Opinion
5 min

The man who kept Vancouver’s 1970s gay scene running

‘I’m a tech guy,’ says the modest Donnie Cordova

(Donnie Cordova, in his element with the sound equipment, sometime in the 1970s./Photo courtesy of Donnie Cordova.)

Somewhere, many months ago, we were in the midst of recollecting stories of the early days of Vancouver’s gay club scene — the halcyon days of Faces, Champagne Charlie’s, the August and the Playpens three.

Then we got sidetracked by some bigger-than-life personalities, fell down a couple of queer identity rabbit holes, and never quite got around to giving sufficient credit to someone who kept the wheels in motion on that party machine, from the late 1970s right through to only a few years ago.

Somewhere in the lower reaches of the Cambie Pub there labours, amidst the plumbing and wiring and obscure and ancient pieces of that party machine, a man known to many as Donnie Cordova because of his long association with venues on that Gastown street.

His name is actually Don Whitaker, and we survivors of what I call “the longest decade” (the late ’60s to the early ’80s), owe him some thanks for making sure that the roof never fell in, the DJ was never electrocuted, and plumbing never burst over the dance floor at many of our party places.

Growing up in Richmond, young Don Whitaker’s dream was to work the sound system in Vancouver’s celebrated Cave Supper Club. It was an unusual dream for a teenager in the ’60s, but it was one that he would fulfill and more.

It started innocently enough, with a gig at the Richmond Inn as house DJ. Well, actually it started a couple of months earlier when Donnie, a bit underage, decided he needed $5,000 to purchase the day’s most state-of-the-art sound system. Think big speakers. Very big. The logical place to get $5,000 was a bank, and not being of a criminal bent (unlike many of our companions of that era) Donnie applied to his local branch of a great Canadian institution. And was promptly laughed out the door.

A teenager with no job, no collateral, and no prospects, looking for five grand to buy a stereo system, ’cause that’s what he wants and nothing else will do? Yeah, let’s think about that.

Showing a better grasp of the principles of finance than most teens, Donnie went and got himself a job, that gig at the Richmond Inn. A steady income gave him enough leverage for a $500 loan, which he paid back and turned around to a $1,000 loan, and by the miracle of modern capitalism was soon enough the owner of the finest set of speakers and knobs and levers and wires that anyone in town had ever seen. (Certainly at the Richmond Inn, where Donnie showed off his equipment and his technical skills in using it.)

But, if you remember, the goal was to work at the celebrated Cave Supper Club, where acts as dated as Milton Berle and current as Bryan Adams were bringing in the crowds for new owner Stan Grozina. Somehow in all the excitement of reigniting the old Cave an opening came up for a bright young sound tech, and Donnie had his moment, starting in late summer of ’76.

CBC TV was broadcasting its Search for Stars weekly program from the Cave at the time, and Donnie would run tech for the show and then stick around to DJ for the dancing.

The kid from Richmond was in heaven, and his bank manager wasn’t unhappy either!

But hardly anything lasts forever and Donnie’s short-lived gig at the Cave ended with the CBC series, though it did lead to a day job in audio with CBC, which sustained Donnie for several years during the ups and downs of the ’80s club scene.

It was a casual visit to one of those club scene hangouts, Jonathan’s on Seymour, in 1976 that introduced Donnie to the celebrated club entrepreneur John Stevenson. John always knew a talented catch when he saw one and he quickly had Donnie on board as his all-purpose, in-house Mr Fix It.  While Donnie’s skills with a sound board and lighting system were his major assets, he was also pretty handy with hammer and saw, electrician’s tape and pliers, and all the other tools and tricks that could keep a jerry-rigged booze can looking good and running smoothly while the lights were low.

Jonathan’s on Seymour soon became Jonathan’s on Granville, then the East Hastings Basin Street at the old Montreal Club venue. The clubs came and went at an alarming pace as John flipped leases, opened and closed venues, and always kept himself and his entourage at least a half-step ahead of the law — usually.

Donnie tells of one evening at the original Jonathan’s location, then renamed Whitaker’s, when he and John went to answer the door in response to a firm pounding at about 3am.  At the time John’s glasses had only one lens intact, and squinting at the stranger at the door he flippantly announced “I’m Colonel Klink and,” pointing at Donnie, “this is Hogan.”

“Great,” replied the visitor, flipping open his City of Vancouver Liquor Inspector credentials. “I’m Major Hockstetter and I’m coming in now.”

If you’ve never heard of the TV series Hogan’s Heroes, you won’t get it. Either way, you’ll be pleased to know that the “Gestapo” did a quick tour of the premises, didn’t find the hidden stash of booze, and departed — to raid another day.

By the late ’80s, after numerous incarnations of Jonathan’s and Basin Street, John and Donnie had settled their attention and hopes on an aged bar at 23 West Cordova, and a succession of clubs ran at that location through to the final days of Club 23 West in 2012, a year after John’s passing at the age of 87.

There was the Talk of the Town, The Cruel Elephant, The Hungry Eye, The Limelight, and others, I’m sure. Entertainment swung back and forth between disco and live jazz, blues, and rock, and while the clubs were no longer as identifiably “gay” as their earlier ventures, there certainly was a queer edge, and largely gay staff, that kept the place more than a little gay-friendly.

“I can’t remember all the precise dates in order,” Donnie admits. “I’m a tech guy, and I can tell you the makes and models of every piece of equipment we had over the years, but don’t ask me exactly when!”

Asked which of the many genres of music featured at their clubs over the years, Donnie demurs. “It wasn’t really about the music for me. It was about building the clubs and the sound systems and making it all run.

“John used to say, ‘Don and I hammered the nails so the musicians could hammer out the notes!”

I sometimes wonder if Don’s fellow employees at The Cambie have any idea what an important representative of Vancouver’s club and music scene history they work beside every day. Nah, probably not. Donnie wouldn’t mention it.

(Kevin Dale McKeown was Vancouver’s first out gay columnist, penning QQ Writes . . . Page 69 for the Georgia Straight through the early 1970s. His Still QQ column for Daily Xtra runs monthly on the last Thursday of the month. Contact him at stillqq@dailyxtra.com.)