Published: July 17, 1992

LIKE the national debt and the hole in the ozone layer, karaoke poses an insidious and ever-growing threat to Civilization As We Know It. We understood that eventually we'd have to confront these shower-stall Carusos bent on poisoning the ears of callow youth. Yet we weren't exactly relishing the encounter. After two miserable sessions in a pair of notorious South Bay karaoke hot spots, last Saturday night we finally found a joint we can recommend without reservation -- Cat's Alley.

The club, sandwiched between Flo's Barbecue and the back lot of the San Jose Greyhound station, is right on the ragged edge of the "new" downtown, where the pawnshops meet the pinstripes. At 10:30 on this hot and muggy night, the old-style cantilevered windows of the little brick box were tilted open to the street and from down the block we could hear a young man doing unspeakable damage to a vintage Eagles' tune. We found the club (until recently an undistinguished bar called the Dugout) had been carefully restored to a state of minimalist grace -- unadorned brick walls, a few faux marble cocktail tables and a beautiful antique bar that dominates the right wall of the narrow room.

Cat's Alley gets a very interesting mix. Of the 40 people in the room, we noted: lots of quintessential west-side club crawlers (cutoffs, black tops and ankle socks with low pumps were the ubiquitous -- u-chick-quitous? -- choice for women, jeans and patterned pajama shirts the favored attire for men) a handful of overdressed San Pedro Square types, some ersatz cowpokes from Wrangler & Rhinestones and a trio of rheumy-eyed transients fresh off the bus who were clearly troubled by what they were hearing. On the small stage at the far end of the room, a woman wearing a plastic dime-store tiara and a Mylar sash was barreling through a Roseanne Arnold-style rendition of Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

The 16-page songbooks scattered around the club featured some truly classic material sprinkled in a cheesy fondue of '70s hits. Our favorites: Allan Sherman's "Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh," the Jaynettes' "Sally Go 'Round the Roses" and Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger." And what is this? Yessss!!! Shirley Ellis' "The Name Game." Let's see you try that after three Tanquerays, good buddy-wuddy-fo-fuddy . . .

For the non-pop oriented singer, we have everything from "Farmer in the Dell" to "Hava Nagila." Holy Honkin' Mother of Goose! I would have paid to hear the Roseanne version of "Farmer in the Dell." But no . . .

The videos that accompany each song were apparently compiled by Sri Lankan film students working for Total Non-Sequitur TV. For the Elvis number "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear" we see a guy in a bishop's miter, a circus clown and "Amos 'N' Andy." Fellini would be envious.

There were many noble efforts that night -- and a few that really made the bricks sweat. A bespectacled tourist who looked like golf legend Hale Irwin just up and smoked "New York, New York." A blond Bernadette Peters dug in so hard on the "I will, I will, I will" bridge to Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together" people stood on chairs and cheered.

By midnight, the crowd had more than doubled. There were folkloric dancers from a nearby festival, more tourists and a couple of hotel chefs just off work and still in their checkered slacks. We heard a James Earl Jones basso profundo version of Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" followed by a skinny Asian guy with a Bill Haley spit-curl the size of a handcuff singing "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear."

Mojo Nixon was right. Elvis is in everyone. But it's only with a few of us that he gets out very often.

Cat's Alley
152 Post St.
San Jose
Admission: No cover
Details: Karaoke Mondays, Wednesdays-Saturdays, 9 p.m.; 11 p.m. Tuesdays
(408) 297-4351

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