Friday, November 21, 2008

Vancouver: Burlesque, and not Ski-bum, Central?

Vancouver is often thought of (and marketed) as more Gore-Tex than glamour. But a new exhibit, "Juliette and Friends" at the city's Presentation House Gallery aims to show that Vancouver does have a history of outrageous nightlife that's just as significant as its reputation for outdoor activity.

In the process, the show digs up tons of campy retro pics--from two little known and one just-discovered collection--that entertain whether or not you lose sleep over things like Vancouver as Vegas of the north. (It happened!)

Today's National Post has my Q&A with exhibit co-curator Helga Pakasaar. Click here for the paper's digital edition (go to page M12) or read on after the jump to discover the louche in left-coast history. (If you like it, and live nearby, you might want to check out the opening--older burlesque stars will be in attendance.)

Dick Oulton image from

It was once Las Vancouver
National Post, November 21, 2008

British Columbia is often thought more granola than glamourpuss. But as a new exhibit about Vancouver in the 50s, 60s and 70s aims to show, the West has a longstanding urbane underbelly. Here, show co-curator Helga Pakasaar tells Leah Sandals how to find the luxe and the louche in Left Coast history.

Q This show is filled great, campy retro photographs. What ties them all together?

A The general theme is Vancouver history from the 50s through to the mid 70s, particularly looking at nightlife. These are not photographs of the streets of Vancouver, which is commonly the case with city-themed shows. Instead, we’re focusing on interiors, on people dressing up for the camera, on how people imagined glamour. The photos come from three collections: the CBC archives, the Penthouse nightclub’s collection, and the life work of commercial photographer Dick Oulton. Overall, it’s a view of how Vancouver society presented itself at the time.

Q Why the title “Juliette and Friends”?

A We titled the show after a TV program that everyone watched in those days. Its star, Juliette, kind of summarizes that era in terms of cultural memory--a strong, feisty personality who started working as an entertainer when she was 13.

Q So this presents a pretty different view of Vancouver than the nature-oriented “Super, Natural British Columbia” stuff, doesn’t it?

A Well, outdoor recreation is certainly a part of the image of this place. But I don’t think it has fully represented what the city is about. It’s also about people needing to be entertained, and being very insular and indoors.

The scenes in The Penthouse nightclub, the parties, the dining rooms, the very lively jazz scene, even scenes of nightlife on the local CBC station at the time—they’re not often thought of, but they’re very important to the city’s history.

In other words, I don’t think that every Vancouverite is a hiker. The great outdoors doesn’t always beckon. It’s like any other city in that sense. And overall this a portrait of the city with its ambitions to be cosmopolitan, at a time when the city was imagining itself as more than a small town.

Q Right now Vancouver is imagining itself again—this time around the Olympics. Did that influence this show?

A We absolutely do see the Olympics as a link; it’s prompted so much discussion about what the city is. Is it global, or is it Canadian? What kind of growth is needed? Do we need this rapid transit line? Where is the Olympic money being invested?

The 50s to 70s were another time the city imagined itself in a certain way. And this show explores just how societies do that. It’s not only in building monuments and grand structures, but also putting ourselves in environments—in the way we decorate a supper club, in what kind of fantasy we demonstrate to ourselves. Vancouver as an idea is very much on the table right now.

Q You’re having a lecture during this exhibit about the history of burlesque in Vancouver. Were there really many burlesque clubs around town in 60s?

A Quite a few, all in different parts of town with different kinds of clientele. There are certain clues we’ve gotten from these photographs. For example, we have a 1950s image of someone called The Great Pretender who was an early transsexual entertainer. And Vancouver had very strong links with Las Vegas. Often the same entertainers came here as performed there. It was a pretty lively, interesting place.

Q Is it true that many of these photographs have just been discovered?

A Yes. The CBC material has just been sitting in their basement; they’ve occasionally put them up in the hallways, but there has never been an exhibition of this scope. Some negatives have never come out of their envelopes before. The Penthouse collection was discovered just when the club was renovating recently; they were stuck in boxes behind a wall. And commercial photographer Dick Oulton’s material was donated to us in a large archive. It’s really just the tip of the iceberg.

“Juliette and Friends” has a free public launch today at 8pm and continues to January 11 at Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery (

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