Happy Birthday Commodore!
In a city that seems to tear down old buildings faster than new ones can be built, it’s a rare treat to celebrate a building that houses one of the most famous showrooms in Vancouver. Today marks the 93rd birthday of the legendary Commodore Ballroom on Granville street in downtown Vancouver.
I turned to a book “Live at the Commodore,” written by Aaron Chapman in 2015, with a revised edition being released, filled with updated information on the beloved entertainment venue. You’ve heard the expression, “If these walls could talk,” well if the walls of the Commodore could talk or sing, they would probably tell the tales that Aaron Chapman spins in his book dedicated to the history of this iconic showroom.
Chapman is a writer, historian, and musician with a special interest in Vancouver's entertainment scene and has written a number of books on the history of the colourful past of the city. He’s an award-winning author who has sat on the board of the Friends of the Vancouver Archives since 2015, and is a member of Heritage Vancouver. In 2020 he was elected as a member of the Royal Historical Society.
Having said all that, to dig into the book “Live at the Commodore” is like mining entertainment gold when it comes to the history of the famed venue. Chapman points out in his book that in 2011 Billboard magazine ranked the Commodore one of the top ten most influential concert venues in North America, along with such legendary concert halls as the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. Of all the clubs on the list, the Commodore is the oldest.
In the book he takes you on a wonderful trip down Granville St. and the origins of “Theatre Row,” and the beginnings of the Commodore orchestrated by the influential and wealthy Reifel family of Vancouver and the opening night of what was originally known as The Commodore Cabaret in 1930. The Reifel family’s great wealth enabled the Commodore to be built through the Depression of the late 1920s.
As Chapman reports, the Commodore officially opened on December 3, 1930, to 900 patrons including members of Vancouver’s high society, and city aldermen. The new cabaret was billed as “the finest of its kind on the Pacific coast,” and featured the Commodore Orchestra. The architect of the ballroom had designed a dance floor to be forty by eighty feet, in the style of an English ballroom, and “sprung.” It was layered with shiplap on top of 2x3 boards, and tires stuffed with horsehair. It was engineered to absorb shocks and bounced slightly, even more when there was a full house dancing on it. That was in 1930 and as time went on, renovations were needed. By the 1990s the art of tires being stuffed with horsehair was a dying profession, so thanks to layers of plywood, drywall, cork, and foam rubber that amazing floor is still, “sprung.”
The Commodore has been such a large part of the history of the city of Vancouver from the 30s, the 40s, to the present day. During the Second World War, it contributed to the war effort as a banquet and meeting hall for wartime fundraisers and social occasions. It was still hosting fundraising events in the 50s and 60s, and in 1969 Drew Burns became the man in charge of the venue and really brought the Commodore into the next era. He not only changed the name from the Commodore Cabaret to the Commodore Ballroom, but booked the first rock and roll show at the Commodore in July of 1971 with Mitch Ryder and a stripped-down version of the Detroit Wheels. The opening act was the Vancouver band Crosstown Bus, whose bass player was, and still is, Brian Anderson, a resident of South Surrey. Anderson later recognized that this rock and roll show was a turning point for the Commodore and remembers people saying that Drew Burns was taking “a hell of a risk” turning it into a rock venue. The Commodore had gone from bar mitzvahs and banquets to full-on rock and roll, and everything in between.
Over the years it has hosted an impressive list of performers. KISS played the Commodore in 1975, Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Jerry Jeff Walker, Tom Petty, Sting, Katy Perry, and also some acts from the Big Band Era, like the Buddy Rich Orchestra, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Then there was the Punk scene that hit the stage, the Commodore has hosted all of these and so many more.
I remember going to the Commodore one night when the musicians of Vancouver came together for a special concert to help raise money for a new pair of prosthetic legs for the great Bluesman Jim Byrnes who had been a regular performer at the Commodore. Over the years his legs had taken a beating and it was time for a new set, but they were expensive. The musicians of Vancouver heard that one of their own needed some help so they staged a fundraiser, and naturally, the Commodore was the perfect venue for such a show. The Ballroom was packed, with friends and fans, and provided the perfect setting.
If you’ve lived in the Vancouver area for any amount of time, you probably have your own memories of concerts at the Commodore, and that wonderful iconic bouncy dance floor.
Today it’s Happy Birthday Commodore, a ballroom that has seen a lot.
93 years old and still going strong.
Till next week...
Watch: Scenes from Vancouver in the 1930s
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1328 Johnston Road
White Rock, BC • Canada V4B 3Z2
White Rock, BC • Canada V4B 3Z2