Story of the Penthouse

Posted by Daniel on Nov 23, 2012

Not many book launches feature a lineup down the street to get in and a pair of nearly-naked exotic dancers greeting you at the door, but that was the scene last night at Vancouver's notorious Penthouse nightclub where a large crowd (including myself) turned out to celebrate the publication of Liquor, Lust and the Law, an illustrated history of the club.

Club owner Danny Filippone teared up onstage as he paid tribute to his father Ross and uncles Joe, Mickey and Jimmy, all of whom had a hand in founding the Seymour Street nightspot after the Second World War. He explained how the discovery of a hidden cache of photographs in the walls of the club led eventually to a gallery exhibition and now this book, written by Aaron Chapman and published by Arsenal Pulp.

This was my first time in the club though it felt familiar enough because it was the setting for the fabulous CBC television show Intelligence (2005-07) and also because I'd researched the history of the place myself for my own book, Red Light Neon, about the history of prostitution in the city.

To my mind the Penthouse deserves a central role in the dark side of the city's history because of the attempt by the authorities to shut it down in 1975. Chapman tells the story well. For years prostitution had flourished more or less openly. Working girls met their clients in the club, then left to conduct their business elsewhere. But a new police chief decided it was time to bring down this den of iniquity and a few days before Christmas officers swooped in and arrested three of the brothers along with three other employees. Charged with various prostitution-related charges, they were dubbed by the press "The Penthouse Six".

After a trial full of lurid testimony, the judge found five of the defendants guilty but on appeal all charges were dismissed and the club reopened. But the raid sent a chill through the sex trade in the city. The Penthouse wasn't the only nightspot tolerating prostitution. Now they all told the women to take their business outside and hundreds of prostitutes were flushed out into the mean streets, away from the relative safety of the clubs and bars. Many people draw a direct line connecting the Penthouse raid in 1975 and the emergence of serial predator Robert Pickton two decades later.

This is just one chapter of the Penthouse story as told in this nostalgia-inducing book, well illustrated with photos from the club's "lost" collection.