This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
"This is it. This is Barton's old room. This is where he died."
The small Maglite in Jesse Cochards' hand shook a little as it illuminated the dark room furnished with the comfy looking La-Z-Boy tucked neatly into the back of the secluded area. This was the place where dancers fake intimacy and men hide their hard ons. This was the place where Jesse's uncle OD'd six years ago.
"We've renovated this area, so it's a lot easier to be here now."
Over the course of our numerous meetings, this was the only time that the laughter left Jesse's voice. We were upstairs in Chez Pierre Cabaret, more commonly known as simply Chez Pierre's, Edmonton's oldest strip club. The windows are blacked out and Jesse was giving me a tour by flashlight so we didn't have to wait for the soft red and blue lights to warm up. He cheered up once we left the area and excitedly started telling me about the group rooms located off to the side.
A babyfaced 25-year-old—we were both ID'd at a bar nearby where we did an interview—Jesse is the youngest strip club owner in Edmonton, and one of the youngest in the country.
He's also the man who turned one of Edmonton's most notorious bars around.
Over the years, Chez Pierre has become synonymous with debauchery. It was a place without a liquor license, but one where well into the 2000s you could still order "special pops" and get a liquored-up Pepsi. A place where prostitution was talked about in hushed voices on the dark dance floor. It seems like everyone has a story about the club.
Jesse's grandfather, Pierre Cochard, opened the Cabaret in the early 1970s. Pierre, a Belgian by birth, came to Canada with his friend and business partner in 1951. He was a big man, a prize fighter going by the name "The Brown Butcher," and a lumberjack for a time. Pierre was not a man to be fucked with. He even fought Sugar Ray Robinson.
Like many enterprising folks in Canada, Pierre heard the cry of "Go West Young Man," and the Belgian listened. He and a friend climbed into the 1934 Buick they bought solely for the journey and soon found themselves in Edmonton. The two worked numerous jobs, including operating Edmonton's first pseudo food truck, before Pierre went back to Europe for a brief time. He returned to Dirt City to start what would be his legacy.
Chez Pierre was originally opened as a discotheque above a Boston Pizza on Jasper Avenue. Initially, the club featured girls dancing in pasties, and then turned to topless go-go dancing, before finally embracing nudity—it would later become the first place in Edmonton to feature bottomless dancing. At this time, though, spaces like Chez Pierre couldn't get liquor licenses in Edmonton. So Pierre came up with the "special pops." If a waitress knew a customer was trustworthy and they ordered one of these, their Pepsi would arrive a whole lot boozier.
These "special pops" quickly became Edmonton's worst-kept secret. While other strip clubs and venues received liquor licenses over the years, Chez Pierre never did. As a result, the club had a tense relationship with the police. And even though it was rumored that cops frequented the club, it was the target of numerous sting operations.
Shortly after its opening, Chez Pierre moved to the old Eldorado Nuclear building, a place that Pierre and his business partner tried to work in when they first came to Edmonton. The two were denied employment and returned all those years later to buy the building. The vaults that originally kept Eldorado's materials now hold the club's vacuums.
Its new location just so happened to be across the street from Edmonton's First Presbyterian Church, a pairing that the church didn't get a kick out of. They actively worked against the club and prayed for the patrons and Pierre's salvation. At one point they even threatened to nail the door shut.
Walking through that very same door last Saturday night, I didn't find the dark seedy bar that was so vividly described to me. In fact, it was a sharp departure from any other strip club I'd been to. At the typical Edmonton strip club you'll find, without fail, big burly bouncers overlooking young men sucking back tequila and throwing loonies at the dancers' genitals to try and win a poster—which is a weird scenario. Jesse told me that this was something that Chez Pierre actively tries to get away from.
"Those other clubs will piss off enough people that don't like the big bar feel where there are 200 people—where it is shoulder to shoulder and you can't talk and everyone is getting puking drunk," he said. "There are enough people out there that don't like it, and that is why Chez Pierre is here. That's why we have been around for 45 years.
"That's the genius of my grandfather."
Chez Pierre was quiet and comfortable. The music wasn't too loud and everyone seemed pleased to be there. Not that any customers were making eye contact with each other—it's still a nudie bar. Avoiding the gaze of the trio of businessmen seated in pervert row I found myself a table overlooking the stage and started taking notes.
The first note I made was that the room was damn cold—I felt for the dancers walking around with next to nothing on. The next line in my notes was "maybe it's for nipple aficionados?" but I was cut short pondering this important question when a pretty redheaded dancer sat down next to me and we started chatting.
She went by the name Sylvia Linings and she told me that the furnace had gone out right before work started. (The next day, Jesse assured me that it's a rare occurrence but one that can happen in a building as old Chez Pierre's, and it does, about once a year. "It's not a winter at Chez Pierre's unless you get a lapdance from a stripper with a parka on," he said.)
Wearing only a tight-fitting neon bikini while seated in a cold leather chair, Sylvia was a trooper and laughed through her shivers. The talk that ensued was one of the best I've had in a while. She told me that she was a double-major in anthropology and sociology and that her master's thesis was on the Branch Davidians in Waco. The conversation eventually rolled its way over to the club, and I asked her if she had been to Chez Pierre before Jesse ran it.
"It was years ago, I was right out of high school and I'm not sure I was even 18 yet," she told me. "I'd heard rumors about the place for years. My favorite one was that there was a stripper with a tail. So with this in mind, a group of us headed down there. We never saw anyone with a tail, just a really seedy strip club that sold you booze under the table, and you could get extras with the girls pretty much in the middle of the club. We didn't stay very long."
Shortly after that, Sylvia had to make her way to the stage.
The era Sylvia and I were discussing was the only one in Chez Pierre history where a Cochard wasn't in charge. Pierre ran the bar until the late 90s, surviving controversy, busts, and a fire that gutted the basement and original club. At the time, Pierre was in his 70s and wanted to take a step back, so three brothers, all friends of Pierre, took over the managerial duties. It was a bad decision, one that resulted in what Jesse refers to as the "dark times."
The "special pops" were but small potatoes compared to what could be found at Chez Pierre during this time. The new owners were partiers, allegedly fond of hard drugs, and extremely lenient. The bar deteriorated without Pierre's stern and tough gaze. The club was a lot darker back then, the only light coming from lamps. And patrons could get "extras."
"Extras," in lay speak, typically involved a customer paying a dancer for a lamp-lit handy down in perv row. There were also rumored to be situations where, if you said the right words to the right stripper, one would meet you in your car afterward for a little more.
The dancers also occasionally doled out another sort of handjob.
"These guys would be passed out in the front and a guy would touch a girl and the girls would just gang up and beat the crap out of the guy. The girls did all the policing themselves," Jesse explained. "Apparently it got so bad that girls would be destroying each other's mixtapes, spitting in each others shoes."
Around this time, Jesse's uncle Barton had moved back to Edmonton. He took one look at the bar and didn't like what was happening. He pushed the other men out and started cleaning the place up. This involved cleaning house with the strippers and bringing in new girls. (Some of the old dancers were upwards of 55-years-old.) The bar started focusing on respect for both the patrons and the strippers. They billed the place as a gentleman's club and they damn well intended on acting like one.
This is when Jesse entered the picture as a fresh-faced 19-year-old. He had moved from his home of Salmon Arm, BC to Edmonton looking for work and planning to take care of his grandmother.
Although he had never been to the club, he knew what his grandfather did for a living and the reputation he had. Jesse gleefully told me a story about when he and his little brother Colton, who also works in the club, were kids and his grandfather rolled up to his family's house in a Ferrari. Pierre exited the vehicle and on his arm was a blonde knockout. She couldn't have been older than 25, whereas his grandfather was in his late 60s or early 70s at this time. One day, shortly after his 19th birthday, Pierre showed up knocking on Jesse's door and asked if he wanted to go to the strippers. Obviously, he said yes.
Jesse started bussing at the club out of boredom while hanging around there with Pierre or his Uncle Barton. It came naturally to him, and all of a sudden he was getting paid. He enrolled in the nearby MacEwan University and got his diploma in business management—the whole time living the dream of paying for school with strip club money.
Around this time, Barton died. He had suffered from Scheuermann's Disease, a debilitating back condition, and used prescription pills to ease the pain. Barton liked to party, and while running Chez Pierre, his addiction spiraled out of control. Barton OD'd in his room a floor above the club on November 23, 2009.
After Barton's death, Pierre wanted to close his cabaret, but Jesse convinced him not to.
"I asked him, 'What are you going to to do?' He kept telling me 'we're going to close it,'" Jesse said. "I remember telling him, 'Is that really how you want your legacy to be? To close on this note?'"
Pierre gave in and Jesse took over managerial control of the bar, soon becoming the owner at 21. At first, he and the friends he brought in to run it didn't know what they were doing. Chez Pierre still had no liquor license and Jesse never could shake the Cochard tradition of "special pops." Six months into managing the space, Jesse, like his grandfather before him, was caught blatantly serving liquor without a license after an undercover officer bought a drink. He was found with a single bottle of Alberta Pure, just the worst vodka imaginable. Jesse pleaded guilty to the charges and was fined.
He took his medicine stoically, but this was the final straw.
Fed up with the illegalities Jesse set about changing the club once and for all. He had one goal in mind: that goddamn liquor license that was always out of Chez Pierre's reach. The first thing he did was follow in his uncle's footsteps and treat the girls and customers as well as he could. In our talks he mentioned respect over and over—respect for the girls, respect for the employees, respect for the patrons, respect for the term "gentlemen's club"—respect comes first for Jesse.
"He's a really nice guy who cares about us as people," Sylvia said of her boss. "We aren't just walking bags of money to him, which is more than can be said about some other club owners and agents.
"I've worked for some who simply do not give a shit about you," she went on to say. "They don't care what your name is, they just want you to make them money."
In the ensuing years, Jesse completely overhauled and renovated the Cabaret. He reorganized the main area, built a DJ booth that moonlights as a control room, and revamped the large changing area for the dancers. But by far the biggest and most important project was making a completely separate area for lap dances. He turned his eye on the floor above the main club.
The dancing rooms had originally been built off to the side and were made out of "duct tape and lattice." In the early days, it wasn't a rare sight to see a room collapse while dances were occurring and Jesse and whoever was closest rushing over to fix it. During the renovations, Jesse, his brother Colton, Carl Mapes the bouncer and DJ (as well as the man who took these photos), and close friends Evan McArthur, and Sean Orr would run the bar at half capacity—two would work upstairs building a separate lap dance area while the others ran the bar.
One of the main reasons that the Cochards couldn't get their license was the fact that they offered table dancing, and in a licensed venue, dancers can't touch the patron when liquor is present. Jesse did his best to remedy this with the new upstairs dancing area.
The group's hard work paid off and on March 12 of this year Chez Pierre saw a day that neither Pierre nor Jesse ever thought would come. After more than 40 years, Chez Pierre Cabaret received its liquor license. Pierre Cochard came to the bar that afternoon, and at 89 years old he had the first legal drink in the business he founded.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.