Vallemar Station, just off of Highway 1, is one of Pacifica’s iconic places. It’s a local restaurant known equally for its wide menu of food prepared in what owners Harold and Barbara Ash call the “old time style of cooking” as for being a former station on the Ocean Shore Railroad. In operation between 1905 and 1920, the station is a proud piece of Pacifica’s history and, judging from the vintage photographs and posters inside, hasn’t changed much in appearance since those days. The restaurant is now in its 23rd year of operation.
The Ashes are known for building the Station as a community hangout and they are passionate about keeping the community engaged and happy. “When we first got here, we had live bands, but that was too loud,” says Hal. “They mostly play what they want to hear, not what the people want to hear.”
Enter Sheila Murray, of Sheila’s Karaoke Fun House, who was only 5 when she first got into music. “My brother was a musician. He was 10 years older than I, and we used to get a guitar and did a lot of folk music.” Murray went on the pursue music school, but realized she probably wasn’t going to make a living as a musician. “So, I started doing medical billing with different specialties. It was all very interesting, but I burned out over it at one point.” Dealing with family difficulties at the time, she went to a karaoke show at Cheers of Pacifica and really enjoyed it. “I was looking for a job and thought, why don't I just start my own karaoke business?”
With much advice from the gentleman doing karaoke at Cheers, Murray approached Barbara Ash with the notion of doing shows at Vallemar Station. “I used to come here all the time to eat before ballgames and such. I actually worked here as a waitress for one summer.” Murray recalls there being a three-piece garage band that didn’t play much anymore. “So, I broached the subject with Barbara and said how would you feel about me starting karaoke here?” The Ashes were happy to give it a try. That was back in September 2004, and Murray has been holding shows at the Station, along with other gigs elsewhere, ever since.
In September of 2005, Murray met her partner, Jeff Broyles, who used to manage Bay Books in Half Moon Bay. He started showing up at her shows and then did the Friday shows with her. “This has really become my favorite spot,” Murray says, in spite of the limited space and the layout that forces her to work with the speakers behind her. Part of the appeal is the local theater group that comes in after rehearsals and shows at the nearby Spindrift Players theater. “They’ve got a bunch of ringers. They can really sing and they all know the show tunes.”
Broyles explains, “That just expands the selection of songs for everyone. And we're very proactive in terms of what people want.” If he and Murray don’t have the songs people ask for, they make a concerted effort to go get them. The musical selection can vary quite a bit. ”It depends on the crowd. You know you can get a country crowd, an ’80s crowd, a crowd of older people who want standards. That’s sort of the fun with karaoke. You can go from Hank Williams to Led Zeppelin just like that. You can go from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa and not miss a beat.”
Murray is quick to say the fun lies not in how good the singers sound, though karaoke can bring out the best in participant’s voices. “It’s about how much fun you have.” For her though, the music is more than entertainment. It’s therapy. Having battled cancer for the last six years, Murray appreciates what she calls ‘thery-oke.’ “Because it’s so therapeutic on, like a Friday night, to have that therapeutic primal scream that sounds better than a scream.”
Broyles aggress that karaoke has been a big part of Murray’s healing. He’s stepped in as needed to help cover shows under her umbrella. “But to be honest,” he says, “in all the chemotherapy and radiation and everything else she's been through, she has missed only a handful of shows. This is her passion. This is part of her therapy.”
It’s an experience Murray encourages others to try.
“I've had a lot of people who were just so nervous about it and I just encouraged by saying: Don't worry about how great your voice is,” she said. “Just relax and have fun, step out of your comfort zone a little bit.”