Thanks to Lisa Guilin, for sharing these classic photos, from the Palomino
The sign outside the squat rental hall reads Le Monge, an odd faux-French touch for a North Hollywood neighborhood that never had any pretensions, not even when music’s elite came cruising past the liquor stores and auto body shops lining this stretch of Lankershim Boulevard. Back then the low-slung building was the Palomino, aka the Pal, a honky-tonk that would reign for more than 40 years as L.A.’s top country spot. Now it’s just a banquet facility that’s seen better days.
During the Pal’s prime, from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s, such country icons as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Hoyt Axton, Kitty Wells, George Jones, Charley Pride, and Ernest Tubb played the foot-high stage, sweating under the hot lights, the audience inches from their feet. Emmylou Harris sang with a band that included Elvis Presley’s guitarist James Burton and his pianist Glen Hardin. The Flying Burrito Brothers, who were fronted by country-rock artist Gram Parsons, entertained on Monday nights. (The hard-living Parsons, whose mix of country, blues, and folk influenced a generation of musicians, was beaten up one night by a group of rowdy marines.) The crowd was just as star studded. Jerry Lee Lewis was a fixture. Linda Ronstadt had a boyfriend, Jerry Brown, who was let in for free but insisted on paying the cover. Liza Minnelli was a fan of Tony Booth, the leader of the house band, the Palomino Riders. Hugh Hefner often arrived with his teenage companion, Barbi Benton.
The Pal was born in 1949, the baby of Hank Penny, a renowned radio and TV personality, bandleader, musician, and songwriter. He and business partner Amand Gautier had owned a successful club and were looking to start another. Penny happened upon the Lankershim building. The rent was cheap at $200 a month, and it didn’t bother the pair that the previous three tenants had failed. But the place’s name, the Mule Kick, didn’t sit well with Penny, who subsequently dubbed it the World Famous Palomino. He erected a massive neon sign, a rearing bronco balanced in an upturned horseshoe, which was visible for miles against the Valley’s night sky until its dismantling in 1995. Penny ran a respectable club, insisting that cowboys remove their hats when they entered the building. If they refused, Tiny, the enormous bouncer, escorted them out. By all accounts the club was a hit, but Penny had taken on so many outside commitments that he decided he had to let it go.
The club’s second owner, Tommy Thomas, was the Palomino’s P.T. Barnum. He and brother Billy took over the lease in the early ’50s and bought the building soon after. Thomas spent nearly a decade casually hewing to Penny’s model, save with a greater emphasis on the drinking. In 1959, his only local competitor, the Riverside Rancho, closed. A much larger venue, the Rancho had maintained a stranglehold on the country music headliners. Now Thomas owned the premier stage. He chose acts not because he loved their music—he wanted performers who could fill the house. He knew better than anyone in the business how to take a cultural obsession and turn it into money. Inside, posters advertising the night’s lineup were hand drawn with fluorescent paint and illuminated by little black lights. They would be replaced regularly, but the staples accumulated, the walls so thickly studded with sharp metal that it was unwise to lean against them. In those days just about everyone at the packed club smoked. When the back door opened, smoke billowed out in waves that made it look as if the building were on fire.