Chinatown Vol. 2 No. 7.
December 3rd, 1954.
Drug dealing in and around the Broadway Hotel in the 1950s was one of the main reasons the intersection of Hastings and Columbia became known as “the Corner,” the heart of Canada’s illicit drug scene. Over the years, the Corner’s notorious reputation migrated a block east to Main and Hastings. The hotel is now called the Sunrise Hotel and is currently being renovated by BC Housing.
Someone just shared this with me on facebook and said that her father suffered from dementia and before he died, all he remembered was the name of his childhood cat and that Joe Fortes had taught him how to swim.
Source: Film by Jill Haras, 8 min., 51 s., 2002, National Film Board
Looking west on Hastings at Cambie, 1896
Much has changed over the years at this intersection. The court house lawn on the left is now Victory Square, the turreted Inns of Court building was replaced with a bland mid-century bank building that’s now slated for demolition, and the Arcade Building on the right is where the landmark Dominion Building now sits.
Source: City of Vancouver Archives #Str P184
Gordon sisters boxing, 1901
Following the previous post, here’s an Edison film of Belle (in black) and Minnie Gordon.
Six vaudeville acts you could have seen if you were alive in 1908
Alexander Pantages expanded his theatre empire into Vancouver in January 1908 as he was building one of the biggest vaudeville circuits in the west. A typical Pantages bill consisted of several acts of comedians, trained animals, illustrated songs, popular sports figures, acrobats, drama, music, and almost any novelty act imaginable. Below are some of the more interesting ones that appeared on Vancouver’s Pantages Theatre in its first months of operation. (Follow the links for videos of some of these performers).
1. Wallace the Lion
Wallace the “untamable lion” was the star attraction for the opening week of the Pantages. According to the World, Wallace did not disappoint, showing himself to be “just as ferocious and just as dangerous as he has been heralded.” Wallace, the “largest and handsomest lion in the world,” was a big hit in circus tents and theatres from here to San Francisco, though his tamer, Frank Hall, was apparently less successful at taming women.
2. Torcat and Flor D’Aliza
Animal acts in vaudeville typically involved large and potentially dangerous African beasts, but less exotic creatures were also pressed into showbiz service, especially animals not known for their trainability, such as Alice Techow’s performing cats or Torcat and Flor d’Aliza’s “educated roosters.” Torcat and d’Aliza were billed as “European eccentriques” and had made a name for themselves as a husband/wife comedy duo in France’s Folies Bergère cabaret. The World said their show was
certainly a novel act, especially when it is considered how lacking in intelligence the average member of the chicken family is. Yet these familiar barnyard favourites do all kinds of clever tricks, such as tight rope walking, dancing, climbing ladders, pulling tiny carts, and most wonderful of all, stay in their places on the stage and do their stunts with scarcely any prompting.
3. Harry Jolson
Harry Jolson was a talented stand up comic and singer in vaudeville theatres around North America, often performing in blackface, a form that thankfully has fallen out of fashion. He graced the Pantages stage a couple of months after it opened.
Jolson got into vaudeville as a newsboy in Washington, DC, where he earned a reputation for having a great singing voice and a knack for entertaining. The World newspaper said Harry Jolson “has a line of solo talk [stand up comedy] that is all his own, but when he dispenses some of his operatic burlesque he is irresistibly funny.”
4. The Great Lester
Harry Lester and his homemade ventriloquist dummy, Frank Byron Jr., were a popular addition to any vaudeville bill. Their fame never reached the heights of their protégés, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, but that may be more a testament to the influence of film and television for a later generation than a sign of Lester and Frank’s appeal. Bergen was first inspired by Lester, was taught by him, and acknowledged him as the greatest ventriloquist of all time.
5. The Freckled Wonder
Bob “Ruby Robert” Fitzsimmon isn’t exactly a household name today, but to boxing fans a century ago, he was one of the greats. He began as a bare knuckle fighter and is best remembered as the first person to become world champion in three different weight classes: middleweight, light-heavyweight, and heavyweight. He fought and beat some of the top boxers of all time, including “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and Jack Dempsey.
At forty-six, Fitz was well past his prime when he came to the Pantages, but he was the biggest draw the theatre had had since it opened five months earlier. Rather than merely demonstrating his boxing skills, the act was a dramatic play that included a boxing scene and songs performed by Fitz’s wife.
Before he became a professional boxer, Fitz was a crack blacksmith, and was only too happy to show off those skills here. He spent one morning at Woods’ blacksmith shop on Cordova Street just east of Carrall shoeing horses and making souvenir horseshoes for friends and fans. A few days later a rumour spread that Fitz was back hammering away at the shop. The crowd that gathered outside was too large for the wooden walkway and it collapsed. It turned out that the blacksmith in question was in fact the owner of the shop, not the Freckled Wonder.
6. Belle Gordon
Men weren’t the only pugilists touring the vaudeville circuits. “Bag punching” by women such as Belle (aka Bessie) Gordon entertained crowds with their speed bag prowess. Belle and her sister Minnie claimed to be the originators of “lady boxing acts” in vaudeville. The World said little about Gordon in 1908, but when she returned to the Pantages in 1913, the paper noted that she had won the title of “champion lady bag puncher of the world” several years earlier. “She has continued to improve in her art until she is so adept that no other woman has had the temerity to challenge her. Her work with one, two, or three punching bags will be a revelation to many in her interesting and spectacular turn.”
Sources: Wallace the Lion, 1910, San Francisco Public Library #AAF-0155; Torcat and Flora d’Aliza, RegieTheatrale.com; Harry Jolson, Jolson.org; Bob “Ruby Robert” Fitzsimmons, iCollector.com; Belle Gordon, SpeedBagCentral.com
The Dreamer pedestal, Clark Drive, 2010
You may have heard of the giant devil-with-a-boner statue that mysteriously appeared atop this abandoned pedestal on Clark Drive at Grandview Highway North, and which was removed by the City today. The history of this site is similarly interesting/funny, particularly what happened to the original Columbus statue installed here in 1986:
[I]n the spring of 2000, the Columbus statue was stolen in the dead of night during the period when the Italian Garden at Hastings Park was being designed and spearheaded by parks commissioner Allan De Genova, now a member of the Confratellanza.
Rumour has it that prominent members of the Italian community were involved in the caper, determined to find a better home for the sculpture. De Genova says he doesn’t know who took it, but points out the Italian community and Confratellanza were divided over whether it should remain at the Clark Drive site or be moved.
He recalls what happened several months after the theft, before the Italian Garden’s official opening. “A number of [parks] staff were standing at the garden as it was just being finished and this white van pulls up and all of a sudden out comes this statue. They bring it over to a podium and start bolting it down,” De Genova says. “Everyone was a little surprised. All of a sudden this mysterious statue showed up. There was a police investigation, I even got called by the police wanting to know how it disappeared. It was quite the thing. All of a sudden it showed up and some guys got out of a van and they started bolting it down and then drove off.”
The Vancouver Police Department couldn’t track down old reports about the incident for the Courier. Holmes suspects police simply dropped the matter. “It was buried. I think it was just, ‘Shut up and let it appear.’ I think the police left it alone and let the Italian community figure it all out,” he says. “They have more pressing issues. Maybe they thought if nobody from the Branca family or the Confratellanza were really pursuing it, what are they going to do. So it all just came out right_ The statue is now where it should be and let’s just let it rest and leave it there.”
Source: Photo by me; quote and the full story by Naoibh O’Connor from the Vancouver Courier, 28 June 2006, via the WayBack Machine
Automan by the K-Tels, 1979
Off to the Commodore.
Vancouver Confidential, the final version of the book cover; painting by Tom Carter. It’s official! I’m having a book launch, along with over a dozen of my close associates! I had initially posted the book here but a brand new painting has been completed just for the cover! The cover image shows Hastings and Main from an imagined elevated perspective, giving you a unique vantage point of downtown through a dense stretch of brilliant neon and bustling city streets. This book is not an art history textbook, but instead explores a host of untapped local history from the mid-20th century.
You are hereby invited to attend said book launch on September 21 in Chinatown. If you are a friend of one of us, you may be able to see this Facebook event. If you can’t see it, you’re still invited to come! (it may be crowded, however!) To all attendees; please wear a hat!
Many of the contributors to this fourteen-author publication are likely to be in attendance! Drinks will be available from the Emerald Supper Club bar (no host bar).
- 21 September, 2014 at 18:00–21:00
the Emerald Supper Club
555 Gore Avenue, Vancouver, BC
If you can’t make this book launch, I personally expect we will do more book promotional events in the near future, such as readings in libraries, public and private spaces, etc. For example, I am personally planning to give a reading at Long Table Distillery on the edge of Yaletown & False Creek (1451 Hornby St) in mid-October, just steps from the former Joseph Kennedy warehouse (it was at 1208 Homer St)! Details as they become available!
So what is this book all about?
From the back cover:
Most civic histories celebrate progress, industry, order, and visions. This isn’t one of those.
Vancouver Confidential takes a fresh look at the rare urban culture of a port city in the mid-twentieth century. These were years when Hastings and Main was still a dynamic commercial and entertainment hub, when streetcars thrummed through the city, and when ‘theatre’ meant vaudeville and burlesque. Street gambling and illegal booze cans peppered the map, brothels and bootleggers served loggers and shore-workers, and politicians were almost always larger than life.
This new compilation honours the hustlers and the hobos, the mobster and the muscle, the bent and the straight, the mug in the mug shot, the ingénue and the spy, the anonymous woman at the till, the victim at the murder scene, and the crusading reporter in disguise. It illuminates aspects of a city in disguise. It illuminates aspects of a city that was too busy getting into trouble to worry about whether or not it was ‘world class.’
Vancouver Confidential includes essays from Tom Carter, Aaron Chapman, Jesse Donaldson, James Johnstone, Lani Russwurm, Eve Lazarus, Diane Purvey, Cathrine Rose, Rosanne Sia, Jason Vanderhill, Stevie Wilson, Will Woods, Terry Watada and John Belshaw.
And what is my particular chapter about, you ask? It’s an exploration of prohibition in Canada and the US, cocktails in Yaletown, and an ambitious American entrepreneur named Daniel Joseph Kennedy. I’ve included some of my favourite photos on the subject in this post, and there will be much, much more revealed within the pages of this book! This is all very exciting, as these stories have not yet been told to this degree, and now you can read them all in one book! Very special thanks to Anvil Press for publishing, John Belshaw for editing, and Derek von Essen for designing the book! Such a diverse collection of stories by a very dynamic group. Thank you all for your interest!