It's A Naugahyde Thing

It's standing room only at Kelbo's Coco Bowl in Los Angeles, where the drinks come in conch shells and the pillars look like palm trees. On the club's tiny stage, singer Joey Cheezhee belts out a tune that sounds like a collision between Jack Jones and Led Zeppelin: "Whole Lotta Love Boat." As always, Cheezhee is dressed to kill-himself Sequined rollerblades adorn his feet, and a gold-plated nasal-hair clipper hangs from a chain around his neck. A cheese grater is fastened to his waist, a tribute to Wayne Newton's escutcheon-size belt buckles. Cheezhee's repertoire moves readily from matters of the heart to those of the digestive tract. His song "Bile" salutes that underappreciated secretion: "You bring light to the intestines with your golden yellow glow / If I were a liver, I'd never let you go." He may be the Lounge Act from Hell, but the crowd of twenty-somethings roars its approval.

Across town at the Dresden Room, there's no irony in the air as genuine lounge veterans Marty and Elayne Roberts launch into their swingin' version of Michael Jackson's "Beat It." The duo, who accompany themselves on bass and piano, have been on the circuit for more than 20 years, mostly doing jazzy versions of pop standards. Suddenly, so happening are Marty and Elayne that one night actress Julia Roberts (definitely no relation) got up to join them on "Makin' Whoopee." Rocker Tom Petty hired them to appear in a music video, and director David Lynch has come in to soak up atmosphere. "It was all totally unexpected," gushes Elayne splendent in ostrich-feather-trimmed red velveteen. "It's like an underground movement for the kids."

Young Los Angeles is in the grip of lounge-act fever. The revival is part paean to that supposedly intimate form of entertainment, part parody of the showbiz schlockiness that "lounge act" usually implies. The genre, of course, has long provided a rich vein of satire, from comedian Bill Murray crooning "Feelings" to hard rocker David Johansen adopting the pompadoured persona of Buster Poindexter. But now lounge is being embraced by what Senor Amor, the 25-year-old host of a radio show called "The Molotov Cocktail Hour," calls "the hyperlost generation." The term "lounge," he says, "conveys an innocence, a joy in living, a willingness to try. And it's hilarious."

Lounge may not be the biggest or the best, but it does have an esthetic, which includes Naugahyde, leopard skin, and pseudosincere performer patter. But Los Angeles's lounge fans are there to celebrate more than snicker. In the beginning, there was Las Vegas, where lounges sprang up in the early '5Os as a place for high rollers to stash their wives or girlfriends. Soon the performers became draws themselves. Louis Prima and his wife Keely Smith, were a seminal sensation; Sonny and Cher later borrowed heavily from their act, and David Lee Roth's "Just a Gigolo" is a virtual Prima remake. Even Newton, the Vegas god, got his start in the lounges. But the lounge lizard's natural habitat is in decline, a victim of corporations seeking bigger profits from gaming tables. "It's commonly said that the lounge scene was better when the Mafia owned it," says Pat Tierney, a Los Angeles art teacher and lounge aficionado who writes a newsletter called "Lounging Around," which chronicles his latest discoveries. "As despicable as they were, they loved music." Today, most of Las Vegas's remaining lounge acts are a sort of live Muzak-slick, anonymous rock groups who provide accompaniment to slot machines.

A new generation is determined to revive this endangered art form. As their parents did, they appreciate the traditional venues as an inexpensive place to listen to music and socialize. "Some of the kids tell me they're hearing lyrics for the first time," says Elayne Roberts. But they also want to have fun their way. Jordan Levin, 24, manager of comedy programs at Walt Disney Television and a Joey Cheezhee fan, says of Cheezhee's act, "He has a false sincerity that's more real than most. It's a celebration of everything that's been thrown at us." And since Cheezhee's audience is increasingly made up of such young entertainment executives, it's a good bet there's a lot more lounge in everybody's future.