Community Papers

The story behind the Penthouse

Back in the day - Ross Filippone with friends under the original marquee in 1957.  - Photo courtesy of Danny Filippone and the Penthouse.
Back in the day - Ross Filippone with friends under the original marquee in 1957.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Danny Filippone and the Penthouse.

It’s 1983, and here’s what was making headlines in Vancouver: Wearing a blue hardhat, Premier Bill Bennett officially opens BC Place Stadium; Bryan Adams releases Cuts Like a Knife, his third studio album; and Joe Philliponi is shot dead inside the family’s nightclub on Seymour Street.

Author Aaron Chapman was only 12 on Sept. 18, 1983, the day Philliponi’s (actual spelling: Filippone) death made the front page.

But the memory is vivid.

His father, a lawyer, mentioned to him that day that he’d done some work for the Filippones.

“[I was] surprised my father even knew these guys — it [the murder] seemed something out of a theatre,” he recalls.

Today, Chapman probably knows as much about the history of the Filippone family and more tales from the Penthouse club than many insiders. Chapman, a one-time North Van resident, has just published Liquor, Lust, and the Law: The story of Vancouver’s Legendary Penthouse Nightclub (Arsenal Pulp Press), the first book written about the landmark club on Seymour Street.

A freelance writer and musician, Chapman first became interested in the history of the Penthouse club a few years back when he strolled past the iconic Seymour Street building and saw the mural on the side read: established in 1947.

Coming up on its 60th anniversary, he pitched the story to the Vancouver Courier and ended up writing a 3,000-word piece. For the story, he interviewed Ross Filippone (brother of Joe, and one of the four brothers who opened the club), his son Danny (a North Van resident who now runs the club), an undercover cop from the 1970s and dug up lots of historical material.

“They appreciated what I was trying to do with the [story],” says Chapman of the Filippone family.

Then last January, he got a call from Danny Filippone. Danny and his father Ross, now deceased, had talked about doing a book on the Penthouse for years. And, after a recent fire at the club and his father’s passing, there was an even greater sense of urgency to record the history of the club.

Chapman was his man.

The fact that Chapman’s father had a connection, albeit minor, made him even more eager to get going on the book project.  “[That] was part of the intrigue of researching the piece,” says Chapman.

Because he’d already written a feature-length piece on the family, Chapman admits he was somewhat cavalier about writing the book. He already knew the story, or so he thought. “I had no idea what was in store for me,” he admits.

After all, this is a story spanning 1927 to present day about four immigrant brothers — Joe, Ross, Mickey and Jimmy — opening a club that, as the author notes, each decade had its own “headline-grabbing controversy.”

There was no shortage of material. Over the years, the Penthouse has seen its fair share of famous entertainers, celebrities, athletes, gangsters, as well as plenty of cops and members of the vice squad and exotic dancers.

For the book, Chapman filed freedom of information requests with the police, combed Vancouver’s Police Museum, and interviewed more Filippone family members. He also went back to his original notes and was given a real treasure trove of Penthouse history — a large binder kept by Joe Philliponi that included every newspaper article ever written about the club and the family.

“Everything seemed to lead to something else,” Chapman says.

During his research, Chapman managed to solve some old Penthouse mysteries and unearth a few new ones. Along with the terrific tales, the book is also filled with pages of recently discovered historic photos.

A member of Heritage Vancouver and the Point Roberts Historical Society, Chapman has a real appreciation for Vancouver history.

“I’ve seen the city change before my very eyes. The Penthouse is really a thread in Vancouver history to the past.”

“We don’t have [many] of those places in Vancouver.”

And while the club has become synonymous with exotic dancers through the years, Chapman is clear that this isn’t just a book about strippers.

Sure there’s ample ink dedicated to the Penthouse’s famous exotic dancers in the book — “lust is in the title,” he says, jokingly, “it’s in there” — but it’s mostly a book about the history of Vancouver, the city’s nightclub scene and its most famous family, the Filippones.

— For more about Liquor, Lust, and the Law: The story of Vancouver’s Legendary Penthouse Nightclub, visit arsenalpulp.com.

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