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MUSIC : The Last Roundup : Talent night at the Palomino, once a celebrity-studded mix of urban cowboy chic and "The Gong Show," finally rides off into the sunset.

October 30, 1992|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like a sad country song, the tradition of talent night at the famed Palomino Club ended earlier this month after 40 years. It was the last roundup of the weekly prize contest, which legend has it gave early exposure to such luminaries as Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson and Emmy Lou Harris.

They did not return to the club in North Hollywood for the last show. And unlike past years, when the talent contest was in its heyday, there were no celebrities or prominent talent agents in the audience and no post-contest show by the likes of the Flying Burrito Brothers.

This last talent show was not for the stars or slick music business types in alligator skin boots. It was for the faithful.

"And now," announced the master of ceremonies, "here's Crazy!"

A 78-year-old man with a white beard hanging so low it covered all his lower face and much of his chest, climbed up on stage. The crowd of about 50 went nuts and members of the Palomino Riders house band greeted Crazy--whose real name is Charles August Younga--as an old friend. This former miner and box-car unloader claims to have been a contestant at every Palomino talent night for the last 22 years. He even won on a couple occasions.

Younga took the mike and perhaps for the last time in public sang his mostly unintelligible version of a number called "Yodelin' Chocolate Ice Cream Cone." Skip Edwards, who has been playing keyboards in this band on and off for about 10 years and just that morning got off an Asian tour with Dwight Yoakam, smiled broadly as he watched Younga.

"Charles is performance art," Edwards said.

The fringe element has long been a staple of talent night. "When I first got here in the early 1980s there would be a line down the block of people trying to get in for talent night," said Harry Orlove, a guitarist in the band. "Johnny Carson came to see the show many times. Joni Mitchell, Shelley Winters, too.

"It was at a time when the urban cowboy thing was happening and so was 'The Gong Show.' Talent night at the Palomino was the perfect amalgam of the two."

As usual, more mainstream performers made up the majority of talent at the contests and the last one was no exception. Some of the almost 50 acts were quite polished.

Gil Simon, a young singer from Toronto who had recently moved to Los Angeles, had the sound and looks that could make him a contender one day. He had already won two national competitions in Canada.

"Of course I had heard of the Palomino back home," said Simon, who performed the Travis Tritt song "Help Me Hold On." "I thought it was a place I could come and meet some people, make connections."

Ruth Danziger did a sweet rendition of a song called "Only Love" and Beth Hart gave a bluesy, Janis Joplin-type treatment to a lively "Heard It Through the Grapevine."

Songwriter Patti Shannon of Long Beach skillfully performed two well-crafted and heartfelt songs of her own. "This is so sad," she said before going on, sitting at one of the long tables in the audience. She had appeared at talent night about 40 times. "It was such a great place to try out material. The band is the best. They would help with the arrangements, show you how you might do something a different way.

"I will really miss those guys."

Floyd Everson, 70, who sang two of his own songs, cried when he said goodby to the band after his set.

The five-piece Palomino Riders seemed universally beloved. This tight ensemble, made up mostly of studio musicians, rocked the club with a solid, full sound, especially on their one solo number of the evening, a Randy Newman song "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)."

"Just to hear that band made it worth being there," said Tom Willett, a regular contestant who appeared under the name Herman Schmerdley. Dressed in a 1950s-style suit and wearing his trademark porkpie hat, Willett, 54, an actor who had a regular part on the "Dear John" TV sitcom, sang "Me And Bobby McGee" the last night.

"When you are performing with a band that good, it can't help but make you look all the better."

As good as the band members are, they didn't play on talent nights just for the money--$50 a week. "It was truly a relationship we had going," said bassist Arnie Moore, who works primarily as a character actor on TV and commercials. "You would see each other every week, catch up on how the guys are doing, what's happening with the family.

"Now, maybe we'll see each other around once in a while and call to stay in touch, but it won't be the same."

The band members had two major topics of conversation during their breaks. One was their disappointment that talent night was discontinuing. "If it was run right, with some kind of exclusiveness that would pull in more good acts, it just seems it could be a draw again," said one of the musicians, who did not want his name on a quote critical of club management. "I might want to play here again," he explained.

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