The Early Days
The Commodore at 870 Granville opened on the evening of December 3, 1930 as the Commodore Cabaret. Behind architect Henry Gillingham’s Art Deco Mission Revival façade, the second-floor dance hall wowed everyone with its striking Art Deco interiors and sprung dance floor; a hardwood floor laid over tires filled with horse hair to give it a distinctive bounce. Owner George Reifel had great hopes for the club but unfortunately the venue closed its doors just 4 months later as the Great Depression took hold. Sadly, its architect Henry Gillingham, had died suddenly in Vancouver September 1930 and did not see his creation become a lasting success. The Commodore was reopened in 1931 by Nick Kogas and Johnny Dillias as the Commodore Ballroom with live music, dinner and dancing on Saturday nights. Legendary band leader Dal Richards becomes a regular at the Saturday Supper Night and remembers the 1000-person venue was advertised as having the biggest dance floor in Canada.
Nick Kogas and Johnny Dillias were old hands in the café business having worked and managed many well-known businesses on Hastings Street. Nick was the owner of the Empire Café until he opened the Golden Gate Café in 1920 and later the Broadway café across the street in 1927. By 1929 he was managing the Commodore Café below the ballroom. Johnny owned the Georgia Oyster Saloon on West Georgia in 1917, before moving on to the Happyland Pavilion at the PNE, later joining Nick at the Commodore Cafe.
In 1936, Charlie Pawlett, a Nanaimo born trumpet and violin player, became the Commodore Ballroom’s band leader and his shows were broadcast on CJOR radio until 1939. The weekly music program opened with “And now Charlie Pawlett plays for you.” Ole Olsen and his Commodores became the house band in the 1940s.
For the next sixty years, all the big names in the music business played the Commodore. Drew Burns took over the management in 1969 and the venerable ballroom became a well known rock and roll joint. Drew got the club its first liquor license in 1970, previously it was strictly bring your own. The names that graced the Commodore stage during these years included Tina Turner, Kiss, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, David Bowie, and The Village People. Burns booked the first Vancouver appearances by Patti Smith, Blondie, Devo, Tom Petty, The Police and the North American debut of The Clash — all within a few weeks of each other. Burns also gave local bands a chance to perform, and donated the room for fund-raisers such as The Variety Club, Cancer Society, Greenpeace, the Food Bank and the Kiwanis Club.
In 1996 the place fell silent once again and there were questions about the fate of the Commodore, but after three years and an investment of $3 million in a top-to-bottom renovation, the ballroom was back and reopened almost exactly seventy years after its original debut. In 2011, Billboard Magazine named the legendary Commodore as one of the top ten influential clubs in North America. It was the only Canadian music venue to make the list.
At the street level, the 1999 renovation revealed the original store fronts, tiling and leaded glass transom lights. A local tile maker was commissioned to replicate the original tile work to restore the exterior and store fronts were returned to close to their original appearance.
The basement bowling alley opened in September 1930 and advertised itself as a place where “pleasant days may be spent.” Artist J. J. Denny was commissioned to paint scenes of the Fraser River on the walls which can still be seen today. The Commodore Lanes are Canada’s oldest surviving 5 pin bowling centre and was the first to have a women’s bowling league and apparently the first to rent bowling shoes.
As with many sites in Vancouver, a large redevelopment is underway for the Commodore and the 800 Granville.