It's one of Garth Brooks' favorite Southern California hangouts. It's where Buck Owens made a dramatic comeback after cancer surgery, and where Merle Haggard renounced his retirement. And it's where Waylon Jennings almost left his heart.
It's the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana, which evolved from a slightly kitschy Old West-themed red-meat emporium in a nondescript business park into one of the nation's most prestigious and beloved country-music showcases.
The saloon doors that first opened 20 years ago will swing shut for the last time after Monday's farewell concert with Buck Owens & the Buckaroos, the final entry on the long list of country greats who have played there. The Crazy Horse moves to larger digs in the Irvine Spectrum next month.
"I know it's moving and it's still going to be there, but it's still sad for me," Owens, 70, said from his Bakersfield office recently. "I've probably played there 25 or 30 times, and I cannot remember a crowd there that was not absolutely just wild with enthusiasm. And I cannot recall a band that didn't have anything but nice things to say about it."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 13, 1999 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 5 Metro Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
House of Blues--A story Friday about the Crazy Horse Steak House included the wrong location for an Orange County House of Blues club. It is slated to be part of the Downtown Disney project in Anaheim.
Said Lance Roberts, vice president of the Nashville-based Bobby Roberts Agency, which represents numerous country performers: "Whenever any of our acts would tour the West Coast, the first call we'd ever make was the Crazy Horse in Santa Ana. . . . Everybody--I mean everybody--on my roster has played there a time or two."
An increasingly competitive Orange County concert scene is what has prompted club co-owner Jay Nuccio, who bought the Crazy Horse two years ago from the original investors, to expand the club's nationally recognized concert hall and its locally famous restaurant.
"Any time you move an icon, it's a risk," said Nuccio, who is partners with the club's director of marketing and entertainment, Brad "Paco" Miller Jr. "But we felt that there also was a risk of staying here and not doing anything."
The building that has been the home of the Crazy Horse for two decades' worth of concerts was sold last month to Dyerhollow Partners, a consortium of investors, for a little under $2.5 million, Miller said. The group is now looking for a tenant to lease the building, so what it will become remains unknown.
The new site will seat about 600 concert-goers, about 30% of them in a balcony. Nuccio says the increased capacity will make it possible to bring in acts that the Crazy Horse cannot afford with its present 250 seats, making it one of the smallest major clubs in the U.S.
Not Just More Seats
The increased size, and a plan to broaden the musical offerings to include some rock, pop and blues shows, will put the Crazy Horse into more heated bidding over acts with the 475-seat Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and 550-seat Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana, long the county's dominant concert clubs, as well as the new 1,200-seat gorilla on the block, the Sun Theatre in Anaheim.
They're not simply expanding and relocating a successful concert club and eatery; Nuccio and Miller are making significant changes to a country-music institution.
Eight times during the '80s and '90s, the Crazy Horse was named nightclub of the year by the Academy of Country Music. That's more than any other club except the now-defunct Palomino in North Hollywood, which dominated the Southern California country scene in the '50s, '60s and '70s.
The Palomino gave way to the Crazy Horse as the Southland's top country spot not long after it opened in December 1979, on the heels of the '70s disco craze. The timing for a Western-themed restaurant, bar and nightclub was ideal as the movie "Urban Cowboy" hit in 1980, spurring millions to trade their polyester suits, platform shoes and Bee Gees records for dungarees, Tony Lama boots and the sounds of twangy guitars.
Original owner Fred Reiser and his three partners tiptoed into the concert business with a 1980 show by veteran country crooner Ray Price that quickly sold out. After more successes with Hoyt Axton and Merle Haggard, they began booking three or four shows a month, usually on Monday nights.
A Club With a Personal Touch
"Fred established the 'Monday Night Football' mentality for country music in Orange County," said Paul Lohr, vice president of Buddy Lee Attractions, another large Nashville booking agency. "Monday was typically a night most people would steer clear of, but Fred made it work."
Reiser always characterized concerts as "gravy," while the meat-and-potatoes part of the operation was the restaurant. Big-name shows with Haggard, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris, Roy Orbison, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, Clint Black, Ricky Skaggs and others doubled as invaluable promotion for the steak house.
Reiser established the club as a favorite among country performers with the warmth and intimacy of a cozy room that was markedly smaller than what most acts were accustomed to.