Dimitrios Otis, contributing writer ,Vancouver Courier. 03/07/2007
Photo of Michael Turner by Dan Toulgoet
around the dim interior of the Venus Theatre, Michael Turner
is sad. The Vancouver author has been told the longtime porn
palace in the Downtown Eastside will soon be demolished.
shabby curtain partially obscures a few men sitting on metal
chairs on the flat main floor of the cavernous auditorium. On
the big screen is a fuzzy video image of bluish skin, beaming
out from a large, antiquated floor projector. Turner has returned
for a last look. He first came here in 1978. He was underage
and the experience made such an impression on him that he used
it as the opening to his novel The Pornographer's Poem, which
won a B.C. Book Prize in 2000.
was in Grade 10 when I first went to the Venus Theatre," Turner
tells me. "It was a wet November night and I was with one of
my best friends. We had a desire to see what lay behind those
tiny adult film ads in the Province newspaper's sports section."
lay behind those tiny ads were giant celluloid bodies writhing
in lurid colour, and there have been a lot of them since the
Venus Theatre started showing sex movies in 1970. But the building
and much of the block will soon be yet another condominium development.
of us have passed by the grimy washed-out pink stucco structure
at 720 Main St. Far fewer have dared enter, especially since
tales of drug use, low-track prostitution and public sex inside
the theatre have surfaced, including an award-winning expose
in this paper in 2004.
as word got out in the fall of 2006 that Vancouver-based Porte
Realty had bought the property, along with most of that entire
block, there was little lament. Porte plans to restore three
buildings at the corner of Main and Georgia streets that comprise
the Hotel Pacific. They will become non-market housing, and
the Imperial will make way for nine floors of market condos
with a standard main level of retail. People may gripe about
yet more condos going up in the Downtown Eastside but there
will surely be line-ups to buy in. Throughout its long history,
there was rarely a line-up at the Venus.
of the redevelopment was noticed by heritage researchers, who
belatedly noted that the building the
Venus occupies is actually an original vaudeville theatre, called
the Imperial, which opened in 1912. At a meeting of the
Vancouver Heritage Commission on Dec. 11, 2006 at city hall,
the "history/heritage value" of the Imperial building was considered.
But the commission merely recommended "the commemoration of
the historic Imperial Theatre in an appropriate form." One translation
of that recommendation could mean merely putting up a plaque.
Photo: Stuart Thomson, 1925. VPL#11032
the Imperial is one of the last examples of Vancouver's original
theatres on the East Side, and spaces like it are much needed
by arts groups in the city. A few blocks away, the Pantages
Theatre is being restored to the tune of $10 million. Why no
Imperial's fate was sealed by the time the developer walked
into city hall," says heritage advocate and historian John Atkins,
referring to the power of the Vancouver Heritage Register in
determining the preservation or destruction of an old building
in this city.
in 1986, the Vancouver Heritage Register cannot legally protect
a structure but it does have various processes and incentives
that go a long way towards keeping a heritage building up. The
three buildings of the Hotel Pacific that Porte will restore
are all on the heritage register. The Imperial/Venus building
is not. "You are starting from a losing position," says Atkins.
City of Vancouver website states that in forming the register,
a study team looked "at every street in the city to identify
notable buildings." Atkins refers to this as a "drive by" and
suggests that "a pink porno theatre on the East Side obviously
didn't impress the surveyors."
is the Imperial building worth preserving? "For one thing, it's
still standing," he says.
he's one of the few people willing to speak up on the building's
behalf. When the Venus comes down and the new tower comes up,
maybe someone will open an adult DVD store on the retail level
and call it The Venus in tribute.
wasn't supposed to end this way. The Imperial Theatre began
life proudly, built for the Canadian Theatre
and Amusement Company in 1912. George B. Purvis was architect
and proprietor was J. J. McDonald. According to an Anvil Press
publication The Door Is Open, by Bart Campbell, the
Imperial "alternated vaudeville acts and movies," and legendary
performers such as Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers played there.
Photo: Philip Timms. VPL#7331
the downward spiral began early. Shows moved on from the Imperial
quickly. The popular local wife-and-husband acting team of Isabelle
Fletcher and Charles Ayres started a stock company at the theatre
but failed to produce a hit. Archived newspaper articles blame
variously the competition from the more established Avenue Theatre
across the street (now demolished), the shift in locale of the
entertainment district north to Hastings, the rise of motion
pictures, or some mysterious jinx.
interesting Chinatown connection emerged in
the 1920s when Chinese businessmen
turned the Imperial into a Cantonese opera house. Wing
Chung Ng, UBC doctoral graduate and professor of history at
University of Texas at Austin, studies the history of Cantonese
Opera in Vancouver and provided key information from the local
Chinese-language newspaper The Chinese
Times: "According to a theatre ad on Sept 1, 1921, a group of
nine Chinese merchants acquired the use of the former Imperial
Theatre and turned it into an opera house for troupes from China.
The first such company arrived in Vancouver on Sept. 5 and started
performing on the evening of Sept 9. The troupe was called Lok
Man Lin, and its season lasted till February of 1922."
by 1927, the Imperial was no longer
an entertainment house of any kind. It had been re-christened
a "temple"-first the Pyramid then the Emanuel-as suited its
new purpose as a Pentecostal church.
Unfortunately, God also wasn't a smash at the venue and by 1932
it fell into the City of Vancouver's hands as a result of tax
Imperial then narrowly avoided demolition. A 1943
Vancouver News-Herald article reported that city council considered
replacing the Imperial with three stores, "but when it was figured
that to tear down the old building and erect the stores would
cost around $10,000 the plan was declared uneconomic and dropped."
Imperial postponed its date with destiny, only to be resurrected
rather ignobly as Walsh's Auto Parts and
Wrecking. A 1941 local newspaper article by Ernest Walter floridly
relates that "where now stands a grimy-faced lad, beating a
mudguard into shape with a hammer, the heroine once stood and
shrieked, 'Unhand me, Colonel Cordite!'"
Photo: Jack Lindsay, Vancouver News-Herald 1943
old cars onstage occurred daily for an unprecedented 27-year
run. When it ended in 1967 the
theatre was left a greasy relic. But amazingly the old Imperial
was reinvented once more.
City of Vancouver Archives hold a single sheet of typed information
on the Imperial, which lists use as a "Chinese moving picture
house." As for the date, the anonymous researcher only noted,
"at one time; when, don't know." But indeed a man named Henry
Chow had bought the building with plans to show old movies from
Hong Kong. A full renovation was done. Barry Godfrey, the late
Chow's son-in-law, recalls that Chow "did show the Chinese movies,
but it only lasted a month or two."
Chow changed plans and the Night &
Day theatre was born in
1970, given over to adults-only
16mm films. Cinemas dedicated to skin flicks were still spreading
across North America and this was the first one in Vancouver.
By comparison, the venerable "art house" Pacific Cinematheque
didn't open until 1972. In a curious mirroring of the building's
vaudeville-and-movie roots, the Night & Day also featured
exotic dancers performing on stage between reel changes.
films themselves were amateur at best, often starring San Francisco
hippies. One such film, entitled Dirt Bike Banger, is so drearily
awful, and has so little sex (which is simulated anyway) or
even nudity that one wonders how even the most titillation-desperate
patron could have tolerated it. The best part is the opening
shot of a motorcycle being parked.
the customers still came, and when the theatre was renamed
Venus in 1978, it had its own in-house logo, which proudly
showed at the beginning of the movies, along with a strip of
film that declared "good clean sex." By the mid-'90s management
installed video equipment, though Godfrey notes that as late
as 2000, when he sold the business, he was still showing films
occasionally, "because our regular customers liked some of them."
was the "tiny ad" campaign of the Venus that caught the eye
of a certain precocious future writer. Powerful as young Michael
Turner's triple-bill experience was, he didn't return for another
20 years. "This time it was to make sure I got the opening of
The Pornographer's Poem right" he tells me. "Just being there-closing
my eyes and taking it in-brought back more than expected."
describes in his novel how his fictional counterpart encountered
the Venus: "I step into the light. The silver light. Hundreds
of seats. The backs of 10 heads. Silhouetted_ I still can't
see. But I end up front-and-centre. A mystery to me. To this
Realty spent $5.16 million acquiring six properties in the 700
block of Main Street. One property not for sale was the small
red brick building beside the Venus. Leo Chow has operated his
Brickhouse bar in the back for
15 years, proudly calling it a "non-trendy local tavern." As
the Venus's closest neighbour, Chow has seen it all. "It's the
end of an era whatever people think of it," he says, admitting
he does have "a problem with the drug activity and shady people"
that have been more frequent in recent years. As for his upcoming
spiffy new neighbours as potential patrons of the Brickhouse,
Chow is undecided. "The condos are sort of like a mixed blessing.
Places like the Venus are what make these areas edgy and create
a certain mystique. Hopefully this will not change the dynamic."
edgy little secret of the remaining adult movie theatres is
that while they show strictly "straight" porn, the clientele
is largely men seeking the sexual company of other men. But
the Venus is different. Not only is it rare enough as a survivor
but its particular locale has made it into a specialized zone
of social interaction.
Downtown Eastside has long been an open market for hard drugs
as well as women who are addicted to them. And since the Venus
is an accessible and extremely dark space nearby, it has become
a haven for both of these activities. While the male action
takes place on the main floor, the prostitutes work the balcony-their
efforts highlighted by flares off the occasional crack cocaine
conditions for the working girls in the balcony was covered
in the 2004 Courier feature. The Venus's off-the-street environment
protects the prostitutes from the danger of violence from predators
in anonymous cars, but according to prostitution activist Jamie
Lee Hamilton, that security is offset by male patrons taking
excessive liberties with vulnerable hookers. "Too often the
house girls of the Venus were subjected to abuse and degradation,"
she says. "While I'm not unhappy to see the Venus finally close.
I am concerned over what the future may bring for these girls
who will now be forced out onto the street."
now, a unique and vital culture, however illicit, thrives inside
the Imperial building, drawing together elements mainstream
society wants hidden-pornography, gay cruising, prostitution
and drug use. Is the proprietor who turns a blind eye uncaring
or merely facilitating a needed function in society?
current Venus owners are a married couple from mainland China
with no particular interest in adult movies. When I first began
researching the Venus several years back, the husband, Dong
Xu, quickly asked if I wanted to buy the old stockpile of adult
films that previous owners had left behind. (I am now an expert
on the divergent sociological underpinnings between Million
Dollar Mona and Hundred Dollar Wife.)
if there is a potential hitch in the developer's plans, it is
not city hall but Dong Xu. With translation help from an employee
named Philip, Dong assures me he has "four and a half years
left on our lease" and everything is business as usual.
heritage advocate John Atkins has resigned himself to the Imperial's
fate, a reminder that "lack of historical context lets buildings
get overlooked." He hopes to at least document the inside of
the Imperial before it goes. "A proper survey of the interior
would probably uncover more of the original design than people
assume is there," he says.
the stigma of porn may have led heritage arbiters to overlook
the Imperial Theatre, it is true that most of the interior and
the exterior of the building were long ago stripped of their
original features. The Heritage Commission underscored this
in its statement of regret on the "loss of the remnants of the
historic Imperial Theatre Building."
heritage" is the focus of most formal heritage groups, and the
city's heritage register also bases evaluations on the physical
structure. But the quality of "heritage value" is also defined
as having "historical, cultural, aesthetic, scientific or educational
worth." According to some, the Venus has much of this second
kind of heritage, one not so much reliant on the architecture
as the unspoken layers of personal meaning for people who function
notes the full flowering of that culture on his last visit to
the Venus. On a tour through the building we find ourselves
in the original projection room with the two Eiki 520 Premier
projectors abandoned on a table and aiming their lenses toward
the screen below where Turner and friend sat over 25 years ago.
"What we saw in the Venus that night provided us a private language
that we continue to use to this day," Turner comments.
him, the Venus is about the "sexscapes" he saw during his final
visit. "The place is in a state of disrepair, no longer functioning
as a site for viewing stuff on a screen, but one where people
turned tricks in the balcony, while others sat around and watched.
I had never seen anything like it. It might sound revolting
to some, but that's what I'll miss when they tear this building
down. Not the building, but the behaviour. What went on inside