Nightclub Patrons Step Up and Sing

Times Staff Writer

Only hours before, she was singing in the shower, but now it was Eliza Gurule's turn in the limelight. She grabbed the microphone, faced the rowdy crowd at Barwinkles lounge and, for a few minutes, became a nightclub star.

"I like attention," Gurule said after belting out "I Will Survive."

That is why the 23-year-old mother of two young boys escapes reality every Wednesday night and joins her friends at the bar that features karaoke.

In Japanese, karaoke means empty orchestra. The concept is simple: A host invites anyone with a little chutzpah to sing on stage, with a full-band sound provided as background. Meanwhile, large screens propped around the bar show either the gutsy singers themselves or a less elaborate version of an MTV video, with the words of the song displayed on the bottom.

Promoters bill it as "the piano bar of the '80s." Gurule calls it the perfect bar-scene icebreaker. "Now, instead of, 'What's your sign?' it's, 'Are you going to sing a song?' " she said.

Popular in Asia

Would-be stars are getting the chance to sing their favorite songs as a growing number of area nightclubs are buying or leasing the Japanese systems.

A few years ago, karaoke was found only in bars and restaurants that catered primarily to Japanese customers. But this popular form of entertainment in Asian countries is making a big splash with Los Angeles-area yuppies, according to its promoters. An increasing number of night spots, such as Merlin Mc Fly's in Santa Monica and Mr. J's in Santa Ana, are reserving one or two nights a week for people who like to sing in front of strangers.

"It's really blossoming now," said Gene Settler, president of the L.A.-based Singing Machine Co., which he said was the first to begin manufacturing karaoke equipment in the United States in 1982. Settler said he distributes sets across the country.

A good voice is not a requirement for living a rock 'n' roll fantasy. But being a bit of a ham helps.

"I love to get in front of the crowds!" an ebullient Gurule said. "I feel like I'm on 'Star Search,' " she said. "When they applaud, that's just the best. You get butterflies."

The entertainment's burgeoning popularity here has not gone unnoticed in Japan, where karaoke is a big hit in homes and bars. Recently, a Tokyo television crew did several stories on Japanese companies doing business in Southern California. One featured Pioneer Laser Entertainment Inc., a Pioneer Electronics division that opened last year to sell karaoke equipment.

Reporter Ikuko Kurokawa, who works for one of Japan's major TV networks, said in an interview that the commercial karaoke here is different than in Japan. In Japan, she said, karaoke bars are often geared toward businessmen who go there after work to drink and "release stress and frustration." Here, both men and women enjoy it. And the atmosphere here has more of a party feeling, she said. Even the songs are different. In Japan, they typically sing sad songs "about love, lost love and loneliness," Kurokawa said. Local karaoke features everything from lullabies to rock.

Settler said his company has sold more than 100,000 sets for businesses and homes. They range in price from $49 for a dual cassette recorder, which can tape a singer on one side using prerecorded music from the second side, to a $6,000 model. "One set retails for $1,795 and the yuppies are buying that," Settler said.

Pioneer, which sells systems using laser technology and ranging from $900 to $3,000, has sold about 4,000 karaoke units in the past year, mostly in California and Hawaii, according to Jake Ramirez, Pioneer's Southwest region assistant manager.

People are snapping up the more economical units for home parties, but the company's big push is to sell commercially, Ramirez said. Restaurants and bars are buying the equipment because "it's cheap entertainment . . . it's customers entertaining customers," he said.

And there's no lack of brave customers willing to provide the entertainment.

"Everyone has a hidden desire to be a rock 'n' roll star," Ramirez said.

Take Robert Jones, for example. The 34-year-old Long Beach resident was at Barwinkles on a recent Wednesday, having a beer with his fiancee, Tammy Walls, when he decided he didn't like the songs people were choosing to perform. They were a little dull, he thought. So Jones, who said he had never sung in public before, grabbed a fake guitar, jumped up and down and blasted out a version of "Born to Be Wild."

"I thought I had to get up there and save (the show,)" he later said.

David Gladstone, owner of a Huntington Beach company that provides hosts and equipment for karaoke shows, said he's seen demure people become gregarious after performing at the shows. "It takes a lot of psychological courage to get up there," he said.

Long Beach resident Mark Leuteritz, after enthusiastically applauding a number of strangers on stage recently, bantered about the idea of singing with his friends. But they were a little shy that night. "Some of those people are very talented," Leuteritz had said. "I think we'll have to go home and jam first."

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