rosslyn Shipp, who had found several police photobooks from the infamous Penthouse sting operation in the storage of the museum.
With a deft eye for Vancouver landmarks, Shipp recognized the famed location at 1019 Seymour Street in several of the photos and immediately called Chapman to let him know that there may be some excellent new evidence to add to his well-known documentation of the establishment. This was stunning news for Chapman, as he tried all avenues to find these photos when he wrote his book in 2012, but ended up empty-handed. In fact, back in 2012, fearing that all the photo evidence had been destroyed or lost, taking with it some of the greatest secrets in Vancouver’s history, he wrote: “For now, the photos might as well be in the bottom of Deep Creek with the ghost of John Eccles.”
Sure enough, when Chapman came to the museum to see the books and photos, he knew he had stumbled upon a goldmine of new information for his records. But, as he mused to the crowd, even for those who are not interested in the history of the Penthouse nightclub, the photos are fascinating just because of the “super fly ’70s clothing.”
The audience was not disappointed; Chapman made good on his word and shared many intriguing photos of the Penthouse, in addition to flamboyantly dressed prostitutes, the ‘Penthouse Six’ which included several members of the Filippone family, and of course, the many ‘Johns’ who frequented the establishment during the ‘70s. There were also notorious criminals like Eddie Cheese and John Eccles who were suspected to be the pimps and criminals running the show.
Chapman then dove into the rich history of The Penthouse throughout the century, beginning with its reputation from the ‘40s and onwards. For instance, in the ‘50s and ‘60s in addition to being a place where individuals could find women, it was also known as an establishment where people could drink illegally, thus skirting the strict drinking laws at the time.
One of the best parts of Chapman’s presentation was the inclusion of two very special guests, retired Detective George Barclay and Officer Grant MacDonald who were ‘on the beat’ during The Penthouse’s earlier years. In one recollection, Barclay coloured the establishment’s history vividly:
“We were usually 6 officers at the time, and we’d hit different clubs in town—rats’ nest types of clubs and we always had to hit The Penthouse which did not have a liquor license. So, everybody brought a bottle in, and in those days, it was husbands and wives, or husbands and wives and girlfriends, whatever turned your crank…most people were nice people…ordinary people and we weren’t there to get anyone—just to find the liquor.”
In fact, while performing ‘dry squad raids,’ he and his fellow officers would often give unsuspecting patrons a ‘pass.’
Barclay recalled: “One time I saw a bottle of rye under the table sitting beside a guy, and I said ‘That bottle isn’t yours, is it?’ and he replied, ‘Why of course it is’ and then I said, ‘No it’s not.” And he said, ‘Well why do you think I am drinking it?’… I then quietly told to him that having a bottle of liquor in a place that only had a restaurant license resulted in a 50-dollar fine, which in the ‘60s was a lot of money. He said that he might have about 50 bucks in his pocket, but that’s it. So, I said, ‘Let’s start over. That isn’t your bottle is it?’ and he said, ‘No officer, I’ve never seen that bottle before in my life!”
This story and many others filled the room with laughter, as the audience got a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of The Penthouse, and into of the lives of the officers who served at the time.
Chapman went on to discuss the evolution of prostitution in the city, and how The Penthouse played into it. As the demure restraint of the ‘60s dissipated, the freewheeling spirit of the ‘70s took over, creating an environment where prostitution became more prevalent and noticeable. This prostitution was all around The Penthouse as well as inside it. This led up to the famous sting operation which sought to confirm the VPD’s suspicions that The Penthouse was not just a place where prostitution could be found, but it was actually the source for it. Not only were there resident prostitutes at the club, but everyone from the club management to the cab companies were thought to be involved.
Vivid portraits of the many characters involved in the sting came to light too. For instance, Detective MacDonald recalled a 90-mile per hour chase of a ’58 Corvette on the Granville Street Bridge with John Eccles. This spurred a long and interesting relationship between the two men, with MacDonald musing, “We had a lot in common. We both liked fancy cars, we both were pilots…and he was a pretty interesting guy. If he had done half of the things he did in a positive way, he would have been an even more interesting guy.”
The audience also got to learn about the Filippone trial, which took place in 1975 after all the evidence from the Vancouver Police Department’s sting operation had been collected. As many now know, Joe, Ross and Mickey Filippone along with several employees, were named the ‘Penthouse Six,’ and eventually found guilty of trying to live off of the avails of prostitution among other things, but they appealed the case and ended up winning.
Arguably, it was the aftermath of the trial that inspired some of the most interesting dialogue between Chapman and his guests. For instance, they discussed the impact of the trial and appeal, which ended up closing The Penthouse down for three years and pushing prostitution on to the streets—something that many citizens complained about.
The sting also cost the city two million dollars, and many argued that it was a waste of time and resources as it didn’t change the prostitution issue drastically. However, Detective Barclay felt that many of the consequences of the trial were unintended and unforeseen, and at the end of the day, “the place was just getting out of hand and we had to do something.” He also added, “I have to say, the girls, what they put up with was unbelievable,” suggesting, perhaps, that they were the real victims of the whole operation.
As the presentation came to a close, Chapman highlighted the importance of Vancouver’s history with historic landmarks like The Penthouse. “I know people in Vancouver have this idea that the city doesn’t have a history because it’s so young and nothing savage happens, because you know, we are a nice place with beaches….But, hopefully, from hearing from these gentlemen alone, you realize what a colourful and wild criminal history we have in this city. It’s just as fascinating as other places like Los Angeles or Baltimore or New York.” We couldn’t agree more.
Don’t forget! On Wednesday, May 30, we have Professor of History and Co-author of “Vancouver Noir 1930-1960,” John Belshaw presenting for our Speaker Series. He’ll dish the dirt on what made the years from 1930 to 1960 so distinctive in our city, and why Vancouver Noir was necessary, and how there’s no going back. Book your tickets here, as seating is limited!