The Palomar Supper Club was one of Vancouver’s most elegant nightspots during the Jazz Age, when stars like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday appeared there.
Unfortunately, its prime location at the southwest corner of Burrard and Georgia meant it was ripe for redevelopment. In 1955, it was torn down to build a high-rise.
Today, few people probably remember the club, aside from vintage jazz fans and heritage buffs. But that will change Nov. 20, when the Palomar will be resurrected by local singer Jill Barber and a three-piece “phantom jazz band” for a concert.
The catch is, Barber will be appearing in a virtual Palomar, not a physical one.
“People have been saying ‘virtual gigs’ for online shows, but I’m really going to be doing a virtual gig,” said Barber.
“I will be appearing in a virtual venue that is created through the magic of visual effects and computer-generated images. I will be performing as me, in front of a green screen. My three bandmates will be wearing motion-capture suits, and will be appearing on-screen as phantom players.”
The virtual Palomar is being designed by Shocap Entertainment , a company founded by veterans of the film and videogame industries.
Shocap’s Athomas Goldberg has been doing a “deep dive” through local archives in search of images of the Palomar, which billed itself as “the most beautiful ballroom on the continent” when it opened on May 22, 1937.
He discovered what the stage looked like through images on old “souvenir photos” taken at the Palomar. The virtual “smoky nightclub” he’s designed looks very deco, with a round, tiered stage, sunken dance floor and tables on a mezzanine.
“The current plan is we’re going to open it on a Palomar nightclub that is scheduled for demolition — a raw space with construction equipment around that Jill will walk into,” said Goldberg.
“As she walks onto the stage, the lights will dim and the colour will go to this black and white, and as the lights come up we’re now in this restored Palomar. In the audience, we have the ghosts of patrons past, and as she begins to perform her band will appear, also as spirits.”
Shocap originally approached Barber with the idea of doing a show around Halloween, which is where the ghost stuff came in. Goldberg says “the visual language” for the show is being informed by jazz age/film noir films of the late 1940s and early ’50s, which sometimes used spirits or apparitions.
Barber and her husband, CBC radio host and author Grant Lawrence, thought it might be cool to resurrect a ghost venue, as well, and discovered the Palomar in Aaron Chapman’s recent history of Vancouver nightlife, Vancouver After Dark.
“I thought how cool would it be to ‘play the same venue’ as artists (like Armstrong) played?” said Barber. “To take that legacy and insert myself in that world, just for fun … at a time when we are rapidly at risk of losing venues, real venues.”
Shocap has been experimenting with “live performances in virtual worlds” for a couple of years, including a recent live stream of a circus performance set to a poem by Shane Kozcyan for an XR (extended reality) symposium.
Live shows have been basically nixed during the pandemic, which has led to a lot of video streaming. So Goldberg thought it would be a good time to explore something more adventurous.
“We’re looking at taking the language of film, animation and live performance and really finding ways to use them in compelling ways to create new experiences and tell new types of stories,” he said.
Barber said “it’s an exciting experiment, dipping our toe into possibly the future of what shows could be.”
That said, she did play a “socially distanced” live show for 50 people a couple of weeks ago at the ACT Theatre in Maple Ridge.
“It’s a theatre for 480 people,” she explained. “Essentially, every dozen seats were cordoned off, and then there would be two seats. And then the next dozen would be cordoned off.”
She was taken aback at first: “Just to see a theatre in this state was shocking, and a bit heartbreaking.”
But she asked the audience to help her out by being enthusiastic and they responded, big time.
“I honestly played for the most enthusiastic, incredible 50 people,” she said. “They just gave it their all, cheering, applauding. It was a big release for me and everyone else. A feel-good night, for sure.”