A mostly middle-aged crowd finished off their meals and drifted out of Gaylord's Family Restaurant in North Hollywood early Sunday evening, leaving the dimly lit cocktail lounge and grill looking sleepy.
But soon a transformation began. A man wearing a coonskin cap and sunglasses walked in and sat in a booth. Then came a man wearing a warm-up jacket and a blue beret, with a blue bandanna around his neck. A woman in pigtails and a crinkled cowboy hat came in. So did an elderly woman in a glittery green dress.
Finally a group of cowboys and cowgirls sat around the piano bar.
It didn't seem real.
Gaylord's, standing alone on a parking lot at Laurel Canyon and Victory boulevards, is one of those establishments that looks like it comes from a mold. On one side it's a coffee shop with Formica counters and waitresses in uniforms who run while they walk. Next door is the room with the bar, three rows of black Leatherette booths and a piano bar with a dozen chairs.
On Wednesday through Saturday nights, entertainer Kate Porter sings '30s and '40s songs in the cocktail lounge.
"All the middle-aged people like that," Porter said. "I don't mean that in a bad way. That's our clientele. We're talking about a little sleepy lounge in the Valley."
But on Sundays Gaylord's goes a little nuts. Sunday is family entertainment night, Gaylord's version of "The Amateur Hour."
Then it's the place to take in such unusual acts as an MCA security guard singing a ballad about a friend's wedding in Yosemite or a Bullock's shoe salesman telling what it's like to be marked with that "department store retail salesperson clerk kind of look."
I went last Sunday.
Porter, an effervescent woman with blond, short-cropped hair, ran the show. A professional pianist in a blue seersucker suit played accompaniment. An animated bartender, Jose Dana, kept up an irrepressible commentary in my ear.
"Last year when I started to work here they were mostly comedians," Jose confided. "They were mostly hard core, like the Comedy Store, and the owner didn't like that. He said, 'This is a family restaurant.' So they mellowed out."
Some of the performers are regulars. Too regular, according to Jose.
But there's always a surprise. Last Sunday it was the cowboys. Porter explained that one of them had just auditioned at the Palomino, the country music house a few blocks away on Lankershim Boulevard, and had brought his friends by to see the show and sing.
Porter saved them for the end.
The first performer was Travis Brandon, the MCA guard and the man wearing the beret.
"He used to be a Green Beret," Jose said. "But now he's a Blue Beret."
Before he became a guard, Brandon sang everywhere from biker bars to fancy restaurants. Now he's trying to get back into it again.
He sang the ballad about the Yosemite wedding and another that went, "Marie, I'm in love and I want you to take me home."
Jose mimicked that line in a squeaky voice and a heavy Latin accent.
Then Jose directed my eye to an attractive young brunette in black sitting at the piano bar among the cowboys.
"I have seen this lady sing," he said. "She doesn't sing very well. But, if she sits close to you, she smells very nice. So you have to get very close to her to appreciate her."
Later she came to the bar and ordered a glass of water.
"You look very beautiful tonight," Jose said. "You got a pretty smile. Did you do your hair yourself?"
She nodded and then went back and sat with the cowboys.
The elderly woman in the glittery green dress was Kay Hodson. She did a tap dance. It was almost in slow motion. But she had stage charm. She got solid applause.
Steve Black, a host in a Beverly Hills restaurant, sang a song that consisted mostly of the words "Only I can feel your heartbeat," repeated rapidly to the energetic strumming of his guitar.
Black stopped off at the bar to say that he performs for fun but also hopes to be discovered.
Each Sunday, winners are chosen in several categories. Every six weeks they compete in a final judged by people from the entertainment industry.
Not many of Sunday's performers appeared ripe for discovery, however.
"You're depressing me," Jose protested near the end of a young man's rendition of "Feelings."
There were some good moments. The best came from a young singer named Larry Woodley, "a.k.a. Subway." He did a blues-rock version of the old Drifters' song "Up On the Roof." It got enthusiastic applause, even from Jose.
Jose was also impressed with Patty Rand, the woman who ordered water.
She sang two Barbara Streisand songs, drifting slightly off key at times.
Jose cheered louder than anyone else. "One more time," he shouted.
The night's winners for best duo were Michael G. Anthony, who wore a tuxedo, and Mary Rings, in a black dress. They held hands as they sang, "No matter what they take from me, they can't take away my dignity."
They were actually professionals. They said they are singing waiters at Angelina's.
The cowboys sang several credible country songs and told a few credible country jokes.
"I asked my boss if I could have the day off because my wife had to have a baby," Dennis Wayne said. "The next day he asked, 'What was it, a boy or a girl?' I said I wouldn't know for nine months."
The last cowboy, Andy Anderson, surprised everyone by asking the piano player for a Duke Ellington tune. Then he did a kind of a soft shoe in his cowboy boots and sang "Don't Get Around Much Any More" while pretending to sniff cocaine.
They liked him, even Jose. But, just as he was warming up to the role, his cowgirl jumped on stage, stopped the music and demanded "Chime Bells" in the key of A.