The Palomino Club: North Hollywood’s Grand Ole Opry West

The Valley hotspot was once the premier club on the West Coast for cowboys, truckers, and country music.

COUNTRY MUSIC, a new 8-part, 16-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns, written by Dayton Duncan and produced by Duncan, Julie Dunfey and Burns, will premiere September 15, 2019 on PBS stations nationwide. 

The Palomino makes an appearance in the film "Every Which Way But Loose" from 1978.
The Palomino makes an appearance in the film “Every Which Way But Loose” from 1978.

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.

6907 Lankershim Boulevard today. | Hadley Meares
6907 Lankershim Boulevard today. | Hadley Meares

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.

At a time when Nashville record labels were embarrassed by the term “hillbilly” music, Dwight Yoakam embraced it. Learn more about his music in this clip from “Country Music.”

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, stuntmen, 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

Jerry Lee Lewis at The Palomino | Art Fein
Jerry Lee Lewis at The Palomino | Art Fein
A live album was released in 1969 by Red Rhodes & The Detours, The Palomino's house band.
A live album was released in 1969 by Red Rhodes & The Detours, The Palomino’s house band.

Willie, Waylon and the Boys