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Hank Penny; Country Star Opened Palomino Club

April 22, 1992|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Country music star Hank Penny, who in 1949 remodeled the ramshackle saloon on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood that became the world-famous Palomino Club, is dead of heart failure.

A family spokesman said Tuesday that the veteran singer and comic was 73 when he died at his Camarillo home on Friday.

Penny's influence spanned several generations. His signature song, "Won't You Ride in My Little Red Wagon," was a country-Western favorite of the 1940s, and his "Bloodshot Eyes" was a recent release by rocker Pat Benatar.

He led several of the bands in the 1930s and '40s that melded the electric steel guitar into traditional Texas fiddle-riff tunes. Bob Wills was another.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Penny learned the banjo while in his teens and worked on radio stations throughout the South and Midwest before moving to Los Angeles after World War II where he appeared in nightclubs and on such early local TV programs as "The Spade Cooley Show" and Cliffie Stone's "Hometown Jamboree." He also made several low-budget Western movies.

In 1949, he drove past the old Mulekick club and peered inside. He saw an abandoned wreck of broken glass, battered stools and tables set ghost-like around a filthy bandstand. The North Hollywood club "looked like death warmed over," he told The Times in a 1980 interview. But Penny had found dozens of friends and hundreds of fans since his move to the San Fernando Valley and he thought that he might be successful in a club of his own.

World War II had produced an influx of tens of thousands of Western music lovers from Texas, Oklahoma and the Deep South who came to Southern California for the relatively high pay of defense plants.

So, he recounted in the interview, "country music was getting big in Southern California and there were clubs all over the city . . . except in the Valley.

With a partner he painted, scrubbed, replaced fixtures and finally hung a distinctive bucking-bronco sign outside. The Palomino was born and when Penny sold it three years later because it interfered with his music commitments, it had started the climb that would soon make it a rival of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.

Over the years it has been home for such classic country performers as Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Crystal Gayle and others.

Penny was a TV favorite, appearing regularly on KTLA, Channel 5.

He is survived by his wife, Shari, and five children who ask that contributions in his memory be made to the Lord's Lighthouse, a program of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood that aids the homeless.

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