It’s a Saturday night at Hardee’s on Winchester Road, and there’s barely an empty seat in the house.
Eight-year-old Robbie “Rusty” Wilson, wearing cowboy boots and a blue plaid shirt that matches his long-lashed eyes, is singing Johnny B. Goode, and Claire Fletcher is doing the twist nearby.
There are two tables of people playing cards, and just about every toe in the room is tapping.
For more than six years, the restaurant has hosted karaoke on Friday and Saturday nights, and it has developed a rather large and close-knit following of singers and audience members.
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“They’re like family to us,” said Hardee’s assistant manager Becky Rouse. “They’re a great crowd.”
Ann Martin, who with her husband, Tom, is hired to host the events, said karaoke nights usually average more than 20 singers, and she has a system for keeping track of the songs each of them likes to perform.
Among the cast of regulars are the Hardee’s Angels, a group whose rendition of Wagon Wheel gets the whole place singing along; Bob Atwell, a team leader at Toyota who moonlights as an Elvis impersonator; and the unofficial king of the karaoke nights, Kenny McKinney.
They’re like family to us. They’re a great crowd.
Becky Rouse, Hardee’s assistant manager
McKinney, 86, grew up in Lexington but was lured to Hollywood in the 1950s by a love of showbiz. In addition to acting jobs, he said he worked as a magician’s assistant, a mailman and a singer, once winning an episode of The Gong Show.
He whipped out his wallet and displayed a photo of himself onstage with Don Ho.
“Any time I was in Vegas, he’d have me on,” McKinney said.
Nowadays, he scratches his itch to perform by coming to karaoke nights.
Wearing a sport coat and white tennis shoes, with his walker close at hand, he performs a version of It’s Now or Never that is enough to make one swoon over her Diet Coke.
McKinney gets a kick out of seeing uninitiated customers just looking for a Thickburger swivel their heads in surprise when they walk in the door and hear someone singing.
“This used to be a pretty dead restaurant on a Friday and Saturday night,” said Bob Reed, who worked as a franchise business consultant for Hardee’s before retiring a year and a half ago.
He said he knew the restaurant was onto something when he showed up one night and saw a woman named Pinkie dressed in overalls and an engineer’s hat performing Love Potion No 9.
Among the cast of regulars are the Hardee’s Angels, a quartet of women whose rendering of Wagon Wheel gets the whole place singing along; Bob Atwell, a team leader at Toyota who moonlights as an Elvis impersonator; and the unofficial king of the karaoke nights, Kenny McKinney.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is pretty crazy,’” Reed said. “There was probably 100 people in here.”
Now, Reed is one of the regular performers. He said he’s sung 354 songs over the years.
“We forget we’re 67 to 80 years old,” he said.
Iantha Emmons agrees.
She said the dining room might look like “a nursing home” on karaoke nights, but the singers feel “more like teeny-boppers.”
In addition to performing with the Hardee’s Angels, Emmons makes it her job to welcome newcomers.
She said regulars, many of whom wear matching “Party Hardee at Hardee’s” T-shirts, sometimes arrive as early as 4 p.m. to reserve a seat.
“I can’t even carry a tune,” she said. “We still have fun.”
Fletcher, a University of Kentucky medical student, is one of the younger members of the crowd and is clearly a beloved member of the group.
“They give me homework,” she said. “I’ve learned to dance the Charleston and I’ve learned a bunch of Patsy Cline songs.”
She started coming about a year ago after she and regular audience member Leonard Arnold struck up a conversation at Parkette Diner.
Arnold doesn’t sing; he said he comes “just to mess with everybody and give them a hard time.”
But he invited Fletcher to come sing, and she did.
“They’re so supportive,” she said. “You get up there and you freak out a little bit, but it feels so good.”
Karaoke night at Hardee’s
Hardee’s at 1125 Winchester Road in Lexington offers karaoke from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturdays year-round, and every Friday night during the colder months.
During the summer, Friday nights alternate between karaoke and a car show.