By Janet Mackie
I heard the other day that the Cecil Hotel is soon to be demolished and the news brought back memories. The Cecil Hotel was for many years in the 70’s a great place to be on a Friday night. The Cecil, at that time, did not look that much different from the Yale Hotel next door (which also had popular subterranean steambaths) or the Blackstone farther down the street or the Austin across the road, or, indeed, many other Vancouver hotel bars. But for a long time the customers on Friday nights were an interesting bunch of people.
Poets and writers and potters and artists and musicians and bar-room philosophers and existentialist cab-drivers and Malcolm Lowry fans and alcohol-impaired Ph.D.s and fine-arts majors turned carpenters would all congregate on Friday night and drink and talk until closing time and then often go around the corner to the old Arts Club on Seymour Street where you could drink and dance (maybe catch Doug and the Slugs Band) until early morning.
I heard in the “old days” there was more violence and passion at the Cecil—fights bloody and dirty, the waiters more bellicose, and the characters more colourful. Those were the days when Peanut Charlie was young. Peanut Charlie had a speech impediment, a twisted leg and a gimpy hand, and he went around the bar selling peanuts: peanuts, the rumour had it, that were salted from being kept under his armpits.
No-one drank anything but beer (cost about 25 cents a glass and ordered to fill up the table) particularly as the waiters, a tough bunch, would “forget” to bring anything more sophisticated. Most nights you would see friends at four or five different tables and go around visiting and catch up with people who had been away to Europe or surveying up north or on a fishing trip, and then there were the heated debates about politics and art and all that stuff that got more animated the longer we drank.
Over the years, new owners changed the décor, usually for the worse. The terrycloth tablecloths were retired, but the huge wall-to-ceiling murals remained intact for years (sometimes draped, other times revealed). My favourite mural was of a fat, jovial English bobby, but there was also an eccentric Austrian Octoberfest scene that included a strapping German dancing woman with one hand painted on backwards.
The “neighbourhood pub” décor change was the worst, with an artificial fireplace stuck halfway up one wall and plastic flowers in baskets hanging irrelevantly in space and strange incomprehensible memorabilia adorning the walls. We absorbed the changes, noting them dismissively, and kept on drinking and talking.
The change of ownership that brought in the heavy-duty stripper routines complete with huge new stage, loud blaring lights and overhead mirrors, did in the old Cecil. We did have strippers before, but they made do on a little stage and brought their own music and took their clothes off in a laid-back amiable fashion and then left, but the new routine was impossible to ignore so we left. I don’t know what happens in the Cecil now, but for while it was a great Vancouver tradition on a Friday night.
Janet Mackie has lived in Vancouver for many years and misses the bad old days.