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The Scene : Happy Trails

August 20, 1995|Mary Melton

It's hard to accept that the retro Hollywood lounge scene--where Gen-Xers, tipsy on $6 imports, mangle their Sinatra as badly their goatees--could possibly share a branch on the same family tree as The Trails. This most tasteful, most poignant, most dignified Duarte piano bar is a singer's haunt, the last of the old-school.

And the singers? About 100 regulars, almost all of whose birth years predate the New Deal. Dozens of their 8x10 glossies plaster the walls. These professional amateurs have come here to catch up on grandchildren, celebrate birthdays, participate in the "Easter Bonnet" party, plan the next Trails Travel Club cruise to Baja--and perform.

On a given night, there's Vern, who sold his paint company, lives without a phone and punctuates each verse of "Proud Mary" with a fierce pelvic thrust; he's joined by Patty, in a pin-striped gown and sizable square spectacles, for an homage to Mario Lanza. Or there's the vertically mismatched Jim and Marie, who glide effortlessly from a stirring duet of "Young and Foolish" to a bawdy sendup of Julio Iglesias.

The man behind it all is organist emeritus, Jim McEwan, who plays every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. Described by more than one Trails crooner as the most accomplished accompanist they've ever known, McEwan's a piano bar vet. He served 22 years at the El Encante in Azusa before it turned into a Chinese restaurant, back when you could still go to a different venue every night of the week and never leave the San Gabriel Valley, before the Royal Turtle, the Velvet Turtle and all the other lounges strewn along this foothill stretch of Route 66 went dark.

Los Angeles Times Sunday September 17, 1995 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 10 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
In "Happy Trails" (Palm Latitudes, Aug. 20), El Encanto restaurant in Azusa was incorrectly described as having been converted into a Chinese restaurant. El Encanto has been serving classic American cuisine since the 1930s and continues to do so.

Only the Trails, an oversized restaurant whose interiors owe a great debt to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (lots of distressed saddles and laminated dark wood), has survived. Three years ago, McEwan came out of a brief retirement to fill in for the Trails pianist, who had broken her wrist, and he's been there ever since.

With his sweet nasal voice, he'll call out to a regular if things are a bit slow. They'll choose a song together, settle on a key and the two will create a bossa nova beat that fills the small dance floor from one shimmering Mylar wall to the next. With a stubby thumb pointed up for "go higher" and down for "don't reach," McEwan will peek out from his salt-and pepper bangs and grin when a singer hits it.

Then "The Girl from Impanema" winds down, and the ladies, heaving a bit in their Loehmann's back-room frocks, are escorted back to the red Naugahyde seats. Their male companions adjust their belts a notch or reset their comb-over.

A newcomer will enter this haven where no prima donnas are allowed. She'll make a request, maybe even an obscure one, but McEwan will know it, and she'll let fly. "Welcome," McEwan will tell her afterward, maybe with a bear hug and a kiss on the cheek, "to the Trails family."

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