Hits and Pits : On Palomino's Talent Night, Some of the Looniest Acts Get the Yaks

For 33 years the Palomino has set aside one night of the week for something called talent night. The level of talent varies.

"I'd say 10% of the acts are exceptionally good," said Harry Orlove, lead guitarist in the house band at the North Hollywood nightclub, "and 30% are really, really terrible. It's like a Fellini movie."

With that, a succession of performers took the Palomino's stage one recent Monday and proved him right. There was the retiree who has sung the Kenny Rogers hit "Lucille" every talent night for the past seven years. There was the woman who warbled "Desperado" while wearing a business suit.

And there was the young man with perhaps the worst line ever in a she-done-me-wrong country song. "Sometimes I feel like a plant that got trampled and eaten up by ants," he whined. "How could this happen to me?"

In all, there were about 30 contestants this night--the good, the bad, and the really, really terrible. Each had paid the $4 cover charge, which is all that's required for the chance to sing one song or do five minutes of comedy. Some accompanied themselves on piano or guitar, but most wisely chose to be backed up by the Palomino Riders.

"Anybody can come here and perform," master of ceremonies Cliffie Stone said with a touch of pride. "We don't audition them. We don't know what they're going to do, and sometimes they don't either."

Talent night at the Palomino, begun when the club opened 33 years ago, is the longest-running amateur night in Southern California. Held on Thursdays since its inception, talent night was switched last January to bolster Monday-night business.

Prizes are $200 for first place, $100 for second and a Palomino jacket for third. Sign-ups start at 7 p.m. The show begins an hour or so later. The last act goes on around 1 a.m., and performers must be on hand at the end to win.

"That's the whole idea, to keep them here drinking," Stone said with a laugh.

In the 1970s, with TV's "The Gong Show" encouraging amateur performers and the hit movie "Urban Cowboy" popularizing country bars, talent night at the Palomino regularly drew 50 or more acts. At least 25 performers still take part, sometimes as many as 40. They arrive from all over Southern California, many hoping to make it big in show business.

"Like a Dream"

"This place is like a dream to me, being here and singing with a real band," said Patty Johnson, 27, a Riverside housewife and talent-night regular who has yet to win a prize.

Others, like 73-year-old Charlie August Younga of Los Angeles, recognize that a weekly five-minute stint at the Palomino will be the pinnacle of their entertainment career.

"I've been coming out here every talent night since maybe 1964," the retired freight loader said. "Maybe three years ago, I won $100."

Younga has performed "Lucille" so many times, the act has evolved into a piece of performance art. The Palomino Riders, accomplished as both musicians and clowns, mimic Younga's movements while playing with hilariously overblown passion. Meanwhile, like an audience at the "Rocky Horror Picture Show," the crowd joins Younga at the chorus, shouting, "You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille. . . ."

Another champ of camp is Marty. Like Cher and Prince, Marty uses only one name. Most Palomino amateurs perform country music, but Marty does rock. His onstage strutting, designed to resemble Elvis, looks more like a man undergoing electrocution.

"It sounds weird, but it's the bad acts that make talent night fun," said Stone, 70, who played host at the country amateur show "Hometown Jamboree" on local live television from 1949 to 1961. "Of course, you get the real good ones, too. The Palomino's had Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Hoyt Axton, Bobby Bare, all before they got big. They had Johnny Cash on stage when he was an unknown songwriter."

Good and Steady

Stone said a few regulars, singer-guitarist Joe Williamson among them, are good enough to turn professional, given a lucky break or two. Williamson, 55, had a record that received some local radio play in 1963. He has continued playing country music in the years since while making a living cleaning carpets.

"I've been coming here steady for the last six years at least," said Williamson, of Gardena. "Partly it's for the fun of it, and I love the competition."

A person may win first prize only once a month, which Williamson did in November and December. Judging of contestants is informal--no sealed envelopes, no accounting firms monitoring ballots. The main qualification for judges is endurance--they must stay until the last performance is over--so Palomino employees usually end up with the job.

"I've seen nights where the judges are two drunk waitresses," said Steve Duncan, drummer and leader of the Palomino Riders.

Some amateur performers travel a circuit of talent nights in the San Fernando Valley--on Mondays, the Palomino or the Rawhide in North Hollywood, where top prize is $50; Tuesdays, the Silverado Saloon in Van Nuys, first prize $200; Wednesdays, JR Cowboy Palace in Chatsworth, first prize $200.

Debra Peters, a nightclub singer and pianist from Vancouver, made history one recent Monday when she won first prize at the Palomino her first time there. Regulars said they couldn't remember that happening before. The 30-year-old Peters makes periodic trips to Los Angeles, trying to land a recording contract or sell songs she has written.

"I play lounges and pubs in Vancouver," she said. "Some are nice, some aren't. Country is what I write, but I play and sing whatever it takes to get by."

She said her current trip had been a good one, and not only because of winning $200 at the Palomino.

"I got Merle Haggard's address and sent a tape of my songs to him, and my girlfriend leases space in a building Kenny Rogers owns, so maybe I can get one to him. I'll go back home with real high energy, but it won't stay."

Another performer knocking on the door of success is Terry Ayres of Sherman Oaks. A former backup singer for Laura Branigan and the rock group Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds, Ayres took second prize at the Palomino recently with a medley of '50s songs.

Ayres is short and curly-haired, something of a Gene Wilder look-alike. At the opposite extreme is pianist and singer Herman Schmerdley, 49, who stands 6 feet 4 and dresses in gangster outfits.

Chance to Let Loose

"I'd like to make something for myself professionally, but until then, this is a chance to blow off some steam," he said.

And blow off steam he did. Schmerdley's pounding rendition of Mickey Newbury's "Why You Been Gone So Long," played standing up a la Jerry Lee Lewis, was the night's loudest, fastest song. Someone walked up afterward and said, "Good job, Herman. I heard you outside, and that's with the door closed."

But Schmerdley, who has won the Palomino's top prize five times in three years, had to settle for third this night.

There are, of course, some people who never win.

"We have one guy, he's been coming for six years, and he only knows four songs, and he can't get any of them right," said guitarist Harry Orlove. "You gotta respect someone who keeps trying with a record like that."

"There's another guy," said keyboardist Skip Edwards, "who was born in the Mideast or somewhere. He writes country songs, but he doesn't use words like 'the' or 'a.' One of his songs is 'Riding Highway 4 a.m., You and Me and My Trans Am."'

"We only get paid 50 bucks each, so you know it's not for the money," said bass player Arnie Moore. "It's for the fun."

Because the Palomino books outside groups on most nights, its house band assembles only for talent night. The musicians play elsewhere the rest of the time. Drummer Steve Duncan and pedal steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness are members of the Top 10 country group Desert Rose Band.

Although Duncan and Maness are looking for material for the group's next album, chances are they won't use the song about the man who feels like a trampled plant. But they could consider one by Michael Ray of Simi Valley. Ray sang about a cowboy who not only lost his girl, but was reduced to getting drunk in a yuppie bar:

"That disco beat ain't got no meat so what am I here for?

There ain't no low-down country on the jukebox anymore."

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