3 min

The art of the party

John Stevenson created a gay club empire in Vancouver

Electrical (and plumbing) whiz kid Donnie Whittaker, seen here circa 1972, was responsible for the state-of-the-art sound at John Stevenson’s many clubs. Credit: Courtesy of Don Whittaker

“Everybody down!” John Stevenson shouted from the front of the club. “He’s got a gun!” John, his right-hand man Donnie, and drag artiste cum bartender Flo Flowing rolled to the floor as a shot rang out in the early-morning hours at Jonathan’s on Seymour Street. 

John, just beginning to build a Vancouver club empire, no doubt had visions of the shooting a couple of years earlier that had precipitated the closing of the B&B and left a legendary bullet hole in the front door of The Playpen South.

No doubt Donnie and bar wench Flo, who is now Vancouver parks board candidate Jamie Lee Hamilton, also wondered if they were reliving history.

The trio had been cleaning up after another late night at the second-floor boozecan when a drunk duo showed up at the entrance demanding admission. When John told them the club was closed, one of the drunks said, a bit melodramatically, “You haven’t seen the last of us; we’ll be back” and pounded back down the stairs to Seymour Street. Moments later he reappeared wielding a handgun, and that’s when the night turned frightening.

The gunman fired only one shot, then turned and ran back into the night. Nobody was hit. 

In a recent piece by my colleague Raziel Reid, we read about Matt Troy, a maestro of today’s party scene, whose business philosophy is right out of John’s playbook. “Partying is an art,” Matt says. “Providing a service, not selling a product — that’s the new art model.”

Matt also reminds us that we have a history of innovative and creative play spaces, but I doubt he’ll ever have a story quite like that night at Jonathan’s.

John Stevenson was our Matt Troy of the 1970s and ’80s. From his beginnings in 1969 with Champagne Charlie’s, John created and ran more spaces for the art of partying than any other club-man then or since. To try to keep the names and dates in order is a hopeless task. There was Basin Street in three different locations over the years, Jonathan’s in at least two, a Whittaker’s, a Downbeat, a Hungry Eye and a Cruel Elephant. And the more we old-timers talk among ourselves, the more we remember. 

John’s partner in mayhem through the years was Don Whittaker, fondly known (after years of running the various clubs at 23 West Cordova) as Donnie Cordova. A whiz kid who could handle the renovations, wiring and plumbing wherever the party went next, he could set up and run the sweetest sound system and made John’s many clubs known for state-of-the art sound. 

Donnie is probably our best hope for ever getting the chronology of names and addresses straight, and we’re working on it. In the meantime, Donnie tells some stories that will, I’m sure, make Matt a bit dizzy to contemplate. I think there’s material for at least one or two more columns, so stay tuned. There’s a whole column to come on Donnie alone.

Unlike Matt, John and Donnie didn’t have the active cooperation of city officials. In fact, in those days the “art of partying” included the art of dodging police and all manner of health, liquor and building inspectors. 

We partied on illegal booze, delivered in some of the most ingenious devices. For as long as anyone can remember, John offered at his various establishments “special coffee” and “small orange” drinks as the specialty of the house. The coffee was special because of the whiskey; the orange included a healthy shot of vodka. To this day you can get a laugh from the Prime Timers crowd by asking if they’d like a special coffee.

Of course, all the above-mentioned inspectors were well aware that there was drinking going on. You had only to watch a few patrons as they staggered off into the sunrise. So keeping the booze out of sight was a constant challenge.

My personal favourite was the jerry-rigged delivery system from a washroom cistern to the two-burner coffee machine at the bar. Coffee came out of one side of the machine, but if you flipped the switch for the other side, you got a pot of pure vodka. Did I say vodka? Sorry, I meant hot water for tea. When John started to worry that cops were catching on to that dodge, Donnie, always the fixer, rerouted the vodka to the hot water tap over the sink.

Inspectors foiled again, and we partied on!