Dan Singer wanted to turn his bar into a blues club when he bought it six years ago.
But patrons kept wanting to sing karaoke. So Singer abandoned his initial dream and now lets customers croon to their hearts' content, drawing a crowd every night.
"We couldn't live without it," said Singer, owner of Red Chariot in Van Nuys. "It's our bread and butter."
Singer is hardly alone.
Karaoke has become so popular that several venues in the Valley now offer it up to seven nights a week. And they're hosting contests, installing elaborate sound systems and broadcasting singers on local cable-access stations. It's just another way to lure business.
And it seems to be working. Like Red Chariot, most places are packed--even on weeknights. And the customers are staying until closing time.
They come to express themselves, practice for upcoming gigs and to step into the shoes of a real-life rock star. Some even hope to be discovered.
Rich Kerrill, 37, of Marina Del Rey recently dressed in drag and sang Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" as part of a therapeutic exercise to overcome his fear of the spotlight. It worked. The crowd cheered, and Kerrill went home a confident man.
"It's participatory entertainment," said Dennis Snyder, publisher of Karaoke Scene magazine, a Northridge-based publication that lists karaoke venues throughout Southern California.
"Not only can you get up and show off your own talent, but you can sing with others and connect with others who have similar interests."
Karaoke started in Japan 20 years ago as a form of entertainment for businesspeople. It eventually made its way overseas, and through the sale of karaoke music and equipment has emerged as a $200-million to $300-million market in the U.S.
Some industry experts believe the craze has hit a plateau, but others predict its popularity will continue to boom as more karaoke products become available over the Internet. The sale of personal karaoke systems also is on the rise.
"It's growing. There is no indication of it topping out yet," said John Hicks, a spokesman for the Singing Machine Co., a Florida-based firm that manufactures and distributes karaoke equipment and related software.
"It's safe. It's fun. It allows an individual to be a little bit of an exhibitionist, which is what I think we all want to be at times. And it's not expensive," Hicks said.
Most places don't charge patrons to sing. Instead, they depend on big crowds to buy food and beverages.
Diana Cornette relies on karaoke to help make her business hum. At first she thought it was a fad. Then she noticed a steady stream of customers on the two nights she offered karaoke at the Royal Room Lounge at Canoga Park Bowl.
Cornette now offers it Thursday through Monday, drawing everyone from bowlers to Frank Sinatra wannabes.
"If they can't sing, they will come in and watch," said Cornette, manager of the lounge. "It makes the place look full. It keeps people coming back."
Dimples, in Burbank's studio district, has found another way to keep the customers coming. It videotapes every person who belts out a tune and then broadcasts select singers on five local cable-access stations Sunday nights.
Those brave enough to sing karaoke for the first time also get a free audiocassette of their performance.
Dawn-Danielle Clegg, 26, an accountant from Hollywood, aspires to be a recording artist. She often stops in after work to belt out a tune and--who knows?--perhaps get discovered.
It's better than singing in the shower or humming along with the car radio, she says.
"It gives me a chance to practice in front of an audience like you can't at home in front of a mirror," said Dawn-Danielle Clegg, after delivering a head-turning rendition of "Natural Woman."
"You need feedback," Clegg added. "You need that positive support and motivation."
Elvie Maneja understands that notion. She recently dropped by Dimples with three friends to discuss starting their own band. They talked business and then took turns plying their craft under a swirling disco ball.
"It's an opportunity to sing and perform in front of people before you get the actual gigs," said Maneja, 29, of Glendale. "It's a forum to live out your potential dreams."