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A Fair of the Heart : Backers of a Folksy Ventura County Fair Square Off Against Forces of Modernization

August 25, 1988|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Richard and Shirley Henniger, two of the more vocal critics of change at the Ventura County Fair, had not wanted to attend the event in the first place. With a cold night wind whipping across the fairgrounds, they were especially eager to get it over with.

"We were going to stay away this year," said Richard Henniger, who, with his wife, Shirley, are among the leaders of the Save the Fair Committee. "The fair's not run by the people any more."

But at the invitation of The Times, the Hennigers agreed to stroll the ocean-side grounds and point out examples of how they felt the 12-day fair--which ends Sunday--is losing its traditional homespun flavor to the forces of commercialization and development.

What they found, despite their fears that a big-city, carnival-like atmosphere is beginning to take hold, was still pretty much the same old county fair.

Traditional Exhibits

Warmed by the sight of hundreds of white, fuzzy rabbits in the livestock area, rows of canned goods in the home arts building and dozens of hand-colored drawings decking the walls of the youth building, the couple decided to stay, even after a three-hour interview, and enjoy the evening a bit longer on their own.

"Look--how precious!" exclaimed Shirley Henniger, a former home arts volunteer for 11 years, as she noticed a particularly endearing exhibit. "Anyone who comes is going to have a wonderful time."

To be sure, the Ventura couple did not give high marks to the garish midway area, complete with a Rambo shooting gallery, blaring heavy metal music and thrill rides such as Gravitron and Paratrooper. They also did not think much of the aisles of brightly lit snack booths run by professional concessionaires hawking a myriad fried foods, cotton candy and beer.

But with most of the 62-acre grounds still devoted to such things as livestock judging, table-setting competitions, home garden displays and handmade doll houses, the couple acknowledged that the fair is still very much a folksy event.

"A lot of this is the way it has been for years," Richard Henniger said. "What you're seeing is still mostly a hometown fair."

The Hennigers, however, voiced skepticism that all will remain the same. The couple, who helped get a measure on the November ballot aimed at blocking a 120,000-square-foot events center proposed for the fairgrounds, fear that such developments will overshadow the homespun flavor of the fair.

"We would like to believe that everything will stay the way it is," Richard Henniger said. "But the credibility gap is very large."

Fair General Manager Jeremy Ferris, who accompanied the Hennigers as they toured the exhibits, said that the homey, handcrafted displays will always be the most important aspect of the fair.

But Ferris, who is in his fourth year of running the event, said that it takes a wide range of activities and entertainment to keep the fair interesting and successful.

"It's a balance," he said. "We are like a cultural museum. The total culture of the county is displayed here. It profits us immensely to be able to see that and to bring our kids to see it, too."

A Share of Glitz

On one side of the scale, the fair offers some of the same glitz found in almost every amusement park. Flashing colored lights and ringing bells fill the midway area, where carnies bark that stuffed animals can be won by tossing a dime in an ashtray and a fun house boasts such novelties as a two-headed pig and a bearded chicken.

There are the blatantly commercial exhibits, too, where salesmen tout the benefits of miracle cleaning products, electric food dehydrators and incredibly sharp kitchen knives. A "Vibra Cushion" portable massager was sampled by several elderly ladies, and a small crowd gathered to see the results of the "Magna-Clean" window cleaner, a squeegee-like device that uses a magnet to wash both sides of the glass at the same time.

But the old-fashioned and country-flavored exhibits more than balance the act. In the home arts building, hand-labeled, home-brewed ale is displayed next to handmade shimmery wedding dresses, intricately decorated Christmas trees and canned goods ranging from pickled radishes to cranberry preserves to boneless pork ribs in barbecue sauce.

In Uncle Leo's Barnyard, "Barb," a 740-pound sow, feeds a hoard of hungry piglets. In the floriculture building, carefully manicured miniature gardens are arranged around a sawdust walkway. And in the youth building, works of art include a giant cobra modeled from tinfoil, a dinosaur crafted from papier-mache and a suspended mobil of jellyfish made from paper plates and green plastic Easter-time grass.

But the Hennigers, like many members of the Save the Fair Committee, are not convinced that all will remain the same.

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