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Museum Monday: Commodore Ballroom opening night dress (1926-1929)

Commodore Ballroom flapper dressWith so many folks lined up for a 'night on the town' this Patty's Day weekend, I thought it was time to highlight a party dress! Worn to opening of the Commodore Cabaret (now Ballroom) in 1929, this twinkling 'little black dress' marks the birth of a legendary Vancouver venue.

One look at the ornate intricacy of the frock, and I’m sure the opening must have been an exciting and much anticipated evening! The sides are elaborately embroidered with an undulating line of flower, berry, and tendril patterns. From waist to hip, vertical lines of sequins drip with layers of beaded fringe tailor made for movement. Falling about knee length, with bare arms, and a deep V, this 'saucy little number' was on trend with the more daring flapper style. Indeed, this classic Art Deco design seems custom cut for a fun night of dancing with legendary big bands and a deluxe dance floor.

As musician Dal Richards remembers, the Commodore was advertised as having "the biggest dance floor in Canada, and the only sprung floor – a floor designed with embedded horse hair to 'put spring in every dancer’s step'. Though the old floor has since been replaced, a piece of the original preserved for posterity in the MOV’s collection (photo still to come).

According to one Georgia Straight Article, the Commodore's bright and hopeful opening was quickly followed by a rough patch.

"... Designed and built at the height of North America's fascination with art deco, the room opened in December 1929. Four months later, the stock market crashed, the Dirty Thirties were officially under way, and the Commodore was one of the city's first high-profile casualties. What was supposed to have lured customers away from the Hotel Vancouver and its booming ballroom business ended up sitting dark for half a year. In November 1930, local nightclub pioneers Nick Kogas and Johnny Dillias became convinced they could make a go of it, reopening the club and officially beginning its run as a live venue with dinner and dancing every Saturday. Over the next seven decades management of the Commodore periodically changed hands, but the venue's ability to draw top talent remained the same. The list of acts that have graced the room's stage over the years is truly staggering..."

In the Big Band days, international legends like Sammy Davis Junior, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey played the commodore. Local jazz aficionado Dave Dixon notes that the Commodore was also home for local swing legends, including groups led by Bob Lyon, Ole Olson, and, later, Fraser MacPherson, Dave Robbins, and Bobby Hales.

The fabulous Commodore Ballroom has survived and thrived through decades, becoming an important part of our cultural character. In 2011, Billboard Magazine even selected the Commodore as one of North America’s 10 most influential clubs. Placed in the company of legendary venues like New York’s Bowery Ballroom and San Francisco’s Fillmore, the Commodore was the only club in Canada to make the list for being “influential, a career building block or just plain cool.”  Yes, Vancouver . . . it's true: We’re just plain cool. 

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