Commodore Ballroom – Granville Street

The Commodore Ballroom has been around for 90 years, and looks pretty much the same as it did when it opened. Here it is in 1967, before there were any residential towers on Seymour Street popping up over the roofline. The building was designed by H H Gillingham in a contemporary art deco style for developer George Reifel. When it was built it had a sprung dancefloor with horsehair lining, that supposedly absorbed some of the impact of dancers’ feet.

It opened briefly as the Commodore Cabaret in 1929, but quickly closed with a depressed economy, then reopened in November 1930. Over the years thousands of acts have performed at the Commodore, which has capacity for just under 1,000 patrons. The list of well-known bands who haven’t played the venue is probably shorter than the list of those who have. In its early days there was a resident swing band, led by Charlie Pawlett, who broadcast on CJOR Radio. The venue, like all the others in the city, couldn’t sell liquor. Patrons brought their own, carefully hidden whenever the band struck up ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ to indicate a visit from the authorities. That was appropriate behaviour for a venue funded by a well-known rum-runner.

Henry Reifel was president of Brewers and Distillers Ltd, owning Vancouver Breweries and the B.C. Distillery, and his sons, George and his brother Harry, worked for the organisation as well. During the 1920s when US prohibition was in place, their export operation was huge; they owned several ships capable of carrying thousands of cases of liquor. The ship’s papers would indicate the exports were heading to a port in Central America, but the ships would actually anchor in international waters off the US and be met by a fleet of much smaller fast delivery motorboats who would deliver the booze ashore, often at night. In 1934, after prohibition had ended, US Authorities sued Henry Reifel and his son George for smuggling $10m of alcohol and avoiding an additional $7.25m of duty. The press reporting the case said “At least one (of the boats) was equipped to throw out a smoke screen to shield speedboats, which ran illicit cargoes ashore. The complaint charged the fleet was directed by wireless from British Columbia.” The case was dropped in 1935 after they agreed to pay a $500,000 fine and forfeit the $200,000 bail they had to put up to get back to Canada.

George and Harry Reifel built two of Vancouver’s landmark mansions, Casa Mia and Rio Vista, as well as the Commodore Ballroom and the Vogue Theatre. Today the Commodore is run by Live Nation, but the building is now owned by local investors and developers Bonnis Brothers, who have recently replaced the storefronts and awnings to a simpler and consistent design. Under previous ownership the ballroom closed for renovations in 1996, and reopened in 1999 after extensive structural repairs and with a new hardwood floor. In the basement, the Commodore Lanes has one of the city’s few remaining bowling alleys.

Image source: City of Vancouver Archives CVA 780-51

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Posted 7 December 2020 by ChangingCity in Downtown, Still Standing

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