There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about this stretch of Lankershim Boulevard in the wilds of the San Fernando Valley. I pass prop houses, liquor stores, auto body shops, and an alleyway filled with industrial trash and a discarded bathroom sink. The electrical towers of the phantom Whitnall Highway loom in the near distance, and tired men in cowboy hats amble by, their hands covered in oil and dirt. The low, yellow stucco building I am here to see looks almost abandoned, though an ill kept sign announces it is the "Le Monge Banquet Hall" and is available for rentals.
From 1949 to 1996, this building had the façade of an Old West corral and a neon bucking bronco sign outside the door. It was home to the Palomino Club. Known as "the Pal" to the legions of musicians and regulars who considered it a second home, it hosted many artists that have personally meant a great deal to me and millions of others. Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette, Glenn Campbell, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, and Waylon Jennings all sang here, throwing back whiskey while they performed some of the most poignant songs of the 20th Century on the dusty Pal stage. They sang for truckers, industry execs, working class wannabes, and waitresses in tight Palomino issued t-shirts.
Beauty can be created in the most unexpected of places.
The Wildest Time You Ever Saw
All these people would come over and we'd have the wildest times you ever saw. We'd start on Friday night and into Monday and have three day wild parties. In those days, everybody just wanted to have a good time.
--Tommy Thomas 1
Before stretches of it became oddly hip and gentrified by struggling-but not destitute- actors, North Hollywood was primarily known as a rough and rowdy town. It was populated mostly by so-called "s***-kickers" -- the displaced cowboys, stunt men, and rodeo riders who worked in the plethora of Westerns that Hollywood cranked out during the '30s and '40s. These men liked to drink, and one of their favorite saloons was a place called the Mulekick Club at 6907 Lankershim Boulevard. By 1949 it had closed. That year, a country western radio star named Hank Penny drove by the deserted club. Hank had come to Los Angeles to be part of the early television variety show juggernaut, and was looking to expand into the club business. According to the Los Angeles Times, Penny:
... drove past the old Mulekick Club and peered inside. He saw an abandoned wreck of broken glass, battered stools and tables set ghost-like around a filthy bandstand. The North Hollywood club 'looked like death warmed over'...2
He bought the old wreck with a business partner and the two set about scrubbing and refurbishing the space. Legend has it the saloon got its new name when an old stuntman rode his magnificent Palomino horse up to the bar, hitched it to a post outside and came in to get a drink. The Palomino soon became a jam spot for many of Penny's musician friends in the world of country and jazz. But Penny's burgeoning career made running a club difficult, and in 1952 he sold it to two recent Indiana transplants, brothers Tommy and Billy Thomas.
The brothers were exceptionally close, young, savvy and wild, and the atmosphere of the club reflected their tight familial bond. The rustic, barn-like Pal was open seven days a week, with a happy hour in the morning for musicians and night shift folks. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served, and musicians warmed up on stage in front of regulars drinking at the long bar. The customers were a rough, masculine bunch who liked unhip, "hick" music. Tiny, the ironically named 300+ pound bouncer remembered that during the early years, "I'd come to work here each night knowing I'd be in a fight with some s*** kicker. And if I lost the fight, the guy would get my job." 3 The hardscrabble country western singers who performed at the club were just as wild. One drunkenly rode a horse up on stage. Tiny would brace himself whenever two others -- Bobby Bare and Gordon Terry -- started drinking together, because they would always end up fighting. According to Tommy, the headliners were just as wild:
The first time Jerry Lee Lewis played here a few people were complaining because he was playing real loud. I didn't know much about him then, so I went up and asked 'Hey Jerry, do you think you could keep it down a little?' He got up, kicked the piano bench over and then pushed the piano off the stage. I went back to those people and said 'What'd you tell me to say that for? Now you've got him mad. 4
Lewis replaced the piano and soon became one of the Pal's most beloved regulars. Everyone was equal at the Pal and it was filled with love -- cowboy style. Tommy Thomas would walk by an act and tell them "you bombed," and then take a waitress' toddler son and place him on the billiards table while he taught him to play. 5 The dressing rooms and green rooms were usually open to the public, and acts like the Everly Brothers and Buddy Knox would drink with regulars long after closing time. In 1959, the club's booking power greatly increased when the prestigious Riverside Rancho in Los Feliz closed down, leaving the Palomino as the premier stop on the West Coast for country western acts. As one member of the house band remembered, "I would take a shower at five and get to the Club as early as possible... I was so excited to get to work." 6
Willie, Waylon and the Boys
People would ask 'what is the secret to your success?' I said, 'real simple. We had all the acts that nobody wanted. No one wanted Marty Robbins, Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves and on and on. So we had it made. For years and years, we had all these entertainers to ourselves. It was like a private goldmine.
--Tommy Thomas 7
I remember when some guy in the crowd was giving Johnny Cash trouble. Johnny invited him to come up on stage and settle it right there. As the guy was stepping up, Johnny hit him over the head with his guitar.
--Tiny, the Bouncer 8
The early '60s ushered in the golden days of the Palomino. Now legendary acts like Willie Nelson could be booked for as little as $400. The Pal became a popular place for live radio broadcasts and benefits aiding ailing musicians. At the Thursday night open mic competitions, singers, including a young Linda Ronstadt, honed their skills. One night George Jones joined the competition as a laugh, under a different name. By the late '60s the club had already become a legend and one of the main scenes for the country-rock music that would soon become so popular. Sometimes tension would flare up, however, between the old "s***-kicker" crowd and the new breed of long-haired cosmic cowboys. When the massively influential Gram Parsons played at the Pal in '69 with his band the Flying Burrito Brothers, he expressed a desire for "the people at the Whisky and the truck drivers at the Palomino to get together and talk to each other and understand each other." 9 Years later, he recalled how music had a way of keeping peace:
The first couple of times I played at the Palomino I nearly got killed [...] There I was in my satin bell-bottoms, and the people couldn't believe it. I got up on stage and sang, and when I got off a guy said to me, 'I want you to meet my three brothers. We were gonna kick your ass, but you can sing real good, so we'll buy you a beer instead.' Thank God I got up on that stage. 10
In the '70s the Palomino reached its peak of homey glamour. The Pal expanded its capacity to over 400, and more and more pictures of famous alumni lined the scuffed walls. Every night, emcee Harry Newman would yell "It's ssssshhhow time at the Palomino!" and the fun would begin. One night you might see Waylon Jennings joined on stage by Kris Kristofferson to sing "Me and Bobby McGee," while Phil Spector and Rita Coolidge looked on. Another night, Linda Ronstadt, still shocked that anyone would pay a $3 cover to see her, raced on stage "wearing a tight red sweater, sequined blue jean hotpants and asked the waitress to bring a supply of tequila for her and the band." She was so talented and attractive that even "the eyes of the 3-foot high Johnny Cash poster seemed to shift in her direction." 11
Four years later, it was a massively successful Ronstadt who joined Emmylou Harris on the Pal stage as Joni Mitchell looked on, leading the applause after a set that many considered Harris' breakthrough performance. There were BBQ music brunches on Sundays where the children of employees and musicians would race around the dance floor as local bands played. Movie stars and record executives hung out in the "celebrity room" and novelty events like the country singing debut of QB Terry Bradshaw brought out the mainstream press. Several movies were shot there. Tiny claimed the club, like country, had polished and cleaned up its act, even though he had to take a few days off when an irate customer shot an arrow four inches into his back.
Whole World's Gone Country
Then 'Urban Cowboy' came out, and everybody went country. The country acts were stretched so thin that for months there wasn't a country act in L.A. It was rarer than gold.
--Tommy Thomas 12
Ironically, it was the success of many of the acts the Thomas brothers had nurtured that would prove the Pal's undoing. Billy Thomas died of a heart attack in 1978. Tommy's wife Sherry (who he met at the Pal) became a full partner. But times were changing. Acts that the Pal used to book for $200 were now packing arenas. The Pal opened the club up, hosting non-country acts like Elton John and Elvis Costello, and local rockabilly and surf bands. By the time Tommy died of a heart attack in 1985, the club was turning increasingly to party rentals and political (mostly Republican) fundraisers for revenue.
Sherry took control of the Pal after Tommy's death. From 1988 to 1995, the legendary Ronnie Macks Barn Dance, which featured California roots singers like Lucinda Williams, called the Pal home. But in 1995, age, location, and changing times finally caught up with the venerable old horse. The Pal closed and became an abandoned, ramshackle shell once again. It was claimed that for several years, until the Le Monge took it over, squatters and drug addicts inhabited the space where so much music had been made.
Sounds just like the ending of a good country song.
1 "The Grand Ole Palomino: North Hollywood nightspot isn't just a club" Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1983
2 "Hank Penny; country star opened Palomino club" Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1992
3 "Today there's less bounce to the ounce" Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1976
4 "The Grand Ole Palomino: North Hollywood nightspot isn't just a club" Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1983
5 "Palomino pals bid farewell to Tommy Thomas" Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1985
6 Memories and Stories of the Palomino Club of North Hollywood" Youtube video
7 "The Grand Ole Palomino: North Hollywood nightspot isn't just a club" Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1983
8 "Today there's less bounce to the ounce" Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1976
9 "Burritos blend country and rock" Los Angeles Times, September 8, 1969
10 David Meyer, "Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music"
11 "Linda Ronstadt in her Palomino bow" Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1971
12 "The Grand Ole Palomino: North Hollywood nightspot isn't just a club" Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1983