PONTIAC -- When Bret Michaels and his entourage rolled into the modest parking lot of Pontiac's Crystal Palace one night last spring, their first impression ran along the lines of: "What in the (bleep) were we booked here for?"
Following his year of life-threatening health issues, the Palace date was one of the rocker's early returns to live performing.
So he was perhaps more than a tad justified in wondering what might lie in store for his current well-being.
After all, there wasn't a glint of crystal anywhere in his field of vision, or even the merest hint of a palace turret.
What Michaels likely did notice was the busy Marathon gas station two doors down ... the popular Family Kitchen Restaurant 100 yards away ... and, out back, a sprawling grassy expanse resembling a high school football field, and then some.
Not exactly the terrain he and his good pal Donald Trump frequent on guys' nights out.
But, as Palace office manager Carol Zimmer remembered it, first impressions can be, at best, wrong-o.
"It was funny," she notes, "by the time the evening was over, they all LOVED the place."
Greg Walton, the Palace's Chicago-based talent buyer, was on hand that night, too. And he verifies the initial cirrus-cloud of doubt that followed Michaels & Co. into the flat-topped ex-Pontiac Moose Lodge erected back in the 1960s.
Then the front moved through.
"At around 2 a.m. that night, as the bus was starting to roll out, Pete the guitarist and the tour manager jumped out and ran back into the club, saying Bret wanted to know when they could come back to town and do another show here."
So there you go.
It was a date that has gone down in Pontiac's nightlife infamy.
"It was a HUGE show," Zimmer recalls. "To capacity. And we didn't do hardly any advertising."
"Yes, Bret sold out in 10 days," confirms Walton. "And we did it without spending a dollar to promote it."
Michaels has left a tangible legacy, points out Zimmer, as she gives a visitor the Palace tour.
"See those walls there? Those were built (around the ticket area) after we realized how much money we'd taken in with that show. We couldn't just do it out in the open at a table like we had been."
The Bret Michaels Memorial Ticket Window?
Not officially -- but it does make tangible the way the earth has turned for the club over the past year.
"It's so up-close-and-personal -- people stand from here right up to the stage," observes manager Tony Moreland, sitting at a table in back and motioning across the wooden dance floor that backs into the stage.
Prior to Michaels' show, Palace owner Laura Makovic had been experimenting with booking name talent for a year so, mainly from the country end.
It began with mid-range veteran talent like John Berry and the Statler Brothers' Jimmy Fortune, then advanced in late 2010 and early 2011 to hot new acts like Jerrod Niemann, Steel Magnolia, The Band Perry, Joe Nichols and Jake Owen.
By that point alone, the Palace had made its mark as a Central Illinois entertainment destination to contend with.
But it was the Michaels show, everyone agrees, that pushed the envelope out the Palace window and sent it blowing out that football-sized back yard (formerly a massive community vegetable garden tended by green-thumbed Moose lodge members and their families).
Since then, the floodgates have opened: Darius Rucker, Uncle Kracker, Kansas, Justin Moore, Lee Brice and --this weekend alone -- Ted Nugent (tonight) and Montgomery Gentry (Saturday).
Many of these acts (Rucker, Nugent, Moore, Kracker, etc.) had just recently been commanding area arena stages.
While most of the shows have stayed inside the Palace walls, happy with the 1,019 capacity, several have burst the seams and moved to that former communal garden out back (the 10,000-ish limit hasn't been tested yet -- the average, per Rucker's show, has been 4,000 to 5,000).
Walton's wide industry connections have made possible the booking of stars in what, at first glance, might seem a dubious prospect.
"I came to town and met with Laura and Carol and Tony to talk about doing concerts," he recalls. "And that's kind of how it got started."
At least for this stage of the Palace's existence: as mentioned, it was a Moose Lodge for the bulk of its life, with its original wood bar still beautifully intact in the Palace's bar room.
When the Moose migrated elsewhere, says Zimmer, a series of businesses came and went over a decade or so, including bars like Chevy's, Whompoppers and T's, and restaurants like Mike's Steakhouse.
"I always tried to tell everybody this place could be a goldmine if the right person had it," says Zimmer.
Enter Laura Makovic.
The date was Jan. 22, 2009; the building had sat vacant two years and required a major makeover.
"It was dirty ... moldy ... horrible," recalls Zimmer. Cue the new dance floor, paint jobs, dressing room, etc.
"We started the club because I have always loved to dance," Makovic says. "So I partnered with a friend who also lived to dance."
Line-dancing was the name of the game, and it still continues as a popular attraction to this day, along with familiar nightclub fair like karaoke and local bands.
The venue is also available for wedding receptions and banquets, and runs its own limo and shuttle bus service.
The original partnership eventually dissolved, she notes, "around the time the club started making a name for Pontiac."
That left Makovic, formerly of Bloomington, at the helm.
"The beauty of Pontiac," says Walton, "is that it's between everything, and we're able to catch artists going to Chicago or Iowa or Indiana. But without Laura and the club investing the dollars to put on the shows, we could have all the contacts in the world and that wouldn't mean a thing."
Meanwhile, there's little doubt that the Palace is making waves on the Livingston County seat's economic front.
"The state came out with the economic impact numbers over the last year, and it's up 6.3 percent," says tourism director Ellie Alexander. "It's really hard to determine where it's coming from, but I do believe the Crystal Palace is bringing in people and a lot of them are spending their money here."
"It's an amazing thing they're doing, bringing in this kind of talent," adds Pontiac Mayor Bob Russell. "They're filling up the motels and the restaurants do really well, and we haven't had any problems from a rowdy standpoint."
Best of all, those cirrus clouds of doubt following performers inside are starting to dissipate.
"Yes, it can be a bit of a culture shock, when they come into the club after playing stadiums where they've been selling 70,000 tickets and, like Uncle Kracker, opening for Kenny Chesney," admits Walton, noting the latter performer's look of consternation upon arrival at the Palace.
But then midway through his set, "he looked over at me and winked in a knowing way that meant he understood now why he'd come here: the connection with the fans is just amazing."
In & out
Just as it did for the Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Summer Bash weekends, Pontiac's Crystal Palace is going all out for Labor Day weekend -- make that, going all inside and out: tonight's big show is under the Palace roof (capacity, 1,019), Saturday's is out back in the football field-and-a-half expanse (capacity, "around 10,000"). Following are the details:
Thursday, Sept. 1 (inside)
• Headliner: Ted Nugent, about 9:15 p.m.
• Openers: Hollywood Dirtbags, 6 p.m.
• Doors open: 6 p.m.
• Tickets: $35
Saturday, Sept. 3 (outside)
• Headliner: Montgomery Gentry, about 8:30 p.m.
• Openers: Abby Velez, 2:30 p.m., and Midnight Flyer, 6 p.m.
• Doors open: 2 p.m.
• Tickets: $30 advance, $35 day of
• Location: 902 W. Custer Ave. (from B-N, take Exit 201 off I-55, go east to first stop sign, turn right, head south two miles on Illinois 23 to stop sign; go east on Custer Avenue;
• Parking: On the premises; Illinois Central Bus across street; via shuttle from Kmart and Wal-Mart parking lots
• Box office: 815-842-1590
• Information: www.pontiaccrystalpalace.com
Coming & going
• Going: In just the past year alone, the following mix of national country and rock acts have played the Crystal palace: The Band Perry, Lee Brice, Cinderella, Craig Campbell, Brett Eldridge, Tyler Farr, Kansas, Sonia Leigh, Bret Michaels, Logan Mize, Montgomery Gentry, Justin Moore, David Nail, Joe Nichols, Jerrod Niemann, Steel Magnolia, Ted Nugent, Jake Owen, Darius Rucker, Uncle Kracker, Chris Young.
• Coming: Just announced, a Nov. 12 show with Easton Corbin, fresh off his opening slot last month for Blake Shelton at the U.S. Cellular Coliseum. Ticket information is TBA. More “big shows” are pending, rest assured, say Palace insiders.
• Could go either way — you decide: Patrons are currently be asked to vote for who among the following candidates they’d most like to see (this is a partial list; the full one is posted at the club): Chris Cagle, Chuck Wicks, Del McCoury Band, Diamond Rio, James Otto, Little Big Town, Neal McCoy, Thomspon Square, Tracy Lawrence, Robert Earl Keen.