Lounge lizards' lair; new life for old den
Tyrants Media revives iconic Noir venue for jokes & jams
Before we’d even opened our mouths, the burly bouncer at the Penthouse door took one sceptical glance at Meilang and me and directed us to head “straight on up ‘til ya run outta staircase.”
I never expected to squire my prim Taiwanese wife through the portals of a strip club. But, in an operation completely independent of the fabled girlie bar, Tyrant Studios (an offshoot of Vancouver’s Seven Tyrants Theatre) now offers weekly cabaret nights in the penthouse of the Penthouse.
The promised fare – jazz jams on Fridays and stand-up comics on Saturdays – poses a prospect of irresistible loucherie. And, after 40+ years of marriage, we like to think that louche R us, as per the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “Disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way.” Etymologically, the OED helpfully adds, the word louche derives from an old French verb for “squinting.”
On the first two floors of the 70-year-old red brick walk-up, however, we caught ourselves doing a lot more ogling than squinting; each landing presented fleeting glimpses of writhing pole dancers in backlit silhouette. But at the top of the stairs the ambience turned markedly squintier.
The narrow room was daubed in matte black – walls, ceiling and maybe even the floor, although we couldn’t really tell as the tables were crammed too close and the mood lighting was too dim for us to quite catch sight of our own feet. All the more impressive, then, how the cabaret’s lone waitress managed to snake among the 20-odd patrons delivering wine, beer and a very limited array of spirits.
The cocktail options may have once been wider, judging by vintage photos from the Penthouse’s heyday as a way station on the roadshow route to Las Vegas stardom. In those days, the club’s founding Fillipone family played host to up-and-comers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington. Some even had to lodge in the Fillipone’s own family home, back in an era when tonier Vancouver hotels closed their door to Blacks.
Such flouting of convention leant the Fillipones a vaguely Mafioso air, although nothing has ever been proved against them, according to John Belshaw, co-author of Vancouver Noir, the definitive (and eminently readable) encyclopaedia of local loucherie. The Gangland taint only thickened, Belshaw adds, with the 1982 murder of one of the family patriarchs on the Penthouse premises, even though the case panned out as just a botched burglary.
Nevertheless, the place has amassed enough Noir karma to earn its own niche in downtown Vancouver’s ectoplasmic ecosystem. The Tyrant Studios waitress routinely senses a “cold emanation” from the sealed-off black-box theatre room behind her mini-bar. And Emilio Suarez, whose combo headlined last week’s jazz night, detects a mysterious “extra vibe” in his double bass every time he plays the Penthouse penthouse.
Whatever it is that’s tingling his fingerboard, it only enhances his groove as he swings into his own edgy take a string of traditional lounge tunes. That’s the sort of fare favoured by Vancouver audiences, he finds, as opposed to the more experimental taste in his native Calgary. Still, he and his saxophonist, Ardeshir Pourkeramati, managed to squeeze in a couple of well-received original compositions.
Both are current students in the acclaimed jazz programme at Capilano University. A third member of the combo, pianist Jimmy James, declared himself proudly auto-didact, having learned his keyboard chops mainly from records – although he also concedes some influence from his Juno-award-winning father, Vancouver jazz trombone legend Hugh Fraser. Sequestered behind a baby grand that occupied two thirds of the Tyrants Studios stage, he sprayed the tiny, black penthouse with sparkling fountains of arpeggiated riffs.
The piano – a Penthouse fixture since the mid-20th century – even got pressed into service the following evening, on comedy night, when stand-up tyro Myles Anderson “played himself out” with quite a credible rendition of Maple Leaf Rag. Fresh out of Victoria, Anderson professed suitable awe for so storied a Vancouver venue.
“With all those stars passing through here, you know a lot of sex must have happened right here on this piano,” he pronounced, stroking the instrument’s curvaceous flanks. Anderson’s manic, free-associative self-deprecation stood in marked contrast to the zombie deadpan of Ben Fawcett, the other warm-up act, or the bruised orchid allure of guest Emcee Megan Milton.
But the headline act, Taiwanese-Canadian comedy “King” Ed Hill,” stole the show. The man’s been all over the Vancouver stand-up scene, repeatedly toured North America and Asia, broadcast on network TV and produced a bevy of original podcasts.
You can view much of his material, verbatim, online. Yet it somehow stays fresh at each performance. Part of it is his impeccably paced, staccato delivery. Or maybe it’s a Conrad/Nabokov effect whereby a fluent narrator in a second language can achieve greater precision than a native speaker.
His physical presence – large, smooth, rounded and googly-eyed – is far more commanding in person than onscreen. It’s like the difference between craning to take in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade from the crush of New York’s 5th Avenue, versus viewing it, turkey-sated, from a couch in front of a TV. And the effect is all the more pronounced in the cramped confines of the Penthouse penthouse, as opposed to, say, the spacious TedX stage.
Then, too, his material – steeped, as is so much of stand-up comedy, in personal mishap – nevertheless draws on much broader themes like discrimination, inter-generational disconnects and the tragi-comedy of Taiwan. Funny enough to keep me in stitches, but for Meilang a true 哭笑不得 experience.