The San Fernando Valley was long an almost mythic destination, a paradise populated by movie stars, ranchers, cow punchers and singing cowboys — “where the sidewalk ends and the West begins.” Memorably fabulated in a 1944 Bing Crosby hit, the region’s rich history has been steadily eroded by California’s classic recipe of self-destruction, greed and expedience, reducing it to toxic cliché as a suburban ghetto infamous for its porn stars, swingers, strip malls and gangbangers.
Enter Tommy Gelinas, an unlikely crusader whose offbeat career path led him to become a driving force for documenting the region's past as founder and curator of the Valley Relics Museum. Gelinas has accrued a staggering collection of Valley-centric artifacts, which is currently relocating to a new home at the Van Nuys Airport.
“None of this was planned,” Gelinas says. “I was born and raised in the Valley, grew up with all the good stuff we had in the late ’60s and ’70s. In 1988 I started a T-shirt company, working 16-hour days, lots of band merch. So after about 17 years, I was sitting in my office late at night and I started looking for a little Valley history on the internet. There really wasn’t anything; no history, not even a lot of photos. If you searched Hollywood or Beverly Hills, tons of stuff popped up.”
The Valley was a rural getaway for many Old Hollywood movie stars, but it hadn't been chronicled much. “James Cagney had a ranch in Chatsworth, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Desi and Lucy, Barbara Stanwyck all lived here, yet there was no depiction of the Valley and its past,” Gelinas laments. “No one talked about Marilyn Monroe or Robert Redford going to Van Nuys High School. And I realized that so much was being torn down, and we were being stripped of our culture.”
As he started researching his hometown, Gelinas became hooked. “I decided to try to tell the story of how it used to be, to educate the public,” he says. “So I was looking for history books, photos, online, in bookstores and yard sales, and found so many layers of history. It was fascinating, learning about the early cowboys and the roots of country music in the Valley. My collection grew, postcard by postcard, ashtray by ashtray, and eventually I gained a huge following on social media [for sharing it]. No one else was doing this and it gained a lot of momentum — there’s a lot of history and I became the point person.”
He encouraged the community and they encouraged him. “People were saying, ‘Hey, you need to save this sign, this building,’” Gelinas recalls. ” [I was] coming up with all kinds of potential history rescues and things of that nature.”
The history rescues kept coming, to the point where the museum outgrew its longtime Chatsworth location. Now for the first time, Gelinas is asking the public for contributions, and doing so in spectacular style — with a one-night-only resurrection of the world-famous North Hollywood country music shrine the Palomino at its original site.
“I wanted to do a Palomino night for the last 10 years,” Gelinas asserts. “I knew the building was a banquet hall, so it was available [to rent, and] I finally put it together.”
Opened in 1949 by Western swing bandleader Hank Penny, the intimate honky-tonk quickly and deservedly achieved legendary status. “The Palomino marquee was always interesting,” Gelinas remembers. “We’d roll by it every day, seeing all the famous names and thinking, ‘Wow! Johnny Cash and Buck Owens!’ My parents were always watching Hee Haw so we’d see all those country stars on TV. Later, I got into the Pal, started going there in the ’80s and early ’90s.”
With a reunion of the club’s famed house band and headliners Jim Lauderdale, Rosie Flores and James Intveld, along with such critical contemporary Los Angeles country stylists as Brian Whelan and Tracy Dawn Thompson, it’s going to be a show for the ages.
“I never ask the public for money [and] have never done fundraising,” says Gelinas, who does get donations from My Valley Past, an organization with roots in corporate entertainment. “[Insurgent country promoters] Rebelle Road approached us asking about the entertainment, so we met and they were super stoked to be a part of this.”
Of course, Gelinas is bringing in a trove of memorabilia to the event for all to enjoy. “I have all the neon signs, contracts, server uniforms, bar fixtures, awards, photos, all the signs from the back patio, some of the old 'coming attractions' signs.”
There will be a pop-up museum featuring artifacts such as cars, boots, signs and musical instruments from Nudie Cohn, the famed tailor known for his elaborate rhinestone-covered suits (known as “Nudie suits”) as well as crazy customized automobiles, and Gelinas hopes to bring the original Palomino sign and light it up on the back of a truck as well. “It takes a lot of work and money to do something like this,” he adds. “It’s a lot of really cool history and I’m proud to shine a light on it. It means the world to me.”
The Palomino Rides Again, 6907 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Mon., Oct. 8, 7:30 p.m.; $200 “gold ticket” includes meal and a gift; $125 “silver ticket” includes gift, no meal. Table sponsorships available. For tickets and more info: valleyrelicsmuseum.org.