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Around the Valley

'No stars will ever be found here, but it's not about that at all.'

September 20, 1989|GREG BRAXTON

She stood alone on the platform and swayed gently as the familiar first strains of "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" floated in the air and an image of a solitary man walking on a pier appeared on the 60-inch video monitor behind her.

"I'd say it's good to be back in San Francisco, but that would be the wrong city," Suzanne San Juan quipped to the audience in front of her. "Anyway, that is my hometown." Her stage presence was comfortably unpolished. She wore an attractive black pants outfit that tastefully revealed glimpses of her slender light-brown frame.

Then the music softly kicked in, and San Juan, 26, began singing confidently in a throaty voice, the tone landing somewhere on the scale between pleasant and passable: "Sittin' in the morning sun, I'll be sittin' when the evening comes/Watchin' the ships roll in, then I'll watch 'em roll away again. . . ."

But not many people in the packed Maiyo restaurant in Encino were watching or listening to San Juan. In fact, the noise in the establishment almost drowned her out. When she finished, two people clapped.

Waitresses in red and white Japanese robes buzzed in front of her, carrying trays of sushi. Customers at the octagonal sushi bar shouted out orders to the two frantic chefs behind it. Most of the tables in the second-floor restaurant were occupied by large groups of people more preoccupied with noisy birthday celebrations than a stranger's singing. The proceedings were brightly lit with lanterns which hung from the ceiling.

"Hey, c'mon, let's hear it for Suzanne," said emcee Randy Naylor, exhorting the crowd.

It was just another night at the Maiyo karaoke bar. Karaoke is a Japanese term for publicly singing songs with the backing of a music machine that plays instrumental tracks almost identical to the original recordings.

For $1 a song, anyone can be a karaoke star and have three or four minutes in the spotlight, fulfilling a fantasy of entertaining a whole audience of admirers while belting out a favorite song, no matter how bad the voice. For slightly more, they can receive an audio tape of their performance.

Or, as San Juan puts it, "It's a place for people who love to sing in the shower to dry off."

While on stage, the performer looks at a small video monitor where the lyrics of the desired tune are displayed. A gliding device puts different colors on the words at the appropriate note--a modern equivalent of singing along with the bouncing ball. Custom-made videos accompany each song to provide more visual diversion.

Even more importantly, there is no qualitative meter. The karaoke bar at Maiyo is a live Gong Show without the gong. Even though observers may find some of the vocals agonizing to listen to, they can take some relief in silent congratulations of their own ability, knowing their voices aren't that bad.

Naylor, the emcee, did his best to channel the individual cliques into a unifed party. An artist who works by day at an advertising agency, he bounced on the platform and begged for the diners to come up and sing. At times he grabbed the mike and launched into "Jailhouse Rock" and "On the Road Again," dancing around in his white cowboy shirt and blue jeans.

"It's fun doing this," Naylor said during a break. "I love to sing." He said he's sung professionally with groups such as the Stone Canyon Band, Rick Nelson's back-up band. He downplayed the crowd's indifference. "People just want to have a good time. Fridays are often like this."

Having loud and off-key fun seemed to be the order of the day on this night. And even the inattentiveness of the spectators did not seem to bother the performers as they stepped into the spotlight.

Fueled by several rounds of Japanese beer, Greg Roberts, 22, from Cal State Northridge, and his buddies Kent Kreker and Tony Mittelmark, also 22, returned time and again to the platform, appearing to be delighted with their out-of-tune, almost incoherent versions of the Police's "Roxanne" and "Happy Birthday." Lyrics were often replaced by deep grunts and high squeals.

Roberts, Kreker and Mittelmark nudged each other and engaged in jocular machismo behavior right out of "National Lampoon's Animal House," provoking forced smiles from spectators.

The trio's excitement increased as they realized, seemingly for the first time, that microphones can lead to amplified voices. Their piece de resistance was an incomprehensible rendition of "I Am Woman." Huffing and puffing, they sung so loudly that some sought refuge from the ear-piercing tones by exiting the restaurant.

A group of seven Birmingham High School co-eds giggled through "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Burton Kakehashi, a sales representative in green shorts and orange shirt who was celebrating his 31st birthday, stomped through "Addicted to Love."

San Juan, who works in an advertising agency and has no serious musical aspirations, was the most serious and accomplished of the amateurs. She put in several requests to sing.

"No stars will ever be found here, that's for sure, but it's not about that at all," she said. "I just love to sing, and this gives me the chance. That's the beauty of the place."

She had to stop because she was being called to the stage. It was her turn to sing "The Rose."

"Here's one that may put you to sleep," she said to the noisy crowd.

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