Owned by the Filippone family, the Penthouse Cabaret has been operating at 1019 Seymour since 1947. As a nightclub, it is the last link in the chain back to burlesque theatre in early Vancouver, the era of bottle clubs and bootlegging and the city’s increasing acceptance of erotica and prostitution. It is also the last link with the working-class Italian section of Yaletown that included the Iaci family restaurant, officially known as the Casa Capri, across the street.
Giuseppe and Maria Filippone bought the house at 1033 Seymour (built in 1896 and now the oldest house in downtown Vancouver) in 1932. The extended Filippone family had arrived in Vancouver from Italy’s Calabria region in the late 1920s. Guiseppe bought the empty lot next door to the house for $1,400 and in 1938 built what would later become the Penthouse. There, the family operated a string of businesses, including a taxi service (Diamond Cabs), a courier company (Eagle Time) that allegedly delivered liquor for bootleggers, and an amateur boxing gym.
In 1947, they expanded the operation into a restaurant and nightclub under the management of brothers Joe Philliponi (his name misspelled by a customs agent), Ross, Dominic (“Mickey”) and Jimmy Filippone. At the time, it was virtually impossible to get a liquor license, so the club operated as an after-hours “bottle club” where people drank illegally. Police routinely raided the club for liquor infractions. “We used to have spotters on the roof,” recalled one of the brothers, Ross Filippone. “You couldn’t miss five or six police cars coming down the street. We’d press a buzzer and tell the waiters, who’d tell the customers [to hide their bottles]. It was a joke.”
The club soon became a popular celebrity hangout. It was an after-hours spot for visiting entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Garry Cooper who spent time in the Penthouse’s VIP room after shows at the Marco Polo, the Cave on Hornby and Isy’s on West Georgia. Actor Errol Flynn was at the Penthouse the night before he died in a West End apartment. Like the Hotel Georgia, the Penthouse helped break the unofficial colour bar in the city when it welcomed black entertainers as guests. Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and many other top talents played there.
Prostitution and the Penthouse Raid
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Penthouse became the epicentre of high-class prostitution in Vancouver. As many as a hundred women worked out of the club each evening using the space as a convenient and safe place to meet clients and conduct preliminary negotiations. On Christmas Eve 1975, police raided the club, and the Filippones were charged with living off the avails of prostitution. Following a sensational court trial, the authorities shut down this informal system. Historian Daniel Francis, whose book Red Light Neon details the history of prostitution in Vancouver, calls the Penthouse raid a mistake with tragic consequences.
“During the 1960s and 1970s, the Penthouse Cabaret was the city’s most notorious nightspot, a hangout for show business celebrities, late-night barflies hoodlums and high-rollers. The establishment was also a revolving door for prostitutes. As long as they paid their “fees”, the women were welcome to set up shop at the tables round the bar. Here a working girl made her contracts, negotiated her price, and left on the arm of her date, returning an hour or so later to begin all over again. There were other clubs like it, but they avoided the limelight, whereas the Penthouse, and its sartorially challenged owner Joe Philliponi, revelled in it, enjoying a reputation that extended well beyond the city limits… Action at the Penthouse came to a sudden halt the day before Christmas, 1975, when the Vancouver police, for reasons never made clear, shut it down. By closing the Penthouse the police precipitated the most tumultuous period in the history of Vancouver prostitution. In retrospect, everyone agreed that the closure was a major mistake. The decision caused an increase in the number of women on the street, which led to the muddled attempts in the 1980s to clean up the West End, and led as well, indirectly to the tragedy of the Missing Women.”
In September 1983, Joe Philliponi was murdered at the Penthouse, following a bungled robbery. The killer had been falsely told that Philliponi had $1 million in his Penthouse safe. He made away with less than $1,300 and was later caught and convicted of first-degree murder. Filipponi’s funeral was attended by close to 800, including businessmen, Supreme Court justices and exotic dancers.
The Penthouse remains owned by the Filippone family today, one of the longest running family businesses in the city, and is managed by Joe’s nephew – Danny Filippone.
- Aaron Chapman. Liquor, Lust and the Law. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012.
- Daniel Francis. Red Light Neon: A History of Vancouver’s Sex Trade. Subway Books Ltd. 2006.
- Penthouse Nightclub website.
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