3 min

Remembering John ‘Granny’ Stevenson

Champagne Charlie’s housed Vancouver’s first drag revue

Vancouver’s drag age dawned in the late 1960s at Champagne Charlie’s, launched by the late John Stevenson. Credit: Courtesy of Don Whittaker

The fun part of retelling the stories of Vancouver’s early gay scene is sitting down with early activists, divas and eccentric characters and reminiscing. The sad part is realizing how many of “our founders” are no longer available for reminiscing. 

It’s hard to believe that it has been just over three years since we lost one of our true founding fathers, a man who in later years was affectionately known as “Granny Stevenson.” 

My first encounter with John Stevenson, who died at 87 on June 1, 2011, was less than auspicious.

Shortly after I began my run as the Georgia Straight’s gay columnist in the spring of 1970, I had already been to Champagne Charlie’s once or twice but had never met the owner. 

Charlie’s was on Davie Street between Granville and Seymour. Today there is a vacant space there where a series of ventures were launched and lost, the most recent called “The Corner.” In the ’70s the block consisted of a row of storefronts, beginning with a tiny convenience store. Next to that was a blacked-out window with a featureless door you could easily miss, and next to that the celebrated Chez Victor.

It was behind the blacked-out window and unmarked door that you’d find Champagne Charlie’s, where in 1968 or ’69, John launched the city’s first full-on drag revue. 

Once you’d been buzzed inside, you’d descend a staircase to the tiny basement room where Dee Dee Ambrose was the reigning diva and her doo-wop girls were the whip-slender Sandy St Peters and the tall, legs-up-to-here Charity.  

Champagne Charlie’s was a dimly lit poor-man’s vision of the Moulin Rouge. All blood-and-bruises colouring, dark corners and cabaret tables fanned out around a tiny central stage area.

I must have written something less than flattering about the club when, on my second or third visit, I finally met the proprietor. Well, “met” maybe isn’t the right word. I encountered him at the front door, where he peered over the doorman’s shoulder and said in no uncertain terms, “You’re not welcome here, QQ. We don’t need journalists like you here. You’re barred.” 

I don’t remember how long my exile from Charlie’s lasted. Not long, as I soon became a regular and developed a warm and sometimes mentorlike relationship with John.

“Mentorlike” is a good phrase to use in describing John’s relationship with many of us in those days. Ask anyone who was struggling to start a life in the emerging gay scene of the time and you’ll likely hear a story of John’s generosity and kindness. John was forever finding cheap accommodation, creating jobs or just slipping a few bucks to anyone who needed a little help. 

I hope John knew how fondly he was spoken of in later years and how much his community loved him.

John didn’t talk much about himself. His focus was always on getting the next show up and running, whether it was the next drag performance, the next club (and he opened many) or finding you a place in his busy world so you could wait tables, pour drinks, play the music and generally get your own show up and running. Among the many things that were generally unknown about John were that he had been born and raised in White Rock, had a good run as a realtor in Montreal, and found his way into the gay scene via the lesbians at the Vanport. We also never heard about his military service or his being on the frontlines in Italy taking out fascist tanks with a six-pounder. 

Champagne Charlie’s was just the beginning of John’s contribution to the spaces where we would gather and grow. The Downbeat, Basin Street, Jonathan’s The Talk of the Town . . . the clubs that John and his business partner Don Whittaker (aka Donnie Cordova) opened during a 30-plus-year run are a litany of names familiar to anyone who ever went out on the town during that era. We’ll remember some of those in conversation with Donnie next month.