This account of what I did on Saturday #5 (August 2, 2014) will be of little or no interest to many of you but if you’re of a certain persuasion and vintage (early 50s) and spent time in Vancouver’s West End in the 1980s, you’re probably in for a pleasant trip down memory lane.
Since the 1970s Vancouver has been the laid back, tolerant and liberal minded centre of gay life on Canada’s “left” coast. By the time I arrived in 1986, it was hard to swing a feather boa (or leather harness) without hitting a gay restaurant, cafe, pub, bar, disco or avant-garde dance club. With so many homos packed into such a small geographic area (bordered on two sides by water and a third by Stanley Park), it supported more gay establishments per block than any area outside of Greenwich Village or The Castro.
I spent this past Saturday afternoon and evening checking out a few of my old haunts. This overdose of nostalgia would not have been possible without some prior research and a new pair of Nikes.
The Castle Pub (750 Granville St.)
I picked out a pair of new shoes and insoles at The Bay store at Robson and Granville, then walked one block south to kick off the tour at 750 Granville. I knew from my research that this was once home to The Castle Hotel (est. 1907) and since the 1960s its beverage room which I knew as The Castle Pub.
The Castle had acquired a certain “patina” by the time I dropped in for a cold one in 1986. Less generous reviewers would use terms like dark, dusty and smelling of 50 years worth of spilled beer.
The main room was a realistic recreation of a medieval castle complete with a 15’ wide circular wood burning fireplace that was raised about 3’ off the floor. A massive copper hood and supporting (dusty) beams filled the two-story space. Benches, a stand-up bar and high tables with stools ringed the fireplace.
Nothing about the Castle was very regal, unless you counted the photo of Queen Elizabeth II that hung above the bar. And that bar was staffed by some of the crustiest, crankiest and downright pissed-to-be-alive servers this side of Greenwood Raceway. Thankfully the patrons and DJ were considerably more upbeat. I remember dancing to Natalie Cole’s ‘Pink Cadillac’ and Kylie Minogue’s ‘Loco-Motion’ months before they were heard on the radio.
There were persistent rumors that the old joint was about to close, and it finally did, just weeks after I left for Toronto in the Spring of 1990.
On Saturday afternoon I put my ear to these nondescript metal doors that now occupy 750 Granville. There was no trace of Loco-Motion or Pink Cadillac. The only sound I could hear was the amplified and totally incoherent ranting of this evangelical nutcase.
The Shaggy Horse (818 Richards St.)
The Shaggy’ has long since been demolished but in 1986 a long, narrow, two-level building occupied part of this space at 818 Richards. I wasn’t a regular at The Shaggy as it was considered a “Leather and Levis” bar and I tended to wear polyester sweaters and nice slacks. Yikes! My friend Jerry Fougere dragged me there a few times though, so I can report that its main feature (only charm?) was the orange, brown and gold shag carpet that covered every surface in full 1974-inspired splendour. And I mean every surface – not just the floor but the stairs, walls, bar, nooks, booths, built-in seating – even the rounded ceiling.
PHOTO: Former site of The Shaggy Horse at 818 Richards St.
Richard’s on Richards (1036 Richards St.)
It was about a three-minute walk from The Shaggy to a mixed bar known as Richard’s on Richards, but based on the clientele, these two bars may as well have been light years apart. The Shaggy catered to a blue collar crowd who tended to wear plaid shirts, black leather boots and vests, and Levis. Richard’s attracted straight girls and frat boys of indeterminate persuasion who looked like they just came off a yacht or the polo field. Ttoday they’d all be Abercrombie & Fitch or Hollister models. I bought a few Lacoste and Polo shirts and despite perfecting the collar pop, I never did feel comfortable with this crowd. I think it was my friend Damien who referred to the bar as “Dicks on Dicks”.
The Dufferin Hotel (900 Seyour St.)
After walking two blocks south and one block west I came upon The Dufferin Hotel or “The Duff” as it was known. In the 80s it was actually three bars under one roof: Streets, The Back Alley Bar, and a cocktail lounge that may or may not have had a name.
“If you’re into sketchy hustler bars filled with lecherous old men, dirty young men, toothless bar maidens threatening to pull their knives out, frightening striptease shows and cheap mugs of beer (and, of course, I am), then this is heaven for you.” – Bob Damron
The beer was indeed cheap but I don’t recall strippers or toothless maidens and I never felt any level of danger in this or any Vancouver gay bar. In fact, I’ve never seen a fight in a gay bar… anywhere… ever. A few bitch-slaps, of course, but never a fight.
That doesn’t mean that The Back Alley Bar didn’t get pretty wild on occasion. I can still hear the cheers when Ben Johnson won Gold at the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. The place went nuts when his time of 9.79 flashed on the screen, lowering his own World Record. And the celebration really kicked into high gear when the manager announced that the next keg was on the house. It didn’t last long.
I remember the bartender saying, “Imagine, the fastest man on earth and he’s Canadian.” Of course Ben tested positive for steroids, was stripped of his Gold medal within two days, and was thereafter referred to as “Jamaican-Canadian”.
Swimmer Mark Tewksbury took some heat when he hung a bed sheet banner out of his Olympic Village window with ‘Hero to Zero in 9.79’ written in black marker. Tewksbury later came out. I don’t think a single bookie lost money on that one.
PHOTOS: (1) In 2014 it would be considered insensitive at best and likely downright offensive but in 1988 I didn’t see anything wrong with attending a Halloween party dressed as Ben Johnson, complete with syringe protruding from my right arm and the words “Who Framed Ben?” on the front. And neither did the clientele at The Dufferin or Buddy’s as I won a $100 bar tab at both bars. I’m posing here with cartoon favourite, “Herman”. (2) The Dufferin Hotel has gone straight and a bar serving “Buck A Shuck” oysters now occupies about half the space formerly known as Streets. It’s bright and airy which has apparently chased away the “toothless bar maidens”. Might also be the Chardonnay.at $14 a glass.
The Gandydancer (1222 Hamilton St.)
I walked two blocks south on Richards to Davie, then three blocks east to find what remains of The Gandydancer at 1222 Hamilton Street.
I was introduced to The Gandy within a few weeks of arriving in Vancouver when a (straight) relative gave me a tour of the city and pointed to this place as we parked out back and walked to the Expo site. “It’s supposed to be the hottest gay bar in town,” he said. I have no idea if Jack suspected that I might be inclined to check it out at some point but he was absolutely right – it was magical. After all these years The Gandy is still my all-time favourite club.
When the warehouse-like building that housed The Gandy was erected in the 1890s it was adjacent to the CPR yards and housed the horses who pulled delivery wagons for Woodward’s Department Store. Gandy dancers were railway workers who sang a rhythmic song while carrying and laying heavy track.
By 1986 the Yaletown area was being gentrified and The Gandy was at the forefront. After being stripped to its industrial bones and having its brick and large wooden beams sandblasted, the lofty space was retrofitted with brass railings and a glass block partition surrounding a circular dance floor. The sound and light system was matched only by the power of the smoke machine. They could fill the dance floor with chest-level fog in about 15 seconds. At the time it seemed pretty cool. Who knows if there are any lasting health effects from inhaling that stuff?
DJs at The Gandy played high energy euro music but you could expect to hear The Bangles (Walk Like An Egyptian), Bananarama (Venus), Wang Chung (Everybody Have Fun Tonight), Boys Don’t Cry (I Wanna Be A Cowboy), and Pet Shop Boys (West End Girls) each and every time you went. And if you were like me, you were okay with that. You could also buy poppers at the coat check. You didn’t find that at Rumours in Saskatoon, which until 1986 was one of the very few gay bars I had visited.
A few years ago I read that an upscale establishment known as Bar None had opened in the space but there were no signs of it on Saturday afternoon. The place appeared to be vacant – likely the victim of soaring rents in a fully gentrified neighbourhood that now features a Starbucks and a Cactus Club Cafe within feet of the old Gandy.
PHOTOS: (1) Admission pass (c. 1988); (2) Interior shot of The Gandydancer after a 1989 renovation that was not well received by patrons; (3) 1222 Hamilton St. on August 2, 2014.
Graceland (1250 Richards St.)
If you’ve wondered where House Music got its start in Vancouver (and possibly Canada), look no further than 1250 Richards St. As you may have guessed, a block long condo now occupies the site, although its street number is 1280. At least the developers saw fit to name it “Grace” and erect a plaque to commemorate the pioneering bar that once occupied this site.
It was easier to find this plaque than it was to find the door to Graceland in the mid-1980s. The entrance was located on a loading dock in the back alley. There was a single unmarked door which anyone not “in the know” would have walked right past.
Inside the former Eastman Kodak photo-finishing plant was a multi-level club with steel catwalks on the second and third levels overlooking the dance floor. Psychedelic montages were projected on a 30’ video wall while go-go boys danced on the balconies, raised platforms and massive speakers.
I found a recent article that referred to the patrons as “a motley collection of punks and freaks, queer and straight, b-boys, shoe-gazers, ravers, drag queens and bar-stars.” I’m not sure where I fell on that list but that was the great part about Graceland, you didn’t have to “fit in”.
My shirt did not come off and I did not dance on speakers but I always had a great time nonetheless.
Luv-A-Fair (1275 Seymour St.)
About one block south of Graceland at 1275 Seymour was a club called Luv-A-Fair. While primarily a disco in the 70s and early 80s, Luv-A-Fair was a full blown punk and new wave club by the time I stumbled through its darkened entrance in 1986. To somebody straight off the prairies (and small town Ontario before that), it was downright scary and thrilling at the same time. I once took a straight colleague from work. If Bart doesn’t remember that night we can chalk it up to repressed memory syndrome. I think her name was Lola.
According to Kerry Gold, a former patron, Luv-a-Fair was built on the open-mindedness of the clientele. “Black lipstick and dressing like a bat never mattered. The weirdos were the ones in suits,” said Kerry, adding, “and even they weren’t bothered by the regulars.”
The changing face of the West End saw hard loft-dwelling goths replaced by condo-dwelling professionals. Luv-A-Fair’s lease was not renewed and the bar closed in 2003.
HUFFINGTON POST ARTICLE:
FACEBOOK FAN PAGE:
2013 GRACELAND / LUV-A-FAIR REUNION PAGE:
Celebrities (1022 Davie St.)
If you trudged a few blocks uphill to the corner of Davie and Howe you were rewarded with a cluster of clubs within a block or two of each other. Celebrities had been going strong long before I arrived, and believe it or not, it’s still going strong. I popped in on Saturday night and stayed for a few hours. The crowd was mixed, the dance floor jam-packed, and the energy level was absolutely electric.
If you don’t have fun at Celebrities, you may not be alive. Watch the video (link below) and see if you don’t agree.
Photo: DJ at Celebrities on August 2, 2014
The Odyssey (1251 Howe St.)
If you slipped out the back door of Celebrities and across an alley you could make it to The Odyssey in under a minute. Even if it was raining you could leave your coat at Celebrities, avoid paying a second 50¢ coat check, and still make it there and back without getting too wet.
The interior of The Odyssey is a bit of a blur to me but one online account said that it attracted “twinks, gym bunnies, and muscle pups.”
The bar officially closed on September 5, 2010.
PHOTO: Where “pups” once posed at the bar, a cool cat now keeps watch of passers by.
Numbers (1042 Davie St.)
A few doors west of Celebrities was a down-to-earth bar known as Numbers. Classy and tasteful aren’t words that come to mind when describing Numbers. It was named after a porn magazine, after all.
Numbers opened in 1980 and is still packing them in. It now bills itself as North America’s Oldest Gay Bar, although I’m sure Julius in New York’s Greenwich Village would argue with that.
When I returned to Numbers on Saturday evening it seemed a lot less seedy than I remember. While there was no cover charge, you had to show photo ID which they ran through a scanner. I imagine the BC Civil Liberties Society would have something to say about that but if you want in, you abide by their rules. I’d like to think they are checking names with a database designed to weed out the worst karaoke performers. I’m quite sure I didn’t even know the word ‘karaoke’ in 1986 but its now featured in a glass-enclosed room on the bar’s fourth level.
I struck up a conversation with an Aboriginal guy about my age and when I mentioned that I was a regular at Numbers in the 80s, he said that he has lost 100 pounds since he performed at the bar in 1989. I recall him appearing in drag as “Virginia Ham” and singing a live duet with another drag queen of size, “Bertha Venation.” They sounded an awful lot like Archie and Edith Bunker singing the theme to All In The Family.
Buddy’s (1018 Burnaby St.)
Buddy’s was only in business for 6 years but the two-level pub was wildly popular until the night it closed in 1988. It was one of the first West End bars that was leveled to make way for a condo.
Kevin Hugel filled in for me at Sandown Raceway while I attended the closing night party in 1988. I also spent a New Year’s Eve and several Halloween nights at Buddy’s.
Author Stan Persky later wrote ‘Buddy’s’ – a book about gay life in Vancouver in the 1980s. I bought a copy at Little Sister’s and it was on my bookshelf until a few months ago when I left it in the “donation room” at my Toronto loft. It disappeared within an hour.
PHOTO: For Halloween 1987 I went to Buddy’s dressed as disgraced televangelist Rev. Jim Baaker. I was accompanied by SNL’s Church Lady, an un-identified monster, and a babushka-wearing granny. Sadly, my wife Tammy-Faye could only be there in the photo hanging from my neck.
Hamburger Mary’s (1202 Davie St.)
A block west of Numbers was Hamburger Mary’s – a 24-hour burger joint / diner that was always packed from midnight to about 3 am. I loved Mary’s back in the day but recent reviews on Urban Spoon are almost unanimously bad. One of the more positive reviews stated, “For some reason they have the best Coca Cola I’ve ever had.”
With that less-than-glowing endorsement in mind, I decided to give it another try around midnight on Saturday. I was seated quickly but then waited 30 minutes without seeing a menu, let alone a drink. I may have put up with this when I was 25 but not today. It’s over, Mary.
Doll & Penny’s Diner (1167 Davie St.)
Across the street and one block east of Mary’s at 1167 Davie was another 24-hour restaurant called Doll & Penny’s. It was still in business until the late 90s but now the space is home to the Pumpjack Pub. About 200 people were lined up on Saturday night. Yes, 200.
The diner-style food wasn’t great but then nobody went to Doll & Penny’s for the food. The main selling points were the hours, atmosphere, and camaraderie of the patrons and staff who were mostly drag queens an aspiring actors. It was the kind of place that played equal parts Diana Ross, Lou Reed and ragtime piano and got away with it. They had a large video screen on which they showed silent movies set to modern music and heavily edited clips from old movies starring Betty Davis, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson and the like.
And then there was Pecker, the talking parrot (?) that sat in a cage behind the bar. He would randomly spew lines like “drink up, buddy” and “whew, you look thirsty.” I’m sure Pecker paid for himself hundreds of times over in increased bar sales.
PHOTOS: (1) Doll & Penny’s, circa 1988; (2) Three friends and myself (far right) at Doll & Penny’s, circa 1990; (3) The Pumpjack Pub now occupies Dolly & Penny’s old space. The parrot is long gone but the new pub is still popular. Patrons were lined up all the way to Thurlow St. on Saturday night.
The mid-1980s were an exciting time to be newly out in Vancouver’s West End. Thanks for accompanying me on this sentimental journey. You can’t turn back time but it sure was fun trying.