Backstage Past: Waldorf steeped in history

Hotel opened Dec. 26, 1948

When the city granted heritage status to the Waldorf Hotel on May 15, it ended the latest chapter in the history of the 64-year-old hotel, perhaps opening the potential of a future one

While the heritage assessment to city council prepared by James Burton of Birmingham and Wood Architects and Planners is primarily an architectural one, Burton notes the Waldorf's "persistence as a hospitality venue over six decades since the Second World War" in Vancouver, and a "place to cultivate unique social scenes."

article continues below

What's missing from the report is the history not found in the heritage records or architectural blueprints but the story of Bob and Rick Mills.

"We broke the records for draught beer sales in Western Canada for years at the Waldorf," laughs 77-year-old Rick Mills whose father Bob opened the hotel in December 1948.

Rick's father already had some experience running B.C. hotels when the Waldorf opened Dec. 26, 1948. With Polynesian culture and Tiki imagery suddenly in popular with the '50s cocktail culture set, the Waldorf added its famous Tiki Bar, with its legendary Leeteg black velvet paintings in 1955. Suddenly, there was a little piece of Tahiti in Rainville.

In 1959, the younger Mills joined his father working at the hotel.

"There used be a lot more houses in the east end so people could walk home after a night at the Waldorf. But our main business was the long-haul truckers who stayed at the hotel between hauls," Mills recalls during a telephone interview with the Courier from his home in Las Vegas. "The lunches in the dining room were packed in the daytime with a lot of railway execs and lawyers from nearby offices. At night we were always busy with the crowds returning from the games at Empire Stadium or the racetrack."

Despite a lifetime in the bar and hotel business and constantly changing faces of guests who check in and out, Mills retains an astounding memory for names and dates. Though there are few names he prefers to omit.

"The rules were different then. There was a health inspector- I won't mention his name - I used to give him a couple of tickets for Lions games, great seats, right in the eighth row on the 50 yard line. He'd let me know when he was going to make a surprise visit as a inspector," he said.

"Even the police were different. You knew them better, or you could do things with them better if you know what I mean. A couple of brothers called the Keen brothers that were major bookies out at the racetrack who began working out of the Waldorf. There was an old cop from the gambling squad set to retire in a few months - I won't mention his name. He only worked in the mornings, so he came in every afternoon and we gave him free beer, but his presence kept the bookmakers out of there."

The Mills decided to sell the Waldorf by the end of 1970. "They built that Longshoreman Hall behind the Waldorf, and those guys weren't as nice as the truckers. They had a 40-foot tractor-trailer in the back of the parking lot full of TVs and stereos they'd stolen off the docks that they were selling and they were fencing the stuff in the beer parlour. It was a good time to sell. The business had changed and it wasn't so much of a family anymore."

With the terms of the sale, ownership changed that New Year's Eve. Adding to the Waldorf legend, Bob Mills, on his way out to the balcony to look at the fireworks in Burrard Inlet, suffered a stroke and died at the moment that night the Waldorf changed hands.

In many ways, the Waldorf Productions group that breathed life into the aging building in the last three years, booking diverse music, art, film and food events, and whose eviction precipitated much of the recent Save the Waldorf campaign, was ahead of its time. And the condos that will tower over whatever becomes of the Waldorf may very well bring back a new set of patrons who live nearby like in the old days.

The heritage status given to the Waldorf Hotel does put some limitation of the possibility of developing it. But the history of the Waldorf has shown that it will take people, more than a heritage designation, to write the next chapter of the building.

"You have to create a clientele," says Mills. "You have to hire people who are really good with the public. You need a home atmosphere_ It doesn't happen because of your location, I can tell you that."

Read Related Topics

Popular Vancouver Courier

Sign Up For Our e-Newsletter!