2018 Speaker Series in Review: The Penthouse Papers with Aaron Chapman!

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

2018 Speaker Series with Aaron Chapman

Our 2018 Speaker Series is well underway, and the legendary tales about “Vancouver Noir,” or Vancouver’s salacious history of crime and corruption from the ’20s onward keep coming. On May 2, bestselling Vancouver author and historian Aaron Chapman captivated a standing room only audience with his presentation “The Penthouse Surveillance: Secret Documents Revealed.”

Chapman kicked things off by explaining how his research on the legendary nightclub has expanded since the publication of his 2012 book, “Liquor, Lust, and the Law: The Story of Vancouver’s Legendary Penthouse Nightclub.” In addition to a recent reprint with new information and photos, he received a call sometime a few months back, from our very own Museum Director, Rosslyn Shipp, who had found several police photobooks from the infamous Penthouse sting operation in the storage of the museum.

With a deft eye for Vancouver landmarks, Shipp recognized the famed location at 1019 Seymour Street in several of the photos and immediately called Chapman to let him know that there may be some excellent new evidence to add to his well-known documentation of the establishment. This was stunning news for Chapman, as he tried all avenues to find these photos when he wrote his book in 2012, but ended up empty-handed. In fact, back in 2012, fearing that all the photo evidence had been destroyed or lost, taking with it some of the greatest secrets in Vancouver’s history, he wrote: “For now, the photos might as well be in the bottom of Deep Creek with the ghost of John Eccles.”

Sure enough, when Chapman came to the museum to see the books and photos, he knew he had stumbled upon a goldmine of new information for his records. But, as he mused to the crowd, even for those who are not interested in the history of the Penthouse nightclub, the photos are fascinating just because of the “super fly ’70s clothing.”

Chapman at The Vancouver Police Museum looking through the recently unearthed photo books.

Author Aaron Chapman reviewing the recently unearthed police books at The Vancouver Police Museum

The audience was not disappointed; Chapman made good on his word and shared many intriguing photos of the Penthouse, in addition to flamboyantly dressed prostitutes, the ‘Penthouse Six’ which included several members of the Filippone family, and of course, the many ‘Johns’ who frequented the establishment during the ‘70s. There were also notorious criminals like Eddie Cheese and John Eccles who were suspected to be the pimps and criminals running the show.

Chapman then dove into the rich history of The Penthouse throughout the century, beginning with its reputation from the ‘40s and onwards. For instance, in the ‘50s and ‘60s in addition to being a place where individuals could find women, it was also known as an establishment where people could drink illegally, thus skirting the strict drinking laws at the time.

The Penthouse Nightclub The Vancouver Police Museum

One of the best parts of Chapman’s presentation was the inclusion of two very special guests, retired Detective George Barclay and Officer Grant MacDonald who were ‘on the beat’ during The Penthouse’s earlier years. In one recollection, Barclay coloured the establishment’s history vividly:

“We were usually 6 officers at the time, and we’d hit different clubs in town—rats’ nest types of clubs and we always had to hit The Penthouse which did not have a liquor license. So, everybody brought a bottle in, and in those days, it was husbands and wives, or husbands and wives and girlfriends, whatever turned your crank…most people were nice people…ordinary people and we weren’t there to get anyone—just to find the liquor.”

In fact, while performing ‘dry squad raids,’ he and his fellow officers would often give unsuspecting patrons a ‘pass.’

Barclay recalled: “One time I saw a bottle of rye under the table sitting beside a guy, and I said ‘That bottle isn’t yours, is it?’ and he replied, ‘Why of course it is’ and then I said, ‘No it’s not.” And he said, ‘Well why do you think I am drinking it?’… I then quietly told to him that having a bottle of liquor in a place that only had a restaurant license resulted in a 50-dollar fine, which in the ‘60s was a lot of money. He said that he might have about 50 bucks in his pocket, but that’s it. So, I said, ‘Let’s start over. That isn’t your bottle is it?’ and he said, ‘No officer, I’ve never seen that bottle befo