Archive for the ‘George C Reifel’ Tag

Vogue Theatre – Granville Street

Kaplan and Sprachman didn’t have a complete monopoly on theatre design in Canada, but it was close – they’re estimated to have designed three quarters of all the theatres built over a 30 year period from 1920. Their architectural practice was in Toronto, where they also designed apartments, commercial buildings and synagogues. It probably wasn’t a Jewish connection that brought them to Vancouver though; their client, George Reifel, claimed to be Methodist, although over a very successful business career, authorities in both the US and Canada identified him as far from encouraging a teetotal lifestyle.

Heinrich Reifel (known as Henry in Canada), came to Canada from Bavaria (via two years in Portland and Chicago) in 1888, and briefly established a brewery near Westminster Avenue in Vancouver, known as the ‘San Fransisco Brewery’ that failed very quickly. Henry decamped to Victoria, and then Nanaimo, where he was a head brewer of the brewery there. He married Annie Brown, originally from San Francisco, although more recently in Barkerville, in September 1892. Annie was four years younger, at 19. Nine and a half months later George Reifel was born, followed by Henry Frederick (known as Harry) at the end of 1895 and Florence in 1898.

Henry, and his two brothers, built a brewing empire starting in Nanaimo, and then incorporating the Vancouver Breweries business. Both his sons studied brewing in the US and returned to work in the family business. Some histories say the arrival of prohibition in Canada saw Henry and his sons head to Japan in 1916, where they helped establish the Anglo-Japanese Brewing Company, making malt from rice. (As originally a German family, British Columbia wasn’t a great place to be during the war). George had recently married Alma Barnes in St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Vancouver, and in time they had three children.

In the 1921 census only Conrad Reifel, Henry’s brother, was listed living in Nanaimo (as a brewer), but the street directories show Henry, George and Henry F Reifel all living in Vancouver from 1914 onwards, and despite prohibition starting in 1917, involved at BC Breweries as foreman, managing director and advertising director throughout the war years. In the early 1920s, with production once more legally able to be sold in Canada, the family owned a variety of liquor-related businesses. They were also involved in organising Consolidated Exporters, supposedly shipping locally produced and imported beer, wine and spirits past the US in a variety of freighters, but often returning empty without ever having reached their South or Central American destinations (although the ship’s paperwork often told a different story). The Reifels owned the schooner Lira de Agua (registered in Nicaragua) through their Northern Freighters business, and the Ououkinish, a former halibut schooner, through their Atlantic and Pacific Navigation Company. Their City of San Diego was probably the first ‘mother ship’ to set off southwards, in 1922.

By the end of the 1920s the family were awash with cash. The brothers each built an extravagant mansion near the Marpole BC Distilleries plant. George built the Commodore Ballroom in 1929, and the family sold their entire brewing operation in 1933, when his father, Henry, retired. In 1940, despite the wartime economy, George commissioned the The Vogue, a 1,300 seat movie house with a stage designed to also allow live performance. The cinema operation (part of the Odeon chain) closed in 1987, and the theatre’s future looked uncertain. Acquired by a development company, it was restored and reopened sporadically in 1992 with a few live performances every year. Another change of ownership, and further repairs in 2009 has seen the theatre operating with around 200 events every year, including live music, comedy, and cultural performances.

Image source: Jewish Museum and Archives, Leonard Frank, LF.00217


Posted 10 December 2020 by ChangingCity in Downtown, Still Standing

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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


Posted 7 December 2020 by ChangingCity in Downtown, Still Standing

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