By Sheena Koo
There aren’t many Vancouver establishments—without heritage designation—that remain standing these days. The Starfish Room, The Cave, The Ridge, Pantages Theatre along with countless others have all disappeared with the times, taking with them irreplaceable history and stories that will never get told.
All around the city, relics of swanky decades’ past have been replaced by sky-high glass condos or gentrified storefronts. Which is why it’s so remarkable that The Penthouse, a landmark strip club, has weathered so many highs and lows.
Located on prime real estate on 1019 Seymour Street, The Penthouse was known in its early years as an after-hours hangout for patrons and performers who wanted to carry on the party from other local clubs, such as The Cave, which closed earlier.
Even before it was officially a club, it had a reputation for great parties. Originally, it was a boxing club named Eagle Time Athletic Club. Owned by Joe Filippone, it served as a place for young boxers to practice during the day, but at night, would host large after-hour parties in the upstairs ‘penthouse’ section. These parties grew so popular and regular that Joe decided to move into the night club business legitimately, naming his establishment The Penthouse in a cheeky homage to its foundations.
The club was a joint venture by the Philliponi brothers, Joe, Jimmy, Ross and Mickey, and, once officially opened in 1947, quickly garnered a reputation as a ‘bottle club,’ or a place where men and women could grab a drink during the tight post-prohibition years. Later, in the ‘50s, it became a supper club, serving dinner as well—but still offered thirsty patrons liquor under the radar.
Welcoming famous performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis Junior, The Penthouse was also a hub for iconic music, entertainment and acts. With a mad men-esque atmosphere, cool jazz and beautiful women, it represented an era of glamour in Vancouver that doesn’t exist anymore, and for many, was the place to be seen or to rub shoulders with celebrities. It was even rumoured that Errol Flynn paid a visit on the night he passed away in Vancouver.
Though it was popular and hip, The Penthouse was also the target for frequent liquor raids due to the fact that it only garnered its liquor licence in 1968. Despite these visits, it managed to remain active and open—charming some of the VPD Dry Squad members along the way.
Last year, during The Vancouver Police Museum’s Speaker Series with author and historian Aaron Chapman, retired Detective George Barclay and Officer Grant MacDonald, two officers who served on the Dry Squad, recalled their Penthouse experiences, stating: “We were usually six 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,” said Barclay.
Yet, 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!’”
Despite these regular visits from the police, the club managed to thrive and stay open. Eventually, as burlesque dancing became mainstream in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, The Penthouse began offering this ‘exotic entertainment’ to patrons, officially segueing to stripping in the ‘80s. But there were many difficulties along the way. For instance, in the ‘70s, The Penthouse was the target of a police sting operation that sought to uncover illegal prostitution that was taking place in and around the club. This resulted in the Filippone trial, which took place in 1975.
After a long and arduous trial, verdict and successful appeal by the Filippone family, The Penthouse was allowed to carry on with business, but only after several years of being closed. The consequences of the sting operation still reverberate in the city today, spurring many differing views on whether it had a positive or negative impact, especially with regards to how it affected prostitutes and their safety.
Detective Barclay mentioned some of these effects last year, saying “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 decades passed, the intriguing and important history of The Penthouse might have disappeared with the times. But a fire almost destroyed the place in 2011 and, shortly after, Chapman, published a book about the iconic location, naming it Liquor, Lust and the Law: The Story of Vancouver’s Legendary Penthouse Nightclub.
A touching homage to the legacy of the place, the book encouraged a wealth of local interest into the history of The Penthouse, spawning guided tours and, more importantly, a changed public perception about the establishment as an integral part of the city’s heritage.
Still going strong, The Penthouse is a rare testament to longevity and persistence in Vancouver. A sight that we don’t see often these days with the onslaught of development and construction—many hope that it will last for many more decades to come.
To learn more about the incredible history of The Penthouse and The Mulligan Affair, check out our newest exhibit “The Moral of the Story,” on now at the Vancouver Police Museum.