Iconic Commodore Ballroom celebrating 90 years of music, memories and midnight revelry

·4 min read

From Sammy Davis Jr. to Snoop Dogg, the list of performers who have graced the stage of the Commodore Ballroom on the Granville Strip is as varied as the musical tastes of Vancouverites.

Which could be why, on the 90th anniversary of the day the notorious nightclub first flung open its doors to late night revelers, it's hard to find a local who does not have a tale from a time spent twirling on the famous dance floor or watching a big star perform while they were still on the way up.

Modelled after Art-Deco British ballrooms of the 1920s, with plush carpets and walls draped with floor-length curtains, the Commodore Ballroom opened on Dec. 3, 1930 and quickly became the place to party.

It was not, however, a place where you could get a drink. Legally that is.

Art Jones/Vancouver Public Library
Art Jones/Vancouver Public Library

According to Aaron Chapman, author of Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver's Historic Commodore Ballroom, nightclubs at that time were liquor-free and people would have to smuggle their hooch in.

When the local police would make their rounds, the doorman would signal the band leader on stage who would immediately rally the band to play a tune called Roll Out the Barrel.

Vancouver Public Library Archives
Vancouver Public Library Archives

This system let all the patrons know to hide their booze until the coast was clear.

"Police were there on off nights themselves and did the same thing, everyone knew," said Chapman Thursday on CBC's The Early Edition.

Kevin Statham
Kevin Statham

Decades passed, liquor laws and musical preferences changed and still The Commodore remained a mainstay of the music scene.

Originally a place where orchestras and big bands got the dance floor going, many, many well-known names have lit up the stage in the years since.

Some mentioned by Chapman include: The New York Dolls in 1974, Kiss in 1975 and Tom Petty in 1978. The Clash also played their first-ever North American show there in the winter of '79.

Kim Barnatt
Kim Barnatt

"You can walk into that place and feel that energy in the room and that's a very special thing," said Chapman.

There are also not many cross-generational venues remaining in the city where grandchildren can twerk where their grandparents once did the twist.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

For musician Alan Doyle, who has performed on the stage many times both solo and with the band Great Big Sea, it holds a very special memory.

It is there, where in 2017, Doyle and about 50 other musicians came together to show support for John Mann, frontman of the local folk rock band Spirit of the West who had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease.

Doyle rallied talent that night, both vocal and instrumental, and recorded a song especially for Mann in the second floor men's washroom that Doyle converted into a makeshift studio.

WATCH | Celebrated Canadian musicians perform at The Commodore to help a dear friend

Mann passed away in 2019 but had been in attendance at the event.

"The greatest night I ever had there, " Doyle told CBC Thursday.

The venue has won numerous awards recognizing its importance as a local landmark and was named Most Influential Club in Canada by Billboard Magazine in 2011.

To mark its 90th anniversary, the City of Vancouver declared Dec. 3 Commodore Ballroom Day.

And while the pandemic may be preventing people from cutting loose on the dance floor this year, venue owners Live Nation threw a virtual birthday party featuring B.C. blues musician and Commodore regular Colin James.

James, who hasn't seen his bandmates since March because of pandemic restrictions, says while playing to an empty house is weird, it's great to be playing at the venue.

"We just did a whole show and we couldn't take the smiles off our faces," James said. "You know, I'm not one to talk a whole lot between songs so we just had a great time playing and it felt oddly normal."

James, who has played at The Commodore 33 times before says the venue is unique for allowing bigger shows but still retaining an intimate mood.

"Some cities have gotten rid of their iconic venues," he said. "I've played it so many times over the years and it's still really great to be here."

Michele
Michele