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VALLEY WEEKEND | CLUBS

Music-Club Owners Retune for Flat Market : Small rooms with big pasts like the Palomino Club are struggling earnestly to dance again in a business that slips and slides on trends, talent.

February 08, 1996|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Word spread quickly around town: The historic Palomino Club in North Hollywood, closed last August, was being transformed into a restaurant called Villa Piano's.

"I kind of freaked out," said Ronnie Mack, a local singer-songwriter who hosted a weekly "Barn Dance" show at the Palomino for seven years. "I thought, 'That really makes it final.' "

But the new facade and decor turned out to be movie props--the club was being used as a location for an upcoming Tom Hanks film, "That Thing You Do." Meanwhile, co-owner Billy Thomas insists the Palomino is not yet dead. He expects to make a decision on its fate in the next few months.

"The permits are still intact and the sound equipment is still in there," said Thomas, whose father and uncle founded the club 43 years ago. "We're looking at a bunch of options right now."

Those options include reopening the room, which has seen everyone from Hank Williams Sr. to Neil Young to Elvis Costello perform on its stage. Thomas said he is also entertaining offers from buyers who want to revive the place. As a third possibility, he might change locations.

"I'd still have the same music. Rootsy stuff. Blues, country, some rock, some jazz," he said. "If I can open up in a better area, I know I could have the hottest club in town."

Prior to its closing, the Palomino had struggled through lean years. Sherry Thomas, widow of co-founder Tommy Thomas and Billy's aunt, assumed managerial duties in 1994. As a 50% owner, she announced plans to feature a purely country lineup.

"Next to the Ryman Auditorium, where they had the Grand Ole Opry, it would have to be the second most important building in the United States for country music," Mack said. "Everyone from Hank Sr. to Ernest Tubbs, all the legends, played there for $50 a night when they were starting out."

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Despite such heritage, Sherry Thomas failed in her bid, giving up and moving to Oregon last August. Billy Thomas offers numerous reasons for the Palomino's demise.

"The talent pool used to be so rich. All you had to do was figure out who to play, stick their name in the paper and people came," he said. "Now the talent isn't so rich and everyone is overpaid."

He also blames such competition as coffeehouses and video rentals, not to mention the neighborhood's high crime rate. But the Palomino's woes mirrored a Valleywide phenomenon. Clubs that were big enough or had a strong enough reputation to attract national acts have for the most part perished, leaving only small and mid-size rooms that cater to local bands.

To understand the magnitude of this descent, look back to October 1981. The Rolling Stones were appearing at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. A rumor spread they might play an unannounced set at one of their favorite local clubs. Though the rumor proved false, hundreds of fans staked out the Palomino. They also kept watch on the Country Club in Reseda, where Mick Jagger and such top names as Prince and Blue Oyster Cult had performed.

Today both clubs are closed. So is the Sundance Saloon, a Calabasas spot where Bruce Springsteen and other notables would stop by to try new material. Even the smaller rooms have felt the crunch. Pelican's Retreat in Calabasas is closed, as is the Iguana Cafe, a North Hollywood pioneer on the coffeehouse and spoken-word circuits.

Some in the music industry have blamed "four-walling," a term that applies to club owners who rent their rooms to independent bookers who bring in acts of widely varying styles. This practice, adopted by the Country Club in its later years, tends to value profitability above building loyalty with consistent offerings.

Others say the Los Angeles music scene has simply slipped from the halcyon days of the early 1980s when home-grown but nationally known bands like X, the Blasters and the Go-Go's packed local clubs.

Nevertheless, B.B. King's Blues Club has prospered at CityWalk. So have clubs in other parts of the city, most notably the House of Blues and Jack's Sugar Shack, where Mack continues his weekly show.

As owner of one of the Valley's surviving mid-size clubs, FM Station in North Hollywood, Filthy McNasty said his competitors got lazy.

"The name of the game is changing," McNasty said. "You have to stay with the times."

An ardent supporter of live music, McNasty recently detected a shift in tastes and has added tribute and dance-oriented bands specializing in a '70s disco sound to his weekly lineup. "People want to dance, and the way to get them on the dance floor is if they recognize the song," he said. "If I know the song, if I know the beat and how long it lasts, then I can look good when I dance."

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Other clubs have survived by specializing. The Cinnamon Cinder in Burbank is known for country, the Baked Potato in Studio City for jazz. The Blue Saloon in North Hollywood is a rockabilly hangout.

"I think that place is really cool," Mack said of the Blue Saloon. "It's a down-home little honky-tonk kind of place, an old man's corner bar that, all of a sudden, rockabilly guys took over."

McNasty sees room for more. He envisions a Sunset Strip in the Valley, with clubs of various sizes and styles situated along a two-block stretch.

"If you give the people nothing special, why should they come out?" he said. "You have to make it enticing."

Toward that end, Thomas has been scheduling a series of movie shoots at the Palomino, bankrolling for a possible reopening.

"I feel like I was good at booking entertainment, and I had a good rapport with everyone in the business," he said. "I feel I could develop a real good following."

If he decides to move the club, his first choice would be to remain in the Valley, possibly in Studio City near Ventura and Laurel Canyon boulevards. Mack likes to hear that kind of talk.

"There's hope," he said.

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