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Pumping Life Back Into the Old Pal : Clubs: Sherry Thomas, widow of a Palomino co-owner, steers the North Hollywood honky-tonk back to a hot country venue.

August 02, 1994|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The office Sherry Thomas keeps at "the world famous" Palomino is a mess.

There is the usual paperwork and piles of cassettes and CDs from bands hoping for a gig at the 42-year-old honky-tonk. But now the floor is crowded with hammers, electric saws, drills and other tools, and the phone doesn't stop ringing.

Thomas is working to rebuild the North Hollywood venue to its former glory as the West Coast's premier showcase for country music. The widow of club co-founder Tommy Thomas has returned after spending eight years in Oregon raising their two sons, and is determined to make Palomino's stage again a hot spot for local and touring country acts, rather than the stylistically scattered roster of recent years.

"This is like home to me," said Thomas, sitting at her desk in a denim top and jeans. "When you're a new singer-songwriter and want to make it, you have got to have some place to rehearse, a place to play, some place to be seen. I felt a responsibility to that."

Founded in 1952 by Tommy Thomas and his brother, Bill, the club presented such important country talents as Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells and Waylon Jennings. Rock acts from Neil Young to Elvis Costello have also passed through. And Linda Ronstadt once performed in the early '70s backed by the musicians who would later become the Eagles.

"What's significant about this club is that it encompasses the history and tradition of American musical culture--not just with country music, but with rockabilly and with blues," said Ronnie Mack, a local country singer-guitarist and host of the Palomino's free-admission "Barndance" showcase for local artists on Tuesday nights.

*

But by the early '90s the club had lost much of its luster, with the rear patio in disrepair and declared unsafe by the fire department. Just six months ago, the Palomino sat on the edge of oblivion as then-co-owner and manager Billy Thomas (son of the late Bill Thomas) gave serious thought to turning the place into a pool hall or closing it down altogether.

It was then that Sherry Thomas, who had remained a co-owner, decided to return, and in May she bought out her nephew's interest in the club.

"When I first got back I was a little in shock with the work that it was going to take," she said of the 300-seat club, listing all the paint, lumber, carpet, new kitchen appliances and labor she's already invested. "I knew things were run-down, but I didn't realize how serious it was."

Only three bar stools were left, and in the trash out back she found about 20 of the classic Palomino performance photos that had decorated the club, including one shot of George Jones at the piano.

Thomas expects to spend about $25,000 in materials on the project, doing much of the work herself with the help of various friends and volunteers. "I've had musicians in here helping me paint," she said.

"I want it to look like the Pal used to look," added Thomas, who is now in her 40s. "It was a real successful place and it was home to a lot of people."

The Palomino became Thomas' home in 1970 when, in search of a waitress job, she walked in just in time to catch one of Jennings' frequent performances there. By the time she and Tommy married a few years later, she filled a variety of roles, from cooking and scheduling waitresses to booking talent--all tasks she is working at again.

By early August, she said, the Palomino will revive its old weekly talent night with a house band backing star wanna-bes. The club is booked through the summer, and Thomas has had discussions with Dick Clark about a television special centered at the club.

Most of the Palomino's calendar, Thomas insisted, will be filled with local country performers not often acknowledged on the club circuit.

"The L.A. talent scene as far as country music goes is being totally overlooked. I've probably booked 100 of them since I got back here," she said. "And they're good."

* The Palomino, 6907 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; (818) 764-4010.

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