The Penthouse Nightclub is arguably the most well-documented venue of all three strip clubs I visted. Located on Seymour Street in the affluent Yaletown neighbourhood, the Penthouse can trace its roots to the Filippone (also seen spelled “Philliponi”) family’s businesses, Eagle Time Delivery Systems Ltd. and later Diamond Cabs (Chapman, 2012, pp. 23). Though the building that now houses the Penthouse Nightclub would not be completed until 1942, the Filippones’ transport businesses, combined with their penchant for hosting events, directly impacted the popularity and patronage of the venue through its evolution from private supper club to burlesque theatre and beyond.
Along with its popularity came attention from law enforcement. In 1947, the police raided Joe Filippone’s home, located upstairs in the Eagle Time building, for the first time. The officers “asserted that the penthouse apartment …was being operated as a public place and that the $1.75 donation was, in fact an admission fee.” (pp. 38-29). And with that began the venue’s almost eight-decade long history of legal entanglements. Chapman insists that these types of raids worked in the club’s favor, adding to the overall reputation of the Penthouse as a place where you could go to indulge in illicit activities. However, it avoided a reputation of seedier venues in part because of its popularity among celebrities of the mid-century, like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.
In Liquor, Lust, and The Law Chapman includes quote from Vancouver Sun columnist Hal Straight that speaks to the sensorial affect created by the venue:
Visiting the plush penthouse is like wading through a slimy marsh and coming out on a
beautiful emerald lake. You go from drab, dirty Seymour Street into a building…up a flight of narrow stairs up to the third floor…You go into a short entrance hall and into a bar that would compete with any of its size from here to New York…The lights are soft, and the rugs softer. After that is a complete apartment suite…the colors of which are a long way from Seymour Street. (pp. 39)
In this history, Straight, as told by Chapman, demonstrates that Yaletown was not always the ritzy commercial and residential area that it is today. Drawing sharp contrast between the colors and atmosphere of Seymour Street in the 1940s and 50s to Filippone’s apartment make the venue out to be a paradise where one could escape from the unsavory sensory assaults that the city provided.
The latter half of the 20th century saw The Penthouse lean into the more risqué and sexual aspects of its reputation. The Penthouse began booking burlesque and cabaret acts in the 1960s and by the end of that decade it was well known as a place where patrons could find high-end escorts and full service sex workers. This eventually culminated in another clash with Vancouver police where in December 1975 law enforcement raided The Penthouse and another club called Zanzibar. The Filippone’s were charged with, among other things, profiting off of the sex work conducted in the club. Daniel Francis notes in his book Red Light Neon, that “it was not long before authorities realized that they had made a mistake…During the next decade, as the situation on the streets deteriorated, many people looked back to Phililliponi’s [sic] as representing a sensible, if partial answer to the problems associated with [sex work].” (Francis, 2006, pp. 91). The Penthouse reopened the next year as a dedicated strip club, but it was no longer a place where full service sex workers would consider it safe to operate visibly.
Field Notes: Penthouse Nightclub
The infamous history of The Penthouse intrigued me, as I knew Yaletown was a rather posh area of Downtown Vancouver. As I approached the intersection of Seymour and Nelson on a Sunday night I saw that there were quite a few semi-trucks with lights and cables set up, and the street was rather quiet. Asking a woman with a walkie-talkie if they were filming at The Penthouse, I began to get anxious; I did not want to get turned away from my subject. Thankfully, she told me that the filming was taking place a block away and that I was welcome to record the street’s ambience. I took up my post beside the door and turned on my Zoom H6.
Perhaps it was due to the day of the week, the film shoot, or some combination thereof, but the street seemed incredibly quiet. The constant hum of an idling van underscored the majority of the soundscape—which is represented in the unbroken bright yellow line at the bottom of the top waveform below—topped with a rhythmic right-to-left panning of passing cars at regular intervals. The drone of automobiles was interrupted occasionally by my sniffles and a muffled conversation between the woman I had spoken to and a man who came to help unload boxes from the idling van. Listening back, I realized that my background as a sound designer emerged when I angled myself back and away from the two people so as not to record any specifics of their conversation, but rather capture the presence of “walla”—a term used in film to describe the general noise of people talking in the background.
When I returned to record the soundscape of the open club the following Saturday, the film trucks were gone and the neighbourhood had a much more lively atmosphere. The cyclical passage of cars was ever present, but that seemed to be the major similarity. The recording features a much larger amount of foot traffic and snippets of conversations between a wide age range of people, though it should be noted that all but one of the conversations I captured were in English, and the apparent economic class was rather homogenous. There is also the distinct sound of trolleybuses moving along their wires, which alerted me to the fact that I was not aware when trolleybuses ran or what areas they covered. The variety of transportation options available near The Penthouse makes accessing it the easiest of all three strip clubs.
Reflection: Penthouse Nightclub
Regarding how I felt in this space, I thought that my sonic presence was much less apparent, as though I blended into the background, and I believe that is reflected on the recording. However, I recall a man, headed into The Penthouse, caught my eye and tried to engage me in conversation by asking if I was trying to capture sounds of ghosts. People were eager to converse with unknowns; two women inquired about The Penthouse’s current offerings with a bartender on his smoke break. The Saturday evening sidewalk crowd inspired a jovial and gregarious ambience, and that is reflected in the image below, where there are far more transients present in blue frequency range that corresponds to the human voice. The peak loudness in my recording was +0.0dB, and a loudness range (LU) of 10.6, meaning that the difference between the quietest moment and the loudest moment in the recording was a factor of 10.6.
A stereo spectral representation of The Penthouse Nightclub (while open)
Loudness measured by Izotope Rx (The Penthouse while open)
When I returned to record the ambience while the club was closed, I anticipated a drop in peak dB, as well as in the range of loudness. The peak loudness of my recording measured -7.8dB, and the range 6.4LU. Although a predictable shift, it should not be discounted as insignificant. By itself, the differences in loudness indicates a very dynamic soundscape, but when compared with the data from Paramount and No. 5 Orange, the sonic environment of The Penthouse is the quietest and most static.
A stereo spectral representation of The Penthouse Nightclub (while closed)
Loudness measured by Izotope Rx (The Penthouse while closed)
Seymour street, though home to several businesses and restaurants, is much quieter and more conservative than the commercial and tourist hub of Granville street, just one block away. Where someone expects to encounter buskers and raucous groups barhopping on Granville, they would be considered intrusions on Seymour. The luxury apartments that adorn Seymour reinforce the sensibility that though there is a time and a place for public noise, but it's not here and definitely not on a week night.
–Chapman, A. (2012). Liquor, Lust, and The Law: The Story of Vancouver’s Legendary Penthouse Nightclub. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press.
—Francis, D. (2006) Red light neon: a history of Vancouver's sex trade. Vancouver, BC: Subway Books.