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Dancing, big bands, psychedelia and Celebrities nightclub

Discovery of a century-old photograph is replicated at Celebrities, which is in a building that has had several lives.

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In early November, Caitlin Lewis of Celebrities Nightclub discovered an old photograph of the interior of the club.

It was identified as the “Fireman’s 25th Annual Ball, Lester Court, Nov. 14, 1923,” and shows about 200 firemen and their wives in their Sunday best posing for a group photo.

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The panorama was by one of early Vancouver’s top photographers, Stuart Thomson, and shows the assembled multitude gathered around a giant three-tiered cake topped by an edible fireman’s helmet. Fire hoses were draped around the mezzanine like bunting at a political event.

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Lewis quickly alerted her boss, Bill Kerasotis.

“She said, ‘Listen guys, this upcoming Tuesday the building turns 115 years old,’ ” said Kerasotis. “She said, ‘Let’s replicate this photo.’ ”

So they did.

“We got the cake ordered on the Friday,” said Kerasotis. “And then we had a bunch of friends and family and partners come down on the Tuesday to replicate the photo.”

Placed side-by-side, the two photos are a mini-history of Vancouver nightlife over the last century.

The 1923 photo is formal and staid, while the 2023 pic is casually glamorous and shows all the hallmarks of a modern dance club — a disco ball, lights on the ceiling, big speakers and bars on the side.

The bars are the biggest change — the space at 1022-24 Davie St. doesn’t seem to have had a liquor licence until the 1970s. This doesn’t mean people didn’t drink there — for decades it was a “bottle club,” where visitors would smuggle in their own booze and buy mix from the hall.

The building has had several incarnations. It opened as Lester Court, became the Embassy Ballroom in 1933, then became the psychedelic meccas Dante’s Inferno and the Retinal Circus in 1967.

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Jim Allan was one of the co-founders of the Retinal Circus. He said not having a liquor licence wasn’t much of an issue in 1967-68, because most of the patrons smoked pot.

“Inebriants partaken thereof at the Retinal Circus were non-liquid,” he said. “If there were a ratio, I’d say 90 to 10.”

During the mid-’60s the basement also operated as a separate after-hours music venue, the Elegant Parlour, which was run by comic legend Tommy Chong and his family.

After the Retinal Circus faded away in 1968, the building became the Embassy again, then the Crazy Horse, the Rock Palace and finally Celebrities, Vancouver’s largest gay club.

Like many venues, Celebrities was closed for a couple of years during COVID-19. But Kerasotis says it’s come back as strong as ever, open four to five nights a week from nine or 10 p.m. until 3 a.m.

Kerasotis comes from a local family that has operated many successful clubs, including the Luvafair, Graceland, the Shaggy Horse, the Plaza and the Caprice. The family also owns Olympic Pizza on West Broadway.

His father John and uncle Peter started Celebrities in 1982 and in 2004 Bill took over the club with his partners through their hospitality company, Blueprint.

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“Nightclubs are very tricky,” said Kerasotis, whose company also owns Fortune Sound Club in Chinatown, and has a busy concert/festival wing.

“They ebb and flow. Genres come and go, they get popular and then they get really difficult to maintain and hold onto. But I think we’ve done a really nice job curating music and understanding the genres and what’s coming and going.

“We’ve been able to stay relevant, essentially, through all of this.”

Celeb comparison
Group photographs taken inside the ballroom at 1022 Davie St. on Nov. 14, 1923, above, and replicated on Nov. 14, 2023, below. The building is now Celebrities Nightclub, but opened in 1914 as Lester Court, a dance academy that rented the ballroom out for events like the Fireman’s Ball in the top photo. The top photo is by Stuart Thomson, the bottom by Tim Ha Ngyuen. The Thomson photo has been darkened in photoshop. Photo by Stuart Thomson (top), Tim Ha Ngy /jpg

You could say the same for the building, which is probably the only Vancouver ballroom left from the 1910s.

The building was announced in the Feb. 5, 1911, Vancouver Daily News Advertiser as “one of the most palatial and modern buildings on the continent.”

Designed by prominent architect Thomas Hooper, the $100,000 structure had a ballroom designed in the “‘art nouveau’ or New Art style, with a fountain in the centre forming a striking feature.

“The spring (dance) floor will be of highly polished white maple,” said the story. “The gallery will extend around the entire ballroom, connecting with the most up-to-date shell shape sounding board music stand, capable of accompanying a 20-piece orchestra.”

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There were supposed to be four floors of apartments above the ballroom, but only two were built. There was a recession just before and during the First World War, so part of the building’s plan was lopped off, including an ornate cornice at the top and a penthouse. The cost of the smaller building was announced as $70,000.

Finally it opened in September 1914 as Lester Court, after the Lester Dancing Academy, which occupied the main floor. (A Vancouver Heritage Foundation plaque on the outside of the building says it was built in 1908, which is why Caitlin Lewis of Celebrities thought it was 115 years old, when it’s actually 109.)

Lester Court was run by Maud and Frederick Lester, Americans who had opened a dance academy in Victoria in 1903. The Lesters moved to Vancouver in 1908 and opened a dance academy at Granville and Davie streets.

In 1914 they relocated to Lester Court, living in an apartment above the ballroom. But Maud left Frederick in 1917 to move to Honolulu, where she remarried and carried on her dance business as Madam Lester, or Maud Lester King.

Her ex-husband kept the Lester Dancing Academy going until 1933, employing other dance teachers. He also rented out the hall for events like the Fireman’s Ball. Thomson took panoramas of many events, which can be viewed on the Vancouver Archives’ website. There’s even a shot of The Vancouver Sun staff dance on Dec. 13, 1918.

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The Embassy Ballroom took over in November 1933, with Barney Potts leading a “10-piece Embassy Orchestra” for entertainment. There were live radio broadcasts from the Embassy in the 1930s and ’40s by the Embassy house band.

But popular music changed, and in the mid-’60s the Embassy was a rhythm and blues club run by Jim Wisbey, who also ran clubs like The Torch and Diamond Jim’s.

Wisbey renamed the club Dante’s Inferno and brought the Doors to town on July 21 and 22, 1967.

“I remember Jim Morrison at the side of the stage, humping the speaker,” said Jim Allan. “He was in his own world, I guess. I thought it was a strange thing to do when you were performing. But I was not a performer, so how would I know?”

Somehow Wisbey lost money on three Doors shows in Vancouver and Victoria. So he leased the ballroom to Allan, Roger Schiffer and Blaine Culling, which they renamed the Retinal Circus.

“He lost a ton of money and then said, ‘OK you guys can have it,’ ” said Allan. “What I found surprising was he wasn’t worried about losing a lot of money — he was worried about the tax department knowing he had that much to lose.”

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The Grateful Dead did a show there when it was still Dante’s Inferno. Bob Masse’s psychedelic art nouveau poster of a beautiful hippie goddess for the Dead show is famous — a copy sold for $15,000 at a psychedelic poster auction in Florida in 2021. The Grateful Dead liked it so much that they had it up in their office.

But psychedelia faded and the ballroom went back to being the Embassy. In 1969 Imperial Oil bought the property and was looking to tear down the ballroom to expand the gas station at the corner of Burrard and Davie streets, but it never happened.

The site is now owned by No. 234 Cathedral Ventures of West Vancouver, which purchased it for $1,531,200 in 2002. Kerasotis’s company Blueprint has never owned the building; it leases it.

Today, Celebrities employs about 65 people, out of 500 in the overall Blueprint company. Kerasotis said Blueprint was diversified enough to weather COVID, and Celebrities is now back up to speed, a 41-year-old nightclub in a 109-year-old building that could be around for decades to come.

Asked to explain its longevity, Kerasotis said: “It’s inclusive, we get all walks of life. We have strong partnerships with the Davie Village. The programming is diversified, we have anything from EDM shows to drag shows to K-pop nights, you name it. It’s just programming the room for mass appeal, essentially.”

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Lester orig
The original design for Lester Court, a building at 1022/24/26 Davie St. in Vancouver, in the Feb. 5, 1911, Vancouver Daily News-Advertiser. It’s now Celebrities nightclub, and in 1967-68 was Dante’s Inferno and the Retinal Circus, a psychedelic hotspot where the Doors and Grateful Dead played. Designed by architect Thomas Hooper, the building was to have a ballroom on the bottom two floors and floors of apartments above, with a penthouse on the roof. But there was a recession before the First World War and the building was cut back two floors. The finished building didn’t open until September 1914 and wasn’t nearly as grand as originally intended. jpg
Dead Masse
Reproduction of a 1967 Bob Masse psychedelic poster for the Grateful Dead at Dante’s Inferno on Davie Street at Neptoon Records on Main street. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG
fire full
The full panorama photo of the Firemen’s 25th Annual Ball at Lester Court (1022-1024 Davie St.) on Nov. 14, 1923. Stuart Thomson Vancouver Archives AM1535-: CVA 99-5250 Photo by Stuart Thomson /jpg
cake
Closeup of the cake at the Firemen’s 25th Annual Ball at Lester Court (1022-1024 Davie St.) on Nov. 14, 1923. Stuart Thomson Vancouver Archives AM1535-: CVA 99-5250
sun 1918
Vancouver Daily Sun Staff 2nd Annual Dance Lester Court (1022-1024 Davie St.) on Dec. 13, 1918. Stuart Thomson Vancouver Archives AM1535-: CVA 99-5296 Photo by Stuart Thomson /jpg
sun crop
Closeup of a panorama photo of The Vancouver Daily Sun Staff’s at its 2nd Annual Dance at Lester Court (1022-1024 Davie St.) on Dec. 13, 1918. Stuart Thomson Vancouver Archives AM1535-: CVA 99-5296
costume
Unidentified group in costume in ballroom of Lester Court, 1022-1024 Davie St., 1920s. Stuart Thomson Vancouver Archives AM1535-: CVA 99-5231 Photo by Stuart Thomson /jpg
cost 2
Closeup of unidentified group in costume in ballroom of Lester Court, 1022-1024 Davie St., 1920s. Stuart Thomson Vancouver Archives AM1535-: CVA 99-5231
doors
Bob Masse’s poster for The Doors at Dante’s Inferno nightclub on July 21 and 22, 1967. It was the band’s first appearance in Vancouver, and probably in Canada. An original copy of the psychedelic poster sells for $2,000 to $3,000. Photo by Bob Masse /PNG
cee
The interior of Celebrities Nightclub in Vancouver. Brendan Leong photo, courtesy Celebrities Photo by Brendan Leong /jpg
LC ad
Lester Court ad in the Sept. 25, 1914, Vancouver Daily Province.
les
Maud Lester King ad in the Jan. 11, 1930, Honolulu Advertiser. Maud was one of the founders of the Lester Dancing Academy, which originally occupied Lester Court. jpg
les em
Story in the Nov. 18, 1933, Vancouver Province about Lester Court at 1022 Davie St. becoming the Embassy Ballroom.
elegant ad
Ad for Tommy Chong’s after-hours club The Elegant Parlour in the June 4, 1969, Vancouver Sun. The Elegant Parlour was in the basement of the Embassy Ballroom at 1022/24 Davie St. in Vancouver. (The address in the ad is wrong.) Chong was the guitar player in Little Daddy and the Bachelors and later Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. But he ditched music to become a comic with Cheech and Chong.
imperial
Item in a June 18, 1969, Jack Wasserman column in The Vancouver Sun about Imperial Oil purchasing 1022 Davie St. and tearing it down for a gas station. It didn’t happen, and in 2023 the 1914 building is still operating as Celebrities Nightclub.

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