PANAMA CITY — A chance encounter with a karaoke machine many years ago led local entertainment icon Todd Allen Herendeen into a second career that keeps going strong.
"I worked as a journeyman tool and die maker up in northeast Indiana, I had a journeyman's card, I was making good money and didn't ever really think of the music business," Herendeen said after playing at the News Herald's Jam Session on March 9.
He started joining some buddies for karaoke night in the 1990s, even though his singing was suspect. In fact, he was cut from the school musical in sixth grade on the grounds that he couldn't sing.
"Sister Clara Marie said, 'Todd, you don't have it. I can't use you,'" he said. "Now that I think about it, I think, 'You were a nun. Shouldn't you lie to me and tell me how good I am?'"
One night in 1995, his buddies signed him up for a talent contest, and he ended up winning it. "From there, I caught the bug," he added.
For a couple of years, he sang at birthday parties and anniversaries. Then the former drummer for The McCoys ("Hang on Sloopy") invited him to open a show with Chubbie Checker and other classic rock acts. After the show, the Journal Gazzette in Fort Wayne, Ind., called him a crowd favorite.
"That really got me excited and thinking, if the newspaper is writing this, maybe we could have some fun with it," he said.
In 1999, Herendeen finally gave up his dayjob and went into music full-time. He moved to Panama City Beach in 2002. His shows tend to include popular songs from Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Ronnie Milsap and Conway Twitty, complete with costumes and vocal impressions.
"I think the older music has a lot more feeling than today's music," he said. "I think back then they wrote from the heart. They had more meaning."
And though he's known for his Elvis shows, Herendeen doesn't count Elvis as a personal favorite performer.
"Growing up, I wasn't an Elvis fan," he said, listing instead the music of REO Speedwagon and Steve Miller as his favorites of the time. But later, hearing some of Elvis' live performances, he gained a new respect for the singer's delivery.
"I really like Ronnie Millsap. I'm more into a pure vocalist, like Englebert Humperdink, who had a pure sound about them," he said, adding this about their voices: "They're strong and they're pretty."
While he continues to tour with his band, Herendeen also recently opened the Todd Allen Herendeen Dinner Theatre in Panama City Beach. He performs there at least once a week, depending on the season. The location is also a pop culture museum, with autographed photos and guitars, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and other items on display.
Before opening the dinner theater, Herendeen investigated the possibility of setting up in Pigeon Forge and Branson, where he's performed in the past. However, he said, "Everything kept bringing us back to the beach."
In addition to his own performance, the dinner theater is bringing in other classic acts, such as the recent appearance of the original Shondelles, formerly the backing band for Tommy James ("Crimson and Clover"). When it comes to his own show, every three to seven days brings a whole new audience that hasn't seen him perform, Herendeen said, but he still works to improve it.
As for the future, he said: "Every time I think that I've figured out where I'm going, a year later I'm going in another direction — and it's usually a whole lot better than the way I dreamed it up a year before."