Guitars, gangsters and g-strings: memories of Vancouver’s Main Street

Bank of Montreal Building, Main and Prior, Vancouver, 1984

Aside from Vancouver’s version of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury on hip West Fourth Avenue, the northern reaches of Main Street and adjacent Chinatown were the first areas of the city I really got to know, after immigrating to Canada with my parents in 1965.

The familiarity was due to the fact that my father, Ray Parker, an entertainer in the Vaudevillian tradition, played the neighbourhood’s nightclubs.

Within a few square blocks lay the Shanghai Junk, run by Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame, at 205 Pender Street; The Smilin’ Buddha, at 109 E. Hastings Street, between Main and Columbia, (later, the incubator for Vancouver’s punk rock scene); Harlem Nocturne, 343 E. Hastings; and the Club New Delhi, 544 Main (at Keefer).

The main menu

Miss Lovie at the Club New Delhi

New Delhi newspaper ad, with my dad’s name misspelled

The attractions of the New Delhi were typical. Variety shows featured the best blues and jazz musicians of the day, burlesque artists like Miss Lovie Eli (who went on to a singing career, staring in such classics as Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the Arts Club Theatre), my girlfriend Sunny Daye (a popular burlesque stage name), and comics and singers, like my dad.

Acts moved up and down the Pacific coast, with stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Reno, Seattle, and finally, Vancouver. Sunny became a star of the “west coast circuit.”

Patrons of West Side venues, like Issy’s Supper Club and The Penthouse, regarded the clubs of Chinatown as “dives.” The latter attracted more police attention, targeted by the vice squad under laws against “immoral acts,” liquor law infractions, and admitting underage patrons, like myself and Sunny.

All the clubs were frequented by gangsters, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes, but East End cabarets were “colour blind” as well as safe havens for people referred to collectively today as the LGBTQ community.

Dad’s stand-up routine was risqué … and risky.

“The first time I worked here, I went out on Main Street and hailed a cop.”

“Do you know there’s men in there, dressed as women?”

… a few raised eyebrows in the audience.

“The cop looked at me and said, (Dad cocked his hip and raised a limp wrist) ‘If you don’t like our club, you don’t have to go in it!’”

That joke introduced Dad’s most outrageously camp act, performed in British pantomime tradition, lip-syncing in drag to such hits as Shirley Bassey’s “Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me.”

Slow blues in G

I was there for the music, of course. A pretty good blues harp player, I was thrilled to jam with top-drawer bands. The dancers didn’t mind much what was played, as long as it had a groove — a slow, 12-bar blues was perfect — and didn’t go on longer than the 15-minutes it took to strip down to g-string and pasties.

In the years since, I’ve run into a few fellow denizens of the East End club scene — from jazz musicians to servers and dancers, all of whom look back on those days, in the sixties and early seventies, as the high point of Vancouver’s independent club scene. Nothing remotely close to it exists today.

Main & E. Georgia, Vancouver, 1984

Voodoo Child

Running between Union and Prior Streets from Main Street to Jackson Avenue, Hogan’s Alley (Park Lane) had for sixty years formed the nucleus of Vancouver’s African-Canadian community. The area was known for its booze cans, gambling dens and brothels.

The construction of the Georgia Viaduct in 1972 (now slated for demolition) ploughed aside Vancouver’s only black neighbourhood.

A few blocks off Main Street, at 810 E. Georgia Street, lived Nora Hendrix, former Vaudeville dancer and grandmother of guitar god Jimi. She was in the audience when Jimi played the Pacific Coliseum, on September 7, 1968. So were my girlfriend and I.

Compared to today’s mega-arena shows, the atmosphere was positively intimate. Holding hands, we pushed our way through the frenzied crowd, grabbing a stage front spot, at Hendrix’s feet.

Sunny’s uninhibited dancing — she had removed her blouse — caught Jimi’s eye. He perched on the edge of the stage and played Foxy Lady, just for her.

A brick hut on the corner of Union and Main, believed to be the former kitchen of Vie’s Chicken Inn, where Nora Hendrix once worked as a cook, housed a Jimi Hendrix shrine for a few years. It has moved to a temporary home on Howe Street, but owner Vincent Fodera has big plans for the Union Street building. It remains to be seen if those plans will survive a new condominium proposal.

The party’s over

At 32, I returned to document the scene of my misspent youth. The intervening 15-years or so had erased from memory the exact locations of those clubs where I’d made my debut as a young disciple of the blues. Stripped of its vibrant nightlife, erotic dance having moved into pubs, accompanied by canned music, the neighbourhood was in decline.

My negative and contact sheet archive record that, in December, 1983, I tried to photograph the Bank of Montreal at 905 Main Street, but, unsatisfied with the result, I returned on a frigid day in January to try my luck again.

I set up the tripod, extending the centre column as high as possible, and shot the first half of the 12-exposure roll of Ilford FP4 120 film, with #2, including traffic lined up at the Prior Street light, now my favourite photograph of the six.

In 1984, the building (a Classical Revival style temple bank, designed by Honeyman & Curtis) was used as a clinic for mental health patients. Recently it has been integrated into the front of a new condominium.

I made a single exposure at the T-intersection of Main and East Georgia (see above) in an empty lot that still exists north of Murrin Substation at 721 Main. The derelict building on the left has been replaced, most recently, by a mixed-use development, as have all the buildings on the north side of E. Georgia.

Just a block short of Keefer Street and the building that had once housed the New Delhi Cabaret, I turned south again and set up in front of the substation grounds, where I ran into my neighbour, Dulcie, a young First Nations woman. The low winter sun projected long shadows of the property’s wrought iron fence, myself and my camera gear across the sidewalk and onto the frosty asphalt of Main Street.

Main Street, Vancouver

Pacific Hotel, 700 Block Main Street, Vancouver, 1984

Prints available from the shop, in the “Eighties Vancouver” collection

Raymond Parker
  • January 21, 2017 - 8:36 pm

    Gordon Bertram - When I was 19 in 1972 I played saxophone at Franks Cabaret on Hastings St. And the New Dehli.Bands would play five sets a night six nights a week.I still feel that my experience was very educational. Not only was I playing a lot of music I witnessed a subculture that no longer exists in the same fashion.ReplyCancel

    • January 21, 2017 - 11:26 pm

      Raymond Parker - We’re very close in age, Gordon. Maybe we crossed paths. The scene was very much an education in so many ways that is just not available today, as far as I know.ReplyCancel

  • January 20, 2017 - 12:37 pm

    Marko - Great amount of detail on the history of Vancouver.ReplyCancel

    • January 22, 2017 - 8:56 am

      Raymond Parker - Thanks Marko.ReplyCancel

  • January 17, 2017 - 12:13 pm

    Al Pirie - Lasseters Den, Vancouver Tonight, Copacabana, Spunkys, Traffic Jam, Baccetas, Diamond Lil’s, Smiling BuddhaReplyCancel

    • January 22, 2017 - 8:56 am

      Raymond Parker - Those too. ReplyCancel

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