Author Tags: Alcohol, History, Law, Literary Landmarks, Local History

LITERARY SITE: Clark Park, 1500 E 14th Ave, Vancouver

Vancouver’s second oldest urban park, Clark Park, is the focus of Vancouver author/historian Aaron Chapman’s The Last Gang in Town. At this location in the early 1970s the Clark Park Gang evolved into one of that era’s most notorious street gangs. In 1972, after the gang was involved in a number of headline-making clashes with police, including the 'Rolling Stones riot' outside the Pacific Coliseum, the Vancouver Police Department formed an undercover squad to go after the gang. Hostile interactions culminated in a shooting death of a Clark Park gang member, Danny Teece, age 17. Chapman's history includes stories from both former gang members and undercover police officers who worked to stifle gang activity. The full title of Chapman's entirely original Vancouver history is The Last Gang in Town: The Epic Story of the Vancouver Police vs. the Clark Park Gang (Arsenal 2016).

Born and raised in Vancouver, Aaron Chapman is a cultural historian who has been a contributor to the Vancouver Courier, Georgia Straight, and CBC Radio. A graduate of the University of British Columbia as well as a musician, he is also a member of Heritage Vancouver and the Point Roberts Historical Society.

Aaron Chapman spent the first twenty-five years of his life at 2475 West 37th Avenue in Kerrisdale, in a house next door to George and Angela Bowering, who lived at 2499 West 37th, at the north east corner of 37th and Larch. George Bowering became the first Poet Laureate of Canada. Another neighbour at 2527 West 37th was the UBC English professor Warren Tallman who spawned the TISH movement and hosted the noteworthy Vancouver Poetry conference in 1963. Although not directly influenced by Bowering and Tallman, the awareness of the city's literary life did influence Chapman to become an historian solely concerned with the city in which he lives--following in the footsteps of the late Chuck Davis.

His first book, Liquor, Lust and the Law: The Story of Vancouver's Legendary Penthouse Nightclub (Arsenal Pulp Press) was a finalist for the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize to recognize the author(s) of the book that contributes most to the enjoyment and understanding of British Columbia.

In recent memory, most people know the iconic Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver has played host to musical greats like The Police, The Clash, Blondie and U2, and more recently Lady Gaga, Tom Waits and the White Stripes. But that's only a small part of its story. Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver’s Historic Commodore Ballroom (Arsenal Pulp Press $28.95) by Aaron Chapman respectfully and diligently recounts the history of Vancouver’s best-loved music venue from its 1930s conception, when it hosted Vancouver’s decadent society set, through WWII and the swing era, to its current state.

Having proven himself with Liquor, Lust and the Law: The Story of Vancouver's Legendary Penthouse Nightclub (Arsenal Pulp) Chapman has maintained a high standard of populism and scholarship by digging up stories behind the legendary acts that graced the Commodore’s stage, whether it's the bass player for Talking Heads scoring grass or Patti Smith insisting on taking a bath in a tub that was primarily used as a urinal, he has cleverly mixed history with an assortment of rare photos, paraphernalia and posters. His thorough research also includes reminiscences from the likes of local bluesman Jim Byrnes (fondly recalling backstage conversations with the likes of Muddy Waters and Charley Pride) and reviews by the likes of the indomitable and always perceptive Georgia Straight and Province music critic Tom Harrison.

The central figure in the narrative is longtime Commodore head honcho Drew Burns. Back in the day, when there was no liquor license, patrons brought their own booze but were required to purchase ice buckets per table, hiding their liquor from police. The staff at the Commodore routinely placed the ice buckets on heaters before delivering them patrons, thereby making the ice melt quickly and requiring them to order another bucket.

This is commercial, popular history at its finest--amusing and enlightening.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Liquor, Lust and The Law: The Story of Vancouver's Legendary Penthouse Nightclub
Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver's Historic Commodore Ballroom


Liquor, Lust, and The Law: The Story of Vancouver’s Legendary Penthouse Nightclub
(Arsenal, 2012; 2nd printing Arsenal 2014) $24.95. 978-1-55152-488-7

Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver’s Historic Commodore Ballroom (Arsenal Pulp Press 2014) $28.95

The Last Gang in Town (Arsenal Pulp 2016) $24.95 978-1-55152-671-3

[BCBW 2016]

Liquor, Lust and the Law
Publisher's Promo (2012)


Few Vancouver nightspots evoke such a fabled history as the Penthouse Nightclub. The after-hours watering hole for the famous and infamous, the Penthouse was opened in 1947 by brothers Joe, Ross, Mickey, and Jimmy Filippone and soon became the place to see and be seen in Vancouver in the 1950s and '60s. Acts like Sammy Davis Jr, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington regularly performed on the Penthouse stage, and the venue was one of the few in town not only to welcome African American entertainers, but to house them as well, at a time when Vancouver hotels refused to. Audiences often included visiting stars such as Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, and many others.

In the 1970s, the Penthouse became infamous for its exotic dancers--three of whom famously streaked across the ice at a Vancouver Canucks game at the Pacific Coliseum in 1974--resulting in a colourful, lurid history involving vice squads, politicians, judges, and con men, and culminating in the murder of Joe Philliponi, known as the "Godfather of Seymour Street," in 1983. However, through decades of evolving social mores and changing cultural styles in a city constantly trying to reinvent itself, the Penthouse has always survived, a testament to its storied history and the fortitude of the Filippone family that still owns it.

This first-ever book on the Penthouse includes recently unearthed photographs, police documents, and untold stories, kept under wraps over the course of sixty-plus years--until now. It is also the story of an immigrant Italian family starting a new life in a new country, and the changing times and attitudes of a port city coming of age.

Rife with nostalgia and just a hint of scandal, Liquor, Lust, and the Law reveals a glamorous and slightly naughty view of historic Vancouver after dark.

Kerrisdale literature


Kerrisdale: Backstage Past: When Kerrisdale was cool

by Aaron Chapman


Forget Kits, Kerrisdale was ground zero for Vancouver counterculture


Kerrisdale might be the last place one thinks of a crucible of counterculture in the city, but the record of Vancouver cultural history perhaps tells a different story.

In the early 1980s, the quaint confines of Kerrisdale found itself as ground zero of some of the most fondly remembered alternative music concerts in the city's history.

When local concert promoters found venues such as the Orpheum and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre unwelcoming of the new music rock concerts they wanted to book, they found an unlikely home at the East Boulevard skating rink the Kerrisdale Arena.

On April 13, 1980, some 2,500 people descended on Kerrisdale dressed in boiler suits and flowerpot hats to attend a concert by American new wave band Devo.

On Aug. 29, 1981, residents close to the arena might have walked out to their verandas to smell an unfamiliar scent wafting through their flower gardens when Jamaican reggae stars Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff performed there.

The Jam played their last ever North American gig at the arena on June 5, 1982, and the concert series reached a height later that month on June 26 when a legion of mohawked punks stormed 41st Avenue for The Clash, who performed to an audience of 4,000 people.

Of course, the arena had already cemented its place in Vancouver music history for being the site of the citys first ever rock concert on June 27, 1956 by Bill Haley and The Comets. In the 1960s, Kerrisdale Arena also staged concerts by The Yardbirds and Frank Zappa.

It was only a May 1982 performance by the notoriously loud heavy metal band Motorhead that marked the beginning of the end for the arena concerts when the city and police were deluged with noise and public disorder complaints by some of the more conservative residents.

Unlike Brooklyn or Hollywood, Kerrisdale is not the place one would expect name-checked in song. But one exception might be by Vancouver singer/songwriter and accordion slinger Geoff Berner, who grew up within earshot of those concerts as a child to become a musician himself. In "Fortress Kerrisdale," a song written with his 1990s alt-rock band Terror of Tiny Town, Kerrisdale is regarded as an protected and isolated enclave in the lyrics. "I never knelt down to give thanks, among the chocolate stores and banks" and "Was I spoiled or was I spared, in Fortress Kerrisdale."

"It's never felt like a suburb because you could get downtown so quickly," recalls Berner today. "But it was an odd place to grow up because it felt so totally protected, though there was lots of stuff bubbling beneath the surface. The big front yard hedges hid some of the quirks and weirdness of what people were up to."

Indeed, it wasn't just at the nearby arena that some major Vancouver cultural events are remembered, but in the homes of Kerrisdale themselves.

In 1963, visiting poet Allen Ginsberg, while conducting a summer poetry lecture at the University of British Columbia, was a regular visitor to the home of Warren and Ellen Tallman at their Kerrisdale home at 2527 West 37th Ave. A professor and writer respectively, the Tallmans hosted Ginsberg as well as other visiting poets like Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Philip Whalen and Robert Duncan at smoke-filled parties, which featured readings and lectures by the writers that went into the night in the summer of 63.

George Bowering, at the time a UBC student who would eventually go on to become Canadas first poet laureate, also was a guest of the Tallmans. They had famous poets hanging out there even before 1963, and us young guys from all over the province went there to get educated. Bowering would become a longtime Kerrisdale resident in the 1970s in a home just a few houses down the street from the Tallman house.

That the Tallman home was a Mecca of influential poetry, attended by guests who would later become prominent in Vancouver literature and counterculture, moved writer Tom Hawthorne to remark in a 2011 story in the Globe and Mail that "with its anchor in Kerrisdale, that summer of poetry can be regarded as the beginning of the 1960s in Vancouver."

Amidst all the chocolate stores and banks, there's perhaps always been more underneath the surface of Kerrisdale than at first glance.


Russworm on Last Gang in Town
Review (2016)


The Last Gang in Town: The Epic Story of the Vancouver Police vs. the Clark Park Gang
by Aaron Chapman
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016. $24.95 / ISBN: 9781551526713
Reviewed by Lanni Russwurm

In The Last Gang in Town, Aaron Chapman tells the story of the Clark Park Gang, named after their hangout in Clark Park at East 14th Avenue and Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. Reviewer Lanni Russwurm traces the background and early years of the “Clark Parkers” in the 1960s, determines their part in the Rolling Stones Riot on June 3, 1972, when dozens of Vancouver Police were injured, and discloses the secret and comprehensive undercover response to the gang by the VPD.


Aaron Chapman’s latest foray into Vancouver’s history, The Last Gang in Town: The Epic Story of the Vancouver Police vs. the Clark Park Gang, deals with juvenile delinquents and the police who chased them nearly half a century ago.

The backdrop of Vancouver in the late 1960s and early 70s is almost as interesting as the main subject in that it shows us a city that has practically ceased to exist. Back then, this was a low-rise, working class town. The now-ubiquitous Vancouver Special house type hadn’t yet taken over like an invasive species, and even regular people could afford real estate, at least east of Main Street.

For some folks, like the mayor at the time, most of the city’s problems could be blamed on the draft-dodging, grass-smoking hippies who colonized Kitsilano, hawked copies of the Georgia Straight newspaper in Gastown, and loitered on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

But Chapman isn’t concerned about the exotic hippie counterculture. Most of the teens who populated the Clark Park Gang had long hair, but would be better classified as greasers or rockers: working class, dyed-in-the-wool East Vancouverites, usually clad in mackinaw jackets and Dayton boots. To overcome boredom and avoid dysfunctional home environments, they spent their time in the park, drinking, fighting, and engaging in various other shenanigans of often dubious legality.

Several neighbourhoods boasted their own park-based youth gangs, but by the turn of the 1970s, the Clark Parkers had reached the apex of park gang infamy.

The book begins with the pre-Expo 86 social landscape of Vancouver, followed by a chapter on the Juvenile Detention Home, where wayward teenagers could network and school each other in criminality. Chapman then briefly surveys the evolution of Vancouver’s mid-century youth gangs preceding the park gang era, such as the zoot suiters of the 1940s and the 1950s gangs with names like the Alma Dukes.

In the chapter entitled “The Good Old Bad Old Days,” we are treated to the quirky history of Clark Park itself before meeting the hooligans who made it their headquarters in the 60s.

The story really gets going in the aftermath of the 1972 Rolling Stones riot, one of several riots detailed in the book. Its origins appear to lie with a Marxist-Leninist group called the Youngbloods that tried to ally with the Clark Park Gang to storm the gates and/or fight the cops.

The Clark Parkers were invited to the Youngbloods’ activist house where they were plied with beer and weed, but the apolitical gangsters weren’t enticed by the revolutionary rhetoric enough to stick around once the refreshments ran out.

Unfortunately, no surviving Youngbloods or activists from the (apparently) affiliated Georgia Grape newspaper (founded by former Georgia Straight radicals) were tapped to clarify (or obfuscate) what role the Youngbloods actually played in the riot.

Considering that the police blamed the Clark Park Gang for orchestrating the riot and essentially used it to justify starting their own gang war with them, it’s not an unsubstantial omission.

The police response to the riot was to ramp up their efforts against the Clark Parkers. Burly cops with undercover experience were recruited to a new, dedicated “Heavy Squad,” or H-Squad. Dressed in typical East Vancouver attire, H-Squad members threatened, harassed, and occasionally assaulted Clark Parkers.

Surprisingly, as Chapman reveals, H-Squad was formed with the blessing of the provincial Attorney General. We can only hope that this police response illustrates what a different world Vancouver was than the city we know today. Indeed, Chapman notes that one factor leading to the demise of H-Squad was a dramatic shift in the local political culture when progressive social democratic parties ousted old school conservatives from power both municipally and provincially in 1972.
The heat from H-Squad didn’t scare the Clark Parkers straight, as perhaps was intended, but it did bring some blowback from neighbourhood parents who were tired of their offspring being profiled and harassed, as well as activists who used their access to the Georgia Grape to publicize the bullyboy police tactics.

Of course, other residents were elated that something was being done to combat the petty crime, noise, and violence that was now associated with Clark Park.

The story climaxes with the fatal shooting by police of a 17-year-old Clark Parker, followed by a legal drama that demonstrates the polarization of public opinion on the issues raised by the Clark Park Gang saga. The author follows the court in concluding that the shooting was accidental, but to his credit lays out the evidence (and lack thereof) so that readers can draw their own conclusions.

The book’s greatest strength is the wealth of primary source material used to tell the tale, especially extensive interviews with both police and Clark Parkers. Having researched this topic before, I can attest that the available documentary record of the Clark Park Gang has increased exponentially with the publication of The Last Gang. Declassified police files and photos of the Clark Park Gang and H-Squad further round out this history to make it more accessible to the reader.

Chapman does a fine job of weaving the extensive but sometimes inconsistent and contradictory testimonials of aging baby boomers recalling events from over four decades ago into a coherent and compelling narrative.

Readers looking for an entertaining true crime story as well as those seeking a deeper historical meaning or a better understanding of their city alike will find The Last Gang a worthwhile and enjoyable read.


Lani Russwurm researches and writes about Vancouver history for his Past Tense Vancouver blog. He is the author of Vancouver Was Awesome: A Curious Pictorial History (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013) and has contributed to numerous local publications and history projects, including Vancouver
Confidential (Anvil Press, 2014).