In the 1960s, Basil Pantages was at a gold conference in Las Vegas with his boss, the legendary stock promoter Murray Pezim.
“Baz heard that some disgruntled investors were going to beat the living (bleep) out of Pez for what he had done on their last deal,” recounts Pantages’ nephew, Tony Pantages. “They staked out the hotel and airport, but they didn’t know who uncle Baz was. So he went to a surplus store and bought some (army) fatigues, then he and Pez got in the fatigues and went to the airport.
“They went to the military side of the airport, paid off some guy and marched out onto the tarmac and got onto a military flight.”
Few people could have had the nerve to pull it off. But that was Basil Pantages, stock promoter, nightclub owner and bachelor about town.
In his heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, he was a fixture in Jack Wasserman columns in The Vancouver Sun. After Wasserman’s death, he was a fixture in Denny Boyd columns.
Sadly, for the last couple of years Pantages had been battling dementia. On Nov. 10, he died at the Braddan House care facility in Kitsilano, at age 87.
Basil Peter Pantages was born on April 15, 1933, in Vancouver. His father, Peter, was a Greek immigrant whose uncle was Alexander Pantages, who built a vaudeville empire across North America.
When he arrived in Vancouver, Peter Pantages initially worked at the Pantages Theatre on Hastings Street. But he soon switched to restaurants, running the Golden Gate and Peter Pan cafes.
Basil was working as the night manager at the Peter Pan in the 1960s when he was noticed by Pezim.
“Basically the Peter Pan was rockin’ at night,” said Tony Pantages. “Because my uncle Baz was manager, everyone would show up there. The Pez kept saying to Baz: ‘What the hell are you doing working in your dad’s restaurant? What are you going to do, work here the rest of your life?’ Basically the Pez saw Baz and said ‘Come and work for me, you’re gold, you can do this.’ ”
He did, and he could.
“He was a hustler,” said Tony Pantages. “He knew how to talk up a storm, and let people know there was tonnes of gold in a hole that didn’t have any. That’s how the Vancouver Stock Exchange worked.”
Basil Pantages always seemed to be up to something. On Oct. 22, 1960, he made the front page when he was charged as being “the keeper of a gaming house” when the police busted a “smoker party” for University of B.C. skiers and arrested 130 men. He paid a $250 fine.
When he was a stock promoter, he often co-owned bars or restaurants like the Pink Pussycat, Bumbles and Maxine’s, where he made a grand entrance on opening night.
“He rode a white horse in, in full-on rhinestone cowboy gear, right into the dining room, with about a hundred people there,” recalls his nephew. “He enters, takes off his cowboy hat and the horse takes a huge (poop) on the floor.”
But he sold Maxine’s after a year.
“A Greek’s happiest day is when he opens his own restaurant,” he told Boyd in 1981. “His second happiest day is when he sells it.”
His greatest local fame was running the annual Polar Bear swim at English Bay on New Year’s Day. It was founded by his father in 1921; there’s a Province story on 10-year-old Basil doing the swim in 1944.
For many years he had an after-party for the Polar Bear swim in his waterfront penthouse at 2033 Beach Ave., a stone’s throw from Stanley Park.
“The Wosk family built it,” said Tony Pantages. “They offered to sell him the building, and (Basil) went to my grandfather and said, ‘This is a tremendous deal.’ My grandfather said, ‘I will go to Hawaii for one week and think about it.’ He gets on a plane, goes to Hawaii, goes for a swim and (had a heart attack and died).”
Basil didn’t get to own the building, but he was “grandfathered in” for the rent, so he never moved.
“When I went to take care of him (a couple of years ago), we found out his rent was still $1,700 a month, for a whole floor of an apartment building on Beach Avenue,” said Tony Pantages. “On the water.”
Because of COVID-19, there won’t be a funeral. But Tony Pantages hopes if the pandemic is brought under control, there may be a birthday celebration for Basil Pantages on April 15, which would have been his 88th birthday.