web statistics

109 East Hastings St near Columbia
This sign was erected in 1953 by Wallace Neon



Rockers give famed club sign to museum

Smilin' Buddha prime example of neon heyday

John Mackie , Vancouver Sun

October 19, 2007

Vancouver rockers 54-40 drew their name from a historical slogan, "54-40 or fight." Now they're making a bit of history themselves by donating one of Vancouver's landmark neon signs to the Vancouver Museum.

The sign is for the Smilin' Buddha Cabaret, a legendary dive on East Hastings where Jimi Hendrix played in the 1960s and 54-40 played their first gig on Dec. 31, 1980.

The sign was a civic icon for several decades, featuring a big, fat neon Buddha with a rippling belly reclining atop Smilin' Buddha (in script) and Cabaret (in oriental lettering). In a city that was once full of playful, imaginative commercial neon signs, it was one of the best.

The Buddha closed in 1987, and 54-40 purchased the sign a few years later from a guy who had bought it and stored it in a warehouse. They then used it as the title for an album, and took it on tour.

The band lent it to the Vancouver Museum for a neon show a couple of years ago, but the sign has mostly been in storage. So the band decided to donate it.

"We essentially consider ourselves stewards of the sign, never really owners," says bassist Brad Merritt, who will appear with 54-40 tonight and Saturday at the Commodore Ballroom.

"We happened to buy it and fix it up and get a case for it and all that stuff, but we were struck by the fact that it's a historical landmark. It meant a lot to me, personally. I heard my parents talk about the place, taking their little brown bags of booze [when it was a speakeasy bottle club] and sticking them in a little spot in the table as the cops go by . . . it was just an amazing place, part of Vancouver's lore."

The sign is at the Vancouver Museum being fixed up for an official unveiling in January or February 2007...



Source: The UBYSSEY (UBC Student newspaper) vol. LXII, no.12


Friday October 5, 1979

The Smilin' Buddha Cabaret is presenting some of Vancouver's most exciting rock groups in the seediest, dirtiest, and most depressing strip in the city. The drunks and junkies nodding out to country and western bands have been replaced by a new generation of rock fans. Middle class kids flock to the skid row bar week after week because it is the only place in town with a regular new wave music policy. Clayton Mackay, Peter Draper, and April Porter book groups like. the K-Tels, The Subhumans and D.O.A. They also sell tickets at the door, run the sounds ystem and deal with the police. They divide the take from the door among themselves and the bands. Club owner Lachman Gir handles the liquor sales .Mackay explains that the bands
originally booked themselves into places like the Windmill, the Quadra and the Smilin' Buddha because the established clubs wouldn'touch them. After attending the rock against racism concert in Chicago he decided that Vancouver needed its own headquarters to showcase the growing new wave scene."The Smilin' Buddha is quickly becoming one of the most prestigious clubs in town," quips Mackay. "We get a lot of record people coming in, people from Hornby Street, and we're starting to get the disco crowd here now. It's really picking up and we're really pleased with the success the Buddha's having." How many people run the Buddha? Mackay slyly answers: "There's about 300 people that try to tell us what to do down here and what can be done.

Police harassment is the most frustrating aspect of running the club. They're continually coming in hassling people, shutting off the sound and conducting strict ID checks." The club came to a head last May when 16 people were arrested for being drunk in a public place. What sparked the confrontation remains unclear. Those arrested filed a complaint with the police department that will lead to a formal Internal investigation to examine charges of brutality. Mackay says he expects a whitewash and Draper predicts the club will be shut down when a formal liquor board hearing into overcrowding, underage drinkers and other abuses occurs later this month. Mackay openly admits he wouldn't want the job of policing the skid row area but feels the authorities want to shut down the club for political reasons. A classic story involves a skid row bum passed out in the club's doorway. The police decided to teach the derelict a lesson, opened the door and threw him into the Buddha.

Patrons and would-be patrons line up to pay their $3, have their hands stamped and be admitted into the club by a no-nonsense bouncer who checks everybody's identification. The crowd consists mostly of young short-haired fans in regulation denim or leather jackets. A few exotic women wearing fluorescent dresses and purple lipstick mingle with the hippies, Hastings Street drunks, cowboys and assorted yahoos who have now filled the room. Perfect Stranger starts the ball rolling with loud, monochromatic songs with titles like Radiation, Overkill and Confusion. The bass and lead pump through the machine gun riffs delivering psychedelic-flavored punk music. The Devices follow up with songs every bit as abrasive but much less structured. Three heavily amplified power chords do not push this rock music into new terrain. Punk groupies pogo up and down but those in the know are waiting for the Subhumans. "The lead bands are set up quite far in advance" says Mackay. "But it's week by week as far as back-up bands go." American groups cannot be brought in as the club seats only 100 people. The low cover charge automatically precludes bands who have signed record contracts. "We're trying to set up a connection with clubs in L.A., San Francisco and Seattle for west coast tours," explains Mackay. The plan is to book new talent into a larger hall one night and hold themover at the Buddha for two nights. The first of these groups, The Dills, will be playing at the club Oct. 18, 19 and 20.

The Subhumans have started their set. Through their music and appearance they live up to their name. Wimpy, the lead singer, barks out the songs and is already covered in sweat. Frenetic power chording and relentless bass guitar deliver a direct punch to the audience's gut. The legendary Dimwit is now backing The Pointed Sticks but the band's new drummer promises to be every bit as aggressive. The Subhumans deliver a superhuman rock performance that would electrify any audience in the world. It's easy to see why the management and fans want to keep the Smilin' Buddha open.

he thirteen-month 2

Help support this website by making a donation.

Donations of$20 or more recieve a free poster.


All photos copyright © Christian Dahlberg except where stated otherwise. All rights reserved.
Vancouver panorama photo © Vancouver Lookout. www.vancouverlookout.com