‘Embedded historian’ Aaron Chapman on his new book, Live at the Commodore


One of Vancouver’s most venerable entertainment institutions now has its own book.

Local author/historian Aaron Chapman has penned Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver’s Historic Commodore Ballroom. The book is a loving ode to the Granville Street venue that has hosted everything from vaudeville to big bands to classic rock to punk, and just about everything in between.

Live at the Commodore Ballroom is in local bookstores now. But you can also attend a launch at the Commodore itself Nov. 26. It will feature readings and live music, and admission is free with ticket or reservation (see below for details). Also featured as part of the evening, The Vancouver Heritage Foundation will present one of its Places that Matter plaques to the Commodore Ballroom recognizing its significance to the city.

We talked to Chapman about the book, which is filled with telling anecdotes and never-before-published photographs, posters and more.

Shawn Conner: How long have you been working on this book?

Aaron Chapman: The project began when I started working on the show archive that’s now on the Commodore website. It was just before I started working on Liquor, Lust, and the Law [Chapman’s 2012 history of the Penthouse Nightclub]. I was putting together a show archive of all the shows that ever happened at the Commodore. And that meant sitting in the Vancouver Library Special Collections looking at microfiche of newspapers going back 40 years, because there was no real list of shows. People had ideas, like “Oh, U2 played there, the Clash played there,” but no idea of the year or date. And you could see that, in the act of logging all that and looking over the course of how shows had gone in even a 40-year time span, there was an arc. You could see the history of entertainment and popular culture. The room has seen everything from foxtrot to slam-dancing.

So doing a book on the history of the Commodore was in the back of my mind. But it sort of sat there for a bit. I was collecting stories and hearing from people. In the wake of the first book [Liquor, Lust and the Law] doing well, the publisher asked if I had another idea. I thought, geez, it’s the 85th anniversary of the Commodore this coming year. It might be interesting to tackle that. Especially looking back – and it’s something I get into the book a little bit – at how Vancouver has done a good job of bringing in the new, but we haven’t done a good job of keeping the old. When you think about the Ridge Theatre being torn down, and Richard’s on Richards and the Starfish Room, that land being turned into condos, it’s kind of amazing the Commodore is still there. There were certainly times it could’ve disappeared.

(Read Aaron Chapman’s history of Richard’s on Richards here.)

SC: How important was going through microfiche compared to talking to people whose memories might be spotty but more vivid?

AC: That was part of the detective work, where you’re trying to track down people and whatnot. I had an idea of what the building was like in more recent years. But digging into how the place came together, what was happening there in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, that was some of my favourite stuff. When the book got announced, word got around, and a few people started tracking me down, which was helpful. Sometimes you have to hold a fishing line out.

I got a call one day from a woman who said her mother was a nightclub photographer in the 1940s, and she would go around taking pictures of you and your friends at the table and then you could buy them for a quarter. Our selfie culture has been around for a long time, except other people had taken the pictures.

She happened to mention she had a great picture of the coatcheck girls from 1947. That same day about 20 minutes later this 90-year-old woman up in West Vancouver calls me and says she used to work as a coatcheck girl at the Commodore. And the photo is of her and her co-workers. And she’d never seen it before. I showed it to her and all these memories came back. There were some amazing little things like that.

SC: A lot of the images in the book are credited to Neptoon Records (a record store on Main Street).

AC: Rob [Frith] of Neptoon Records is a real packrat. He’s got a remarkable collection of Vancouver concert posters that he’s collected since he was a teenager. He’s kept them in really good condition. He’s got file cabinets full of this stuff. Even better, when the Commodore closed in 1996, Drew Burns [former leaseholder/manager] took some stuff from his office, I guess he saw some other boxes and thought it was old garbage and he left it behind. In 1999, when House of Blues [now Live Nation] did the renovation, the construction workers saw the old stuff and threw it out into a bin in the back. Some binners found this stuff and took it to Rob. When these guys came by and said Hey, here are these boxes of photographs we pulled out of the Commodore, he gave them five or ten bucks. It was amazing. He sat on this stuff for another 15 years. When he found out I was doing a book he mentioned the stuff to me. I went and had a look and there were all of these photos of the Commodore in the 1960s, these amazing images that look like a scene out of Mad Men. That was exciting as well, to have those never-before-published photos. And then connecting with a lot of concert photographers over the years was great too. Some people were professional photographers, and there were others who just brought their cameras back in the day when no one seemed to mind.


SC: In talking to people about their memories of shows, was there any one show that kept coming up over and over again?

AC: Depends which era. What was interesting for me I think was those real watermark moments where you could definitely see a changing of the guard. Like the first Ramones show in August of 1977. We live with punk rock now as just another genre of music. But back then it was still shocking to people. You can tell that the bar staff, who were more used to blues shows and acts like Hoyt Axton, or more used to dealing with people at banquets, were looking at this like, “Who the hell are these freaks?” There are other shows like that over the years, especially in the’70s with the Kiss and the New York Dolls shows.

SC: You’ve written the history, you’ve worked as a stage manager there and sometimes you work the door. You ARE the Commodore.

AC: [laughs] I don’t know about that! When I was touring with the Town Pants [Chapman’s band], we were coming home from the tours and I was looking for an extra bit of work. And I got roped into doing some concert production stuff with Live Nation, which was House of Blues then. But I’ve been reading a fair bit of military history in the last couple of years, and the idea of the embedded journalist was appealing ot me. I though it would be interesting to be an embedded historian. As I was thinking of doing the book, I wanted to sign on to see what else was there so I did some shifts as a door man. I’m not doing that so much any more, I’m doing a fair bit of writing these days.

Say hi to Aaron at the Live at the Commodore book launch Wed. Nov. 26 at the Commodore Ballroom (868 Granville St.). Doors at 7 p.m. To get on the guestlist, email marketing@arsenalpulp.com.

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