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The Fabulous Commodore Ballroom Turns 75

There's no mistaking the Commodore vibe. From the neon sign over the tiled entrance, up the winding staircase and into the second-story ballroom in Vancouver,

There’s no mistaking the Commodore vibe. From the neon sign over the tiled entrance, up the winding staircase and into the second-story ballroom in Vancouver, British Columbia, you feel the presence of this classy 75-year-old lady. Art Deco elegance and classic architecture are evident everywhere you look: huge arching windows on both sides of the room, curved staircase to the mezzanine, chandeliers, luxuriant plum-colored carpeting and a majestic coffered ceiling above the massive “sprung” hardwood dance floor.

The ballroom played host to many talented big band acts in the early days — Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Cab Calloway — and for nearly 40 years, it was a mainstay for a variety of performers and private events. For the past three decades, the legacy has only improved: Devo, The Ramones, Iggy Pop, Dire Straits, David Bowie, KISS, The Police, Graham Parker and The Rumour, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, The B-52s, Talking Heads, The Pretenders, Blondie and hundreds more. Many bands, especially the British ones, performed their first North American date here, including U2 (1981) and The Clash (1979). In 1992, the London Sunday Times ranked the Commodore Ballroom as Number Five on a Top 10 list of live venues in the world.

Much of the modern attraction can be attributed to Drew Burns, a young entrepreneur who, in 1968, took over the club and brought it international stature. Part of Burns’ vision was to encourage and book all types of musical acts: calypso, reggae, heavy metal, jazz, folk, blues, punk, zydeco and everything in between. Burns was also very generous to local acts, fostering and cultivating Canadian bands and performers of all levels, including the Barenaked Ladies, 54-40, Colin James and Sarah McLachlan.

photo: Nick Bergstedt

Then in 1996, due to an expiration of Burns’ lease and some legal hassles, the Commodore shut down. For three years, the room sat silent and there was a definable hole in Vancouver’s music scene. In 1999, House of Blues Concerts, along with Roger Gibson and Bryan Adams’ manager, Bruce Allen, decided to reopen the room. The task before them was multifold: restore the room to its original character and completely upgrade the audio system. After eight months of renovations costing a total of $3.5 million, the grand old lady was ready to rock (and swing) again.

“The renovation that began in 1999 was extensive,” recalls technical director Byron Lonneberg, who came in about a month before renovations were complete. “We basically stripped the place down to its four walls and started over again. We kept the mezzanine and the dance floor, but the tiered flooring was replaced and re-designed to improve sightlines.” The stage and backstage areas were all completely rebuilt, and the P.A. was recessed into the walls beside the stage. The majestic arched windows, some of which had been covered or mirrored, were all restored. That was especially important, as the audience knows the show is about to begin when the electronic blinds magically descend over the windows and darken the room.

From an audio perspective, Lonneberg and his team looked at two or three options in 1999 and eventually decided on an L-Acoustics V-DOSC line array system. At the time, the Commodore was the first venue in Canada to install such a system and probably one of the first half-dozen in North America. “The speakers are the same size as in any other box,” Lonneberg explains, “but they are all aligned in a row. It acts as if the full-spectrum range is all coming from one point. It eliminates a lot of comb filtering, phase problems and it sounds great all over the room. It’s also much easier to control: Instead of the sound coming out and bouncing everywhere, you can focus the V-DOSC so that it doesn’t bounce off the ceiling as much. They actually aligned it with a laser so the top of the waveform ends at the ceiling.

“One of the biggest complaints that touring acts have is the [FOH] mix position. Here, it’s on house right. Everybody wants it to be at the back of the dancefloor at the center. I’d love it to be there, too, but it doesn’t work for all the events that we do. If we were a concert hall and we only did concerts, then that would be the place to have the console. But we do everything from fashion shows to cooking competitions to corporate gala dinners. Having a big footprint of sound and lights at the back of the room was not going to cut it.

Commodore technical director Byron Lonneberg seated at the Soundcraft Series 5

photo: Tim Moshansky

“The mix position isn’t ideal, but it makes the engineer get out from behind the console and walk around and listen to the sound from different parts of the room. There is always the option for acts who prefer to bring in their own console to set up at the back of the dancefloor.”

The FOH console is a Soundcraft Series 5 48-channel board, which was purchased new in 1999. Lonneberg says it has been a good “workhorse” for the club, but he’s hoping for a new board, possibly a Midas Heritage. The monitor mixer is a Ramsa WRS 840F 40-channel console with the Ashly Protea digital EQ recall system, allowing for recallable settings during soundchecks. An update to this console is also in the works.

One aspect of the room that is memorable to anyone who has been to the Commodore is the sprung hardwood dancefloor. It takes a bit to get the floor moving, but with 600 people jumping up and down simultaneously, it becomes a human-powered trampoline. The whole building seems to actually move.

FOH Speakers: Eight V-DOSC three-way cabinets (2×15-inch, 4×7-inch, 2×2-inch), six V-DOSC SB-218 subs (2×18-inch), dV-DOSC center-fill cabinet

photo: Nick Bergstedt

Another notable feature is the huge 30×40-foot stage. During renovation, the crew found two old stages underneath — a square one and a round, rotating bandshell-type stage, most likely originating from the ’30s. The front of the stage was originally on the dancefloor. “We’ve recently repaired that so the stage is supported from off the dancefloor,” says Lonneberg. In the past, musicians complained that they were being hit in the mouth by their microphones from the movement of the dancefloor. The new stage is now very solid, and as a result, the stage sound is a lot tighter.

“When we renovated,” says Lonneberg, “we wanted to make sure it was not only a great experience for the crowd, but also a great experience for the artists.” Previously, the only backstage amenities were a small green room, a couple of tiny dressing rooms behind the stage and a soda machine filled with beer. Now there’s a large common room and snazzy dressing rooms with hardwood floors, TVs, refrigerators, Wi-Fi and bathrooms with heated tile floors and double-headed showers.

“We’re kind of an anomaly,” Lonneberg says proudly. “We’re not really a bar or a club or even a theater; we’re primarily a concert venue. There are not a lot of venues around that are like the Commodore. The stage is pretty big for a 1,000-person venue. That’s why we can bring in bigger shows. I’ve seen so many bands, especially support acts, that come out here and we rush them through soundcheck and they’re usually nervous. We’ve got great gear and great techs who can dial it up quickly for them and make it sound good right away. That always boosts their comfort level: ‘Hey, I can hear myself. I haven’t been able to hear myself for the last six nights.’ There’s a room full of people out in front of the stage and then that magical Commodore vibe kicks in, and they walk off the stage and go, ‘Wow. That was amazing!’ And they’re just the opening act! It just gets better from there.”

Tim Moshansky is the author of A to Z Guide to Film Terms and lives in Vancouver. Visit him at

Additional Audio Gear

FOH Drive: XTA DP-226 crossover (3), BSS FCS-960 dual EQ and FCS 930 mono EQ

Signal Processing: TC Electronic M2000 and M3000 dual reverb, 2290 digital delay; Yamaha SPX-990 multi-effects; Drawmer 241 dual auto-compressors (4); dbx 904 gate modules (8) with dbx 900 rack; Denon DN-C550R dual CD recorder

FOH Amps: Crown MA 5000 VZ (12)

FOH Speakers: Eight V-DOSC three-way cabinets (2×15-inch, 4×7-inch, 2×2-inch), six V-DOSC SB-218 subs (2×18-inch), dV-DOSC center-fill cabinet

Monitor Processing: Meyer B-2A (3), M-3 (2); dbx 904 gate (4), 903 comp modules (4) with dbx 900 rack; TC Electronic M3000 dual reverb

Monitor Amps: QSC 3500 (10), 3800

Monitor Speakers: Jason Sound J17 low-profile biamped wedges (9)

Drum Fill: Jason Sound J17 wedge, Kian 650 sub

Side-Fills: Meyer MSL3 (2), Kian 650 sub (2)

Direct Boxes: Klark-Teknik Active (12)

The Commodore Ballroom in 1930

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Commodore dancefloor

Fun Facts

Like other nightspots popular in the Prohibition days of the 1930s, the Commodore was known as a “bottle club,” where patrons would bring in their own liquor in brown paper bags. Legend has it that the Commodore had “bottle pockets” sewn into the tablecloths so the audience could enjoy their drinks. These were fondly referred to as “speak-easy tables.” When a raid by the police was imminent, the band would be alerted and automatically go into the secret tune, usually “Roll Out the Barrel” or something similarly recognizable. Then the revelers had to simply stash their flasks as if nothing was up. When the cops left, patrons would pull them out and resume the party.
• Originally opened December 3, 1929
• Is the oldest operating entertainment nightclub complex in North America
• Presents and hosts more than 200 local, national and international touring acts a year
• Employs 75 to 100 full- and part-time staff
• Purchased its first liquor license in 1970
• Original 1929 art deco designed by H.H. Gillingham and built by George C. Reifel
• Its 1999 renovations were designed by Nancy Stern, architect, and executed by Panther Management

One aspect of the room is the sprung hardwood dancefloor. It takes a bit to get the floor moving, but with 600 people jumping up and down simultaneously, it becomes a human-powered trampoline. The whole building seems to actually move.