For over 80 years, the Commodore Ballroom has been synonymous with Vancouver entertainment and nightlife. Since opening its doors in 1929, the award winning ballroom has hosted music legends, celebrated historical milestones, congratulated graduating students, and has been the setting for countless romances.
Vancouver Needs Another Ballroom
The original Commodore Cabaret was built in 1929 by George Conrad Reifel at the urging of his wife Alma, who felt the city needed somewhere else to go besides the increasingly crowded ballroom of Hotel Vancouver (located at that time at the corner of Georgia and Granville Streets). the site chosen was the Granville Street location of the Commodore Cafe that since 1924 had been the home to a small main floor restaurant with booths and a gramophone. By comparison, Vancouverites couldn't have imaged what the Commodore would become. Modeled on a ballroom design n Britain and designed by Vancouver architect H.H. Gillingham, Gillingham died just after the plans for the Commodore were completed, which left his son, Bruce Gillingham to finish the project. The venue was -- and remains today -- an outstanding example of the Art Deco style popular at that time.
Unfortunately, the Commodore’s opening on December 3rd 1930 came on the heels of the infamous stock market crash the year before with an aftermath that left Vancouverites with an overwhelming feeling of austerity – and the Commodore closed in March 1931. But dreams of success remained strong in the hearts of managing directors Nick Kogas (who'd previously ran the Commodore Cafe) and Johnny Dillias who re-opened the room later that year. Their formula for keeping the room alive was to feature dinner and dancing every Saturday night -- with an admission of $1 per person -- and for the balance of the week, to rent the room for company parties, student celebrations and various private social events.
The Commodore quickly became the place to be for Vancouver's movers and shakers. Known to have the best dance floor in town, all the city’s biggest dancing events were held there. The room was rich and inviting, with plush carpets and walls draped with floor-length curtains.
For more than 30 years, the Commodore relied on a very successful combination of house bands, featured acts and third-party rentals to maintain its stature in the city.
House Bands and Music Legends
Over the years, the Commodore hired a succession of house bands that would play exclusively for years until one contract ended and another began. It was the era of big bands and 12-14 piece Orchestras. The first was Wendell Dorey and his orchestra; the last was Dal Richards, who played for three years beginning in 1965. In between were such names as Don Flynne, Bob Lyon, Charlie Pawlett, Ole Olsen & His Commodores, Doug Kirk, George Calangis, Len Chamberlain and Mart Kenney - who would continue to appear up until 1973. Longtime Vancouverites might even recall on Saturday Nights on when the Orchestra performances were broadcast live on the radio.
Big names from out of town that drew the crowds included The Dorsey Brothers, Count Basie, George Burns, Rudy Vallee, Stan Kenton, Cab Calloway and the Will Maston Trio, including the as yet unknown Sammy Davis Jr.
In 1961, following the death of Johnny Dillias two years earlier, the lease was taken over from Nick Kogas by Dick Gourlay, a nephew of the late George C. Reifel. Gourlay started his eight-year tenure by painting the walls red and laying down new carpets, but he did little to attract new audiences. Gourlay ran the Ballroom with an arms length approach and shows of note were few and far between. Thus, this was a time when Vancouver's night life was being dominated by venues like The Cave and The Palomar Room that were booking super-stars such as the Mills Brothers, Frankie Laine, the Ink Spots and Lena Horne. The Commodore was managing to turn a profit, but the luster was gone.
Drew Burns and The Ballroom
Profits and appeal picked up significantly for the venue in 1969 when Impresario Drew Burns purchased the lease, obtained a liquor license, renovated the room and changed the name from the Commodore Cabaret to the Commodore Ballroom.
For the next 25 years, Burns made the Commodore rock! He brought in live acts of all genres -- from rock and roll, country and the blues, to punk, new wave and heavy metal. 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 broke new ground by booking 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 was also generous with the Commodore Ballroom's space, giving local bands a chance to perform, and donating the room for fund-raisers such as The Variety Club, Cancer Society, Greenpeace, the Food Bank and the Kiwanis Club.
In the mid-90s, the Drew Burns vision of the Commodore Ballroom was fading. His lease expired at the end of 1995, and despite the construction of a new dance floor in January 1996, the lease went up for sale.
The sale was unsuccessful and, in July 1996, the Commodore Ballroom closed its doors. The room remained empty and silent for three years until 1999. With no place quite like it in Vancouver many touring acts simply bypassed the city, and its closure fractured the local music scene as for local bands there was no top room for them to graduate onto. Those three dark years at the Commodore are recalled as a low point in the Commodore's history, and a time and in which Vancouver realized how much the club really meant to the city.
Canada’s Leading Concert Venue
Reopening under the House of Blues banner in November 1999, to the pleasure and excitement of the entire city, The Commodore Ballroom continued where Drew Burns had left off – booking the world’s leading artists, supporting local acts and renting the space for private functions. During the closure, $3.5 million was invested in renovations to the historic venue, and Burns' longtime management of the Commodore is enshrined in marble with his recognition in the BC Entertainment Show Business Walk of Fame outside of the sidewalk in front of the Commodore.
Commemorating the Commodore’s 75th Anniversary in 2004, House of Blues hosted a year-long celebration season, kicked off early with a special October 2003 performance by Tom Waits. Lured by his fondness for Vancouver and his love for playing in historic buildings, this was his first club show in nearly three decades.
House of Blues merged with Live Nation, the largest live entertainment company in the world, in 2006, ever increasing the caliber of acts performing on the famous stage. Remaining current with technological upgrades and state-of-the-art sound equipment, The Commodore Ballroom continues to attract the best live performances in the city with shows as diverse as the Pixies, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Roger Daltrey, Snoop Dogg, Franz Ferdinand and many others.
Since reopening, the Commodore Ballroom has won countless awards recognizing its importance as a local landmark, exceptional operational efficiency and status as the city’s favourite live venue. Most recently, The Commodore was named one of the Top 10 Most Influential Clubs in North America and the Most Influential Club in Canada by Billboard Magazine in 2011.
As The Commodore Ballroom approaches its ninth decade, the venue is host to over 150 public events each year, entertaining over 120,000 guests annually. Locals and travelers, artists and guests continue to delight in the impressive history and ongoing commitment to the future of the Commodore Ballroom.