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No Earplugs Required : Club 555 in Universal City offers entertainment that's reminiscent of Sammy Davis Jr. or the early Bobby Darin.

July 09, 1993|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Don Heckman is a regular contributor to The Times.

You say there aren't enough good, old-fashioned nightclubs in the Valley? Places where you can have a drink, dance and be entertained by music that doesn't require earplugs?

Take hope. Club 555 in the Universal City Hotel and Towers on the Universal Studios lot is delivering just that--music, dancing and entertainment--every Thursday through Sunday.

The new venue features the vocals of veteran Las Vegas lounge performer John Michael Ferrari, along with alternating guest singers Rosemary Richards and Mary Elizabeth, saxophonist Rick Rossi and Alfie, Your Magician.

With continuous music and/or entertainment, a dance floor large enough for some serious fox-trotting and a $5 cover (only on Fridays and Saturdays), Club 555 makes local nightclubbing accessible via location and price.

"I've always wanted to create the kind of entertainment that I enjoy watching," says the room's manager, Pepper Jay. "My grandma's best friend was Sophie Tucker and, when I was a little kid, I spent a lot of time at places like the Coconut Grove, Ciro's and the Moulin Rouge. There's not much of that kind of entertainment around anymore--entertainment that's spontaneous, natural and fresh, a la Sammy Davis Jr. or the early Bobby Darin. And that's what we're trying to do at Club 555."

The club has been open a few weeks in a trial run, while Jay has redone such items as the lighting, rugs, wall hangings and menus.

"It was a very masculine room when I first saw it," she adds, "gray on gray--and not very colorful at all. But I liked it a lot, and I knew we could make it into something."

The results have been precisely what the management wanted to accomplish with a venue that had previously never quite found an identity.

"We're very pleased with what Pepper's done here," says Mike Winslow, the Hilton's director of beverage and food. "Our goal is to make the hotel a center of activity for the local community as well as for tourists. From what we've seen in the first few weeks of Club 555's operation, we're beginning to draw some regular patrons from the surrounding community, and that's great."

John Michael Ferrari, the club's headliner, is a tall, dark-haired crooner with a voice that includes traces of Robert Goulet, Steve Lawrence and Davis. His easygoing, artist-manager relationship with Jay began several years ago when she first heard him singing in the desert resort town of Highland Springs.

"I was working a room there when Pepper's son came in, saw me and ran out to grab her," recalls Ferrari, a Los Angeles native who grew up in Las Vegas. "She came in, listened for a couple of minutes and said, 'I can make you famous.' "

"No, that's not exactly what I said," Jay adds. "I said I could make you into an entertainer--if you lost 57 pounds. John Michael wasn't exactly fat. He looked more like the front line of a football team. But I knew he would have to be more trim if he was going to do anything with his career."

Jay--a practicing attorney and former schoolteacher--worked with Ferrari for the next two or three years, taking bookings where she could find them, slowly developing Ferrari's style and building his confidence.

"John Michael has always had the raw talent," Jay says. "But it needed to be focused to a point where that wonderful, completely natural--even off-the-wall--personality of his could come through to the audience. I think that's what's happened, and I think it's what helps create the club's pleasant ambience."

An evening at Club 555 quickly illustrates Jay's point. Even on a Thursday--an off night for many nightclubs--the action begins early. Two or three tables are filled with regulars. Others have the usual contingent of tourist parties, and several have listeners in their 20s. "It's really not the kind of music I usually go for," says a young woman from North Hollywood, "but I just love to listen to John Michael sing."

Ferrari works with computerized musical accompaniments. Strings, horns and rhythm instruments have been sampled and structured into orchestrations for hundreds of different tunes. Ferrari can make a selection, or suddenly change his mind, by simply pushing a button on the computer.

"I don't even know what my first song will be until I get on stage, look at the list and pick something out," he says. "After that, it's a matter of getting requests, responding to something that happens in the crowd or just getting a feeling about a particular tune."

Whatever the choice, the result usually is a quick move to the dance floor. Jerry and Karen, a couple from Sherman Oaks, like the opportunity to trip the light fantastic almost as much as they like hearing Ferrari. "We love to ballroom dance," Karen says, "and it's just so great having a place like this nearby that we can come to without having to make any big plans ahead of time."

Where and When What: Dancing and entertainment at Club 555 at the Universal City Hilton Hotel and Towers, 555 Universal Terrace Parkway, Universal City. Hours: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, with entertainment from 8 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays, 9 Fridays and Saturdays. Price: $5 cover charge after 8:45 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Valet parking is $6 with validation; self-parking is $4 with validation. Call: (818) 506-2500 for reservations.

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