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.