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PROFILE : Show and Tell : A Ventura elementary school teacher invited a bear to class in 1972 and got an inspiration.

October 11, 1990|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Quiet, please. Brian Bemel, veteran Sheridan Way kindergarten teacher, folk music fan and volunteer founder of the Ventura Children's Festival, has a shaggy bear story to share.

Once upon a time in the winter of 1972, a 23-year-old teacher named Brian Bemel was driving home to Ventura from a camping trip in Northern California. Around Big Sur, he stopped to pick up a hitchhiking bear.

The bear was going to Ventura too, and Brian Bemel offered the shaggy beast a ride the whole way--if the bear would come talk to his second-graders at Saticoy Elementary School.

The bear was actually a Canadian circus performer between engagements; it was cold in Big Sur and he had put on the costume to stay warm. So the bear was happy to appear at Brian Bemel's class, and some days later, two dozen elementary school students found this bear inside a cardboard refrigerator box, in their classroom.

"This is my friend Billy the Bear," Brian Bemel said.

Then the bear did some juggling, and a few tricks, and finally took a seat and waited to see what would happen next. It was very quiet for a long time, until one brave second-grader approached Billy the Bear and said:

"Hey. Bears don't have buttons."

And so Brian Bemel and the bear explained what was really going on and talked about bears and circuses for a while. And all the kids paid close attention, and an enduring idea was born in Brian Bemel's head, and everyone, as far as we know, lived happily ever after. The end.

"If you bring exciting people in," Bemel said last week, "kids are just enraptured."

In the course of these last 18 years, Bemel has become the unofficial bringer-in of exciting people to the Ventura Unified School District. He still teaches kindergarten at Sheridan Way Elementary School, a campus tucked into the unglamorous neighborhood between the Ojai Freeway and Ventura Avenue. But he is also the man behind:

* The Ventura Children's Festival, which presents monthly performances throughout the school year at either Ventura or Buena high schools. The next show in that series, Oct. 19, is an anthology of folk tales put on by the Magical Moonshine Puppet Theater at Ventura High. (Advance tickets cost $5.50 for adults, $3.50 for children and $1 more on the night of the show.)

* The Ventura schools' Guest Artist Series, in which performers--often Children's Festival artists doing double duty--appear during the school day for student audiences. The next of those presentations, set for the morning of Oct. 16 at Buena High, is to be the National Theater of the Deaf/Little Theater of the Deaf. (Tickets cost $2 each, and will go to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.)

* A series of monthly performing arts assemblies at Foster and Sheridan Way elementary schools, and occasionally at other schools.

* A five-session series of arts education seminars for teachers, organized through the Ventura County school system.

In all, Bemel estimated that he runs about $25,000 a year in arts programming, using school district resources like auditoriums and buses. He does it largely without outside donations, and makes it pay for itself.

That, officials said, is what makes his program substantially larger than any arts programming the school district offers through conventional channels.

Bemel grew up in Los Angeles, where his father ran Bemel's Supply & Salvage ("We have it, can get it, or it isn't made"), and studied human development at UC Santa Cruz. His first teaching job, in Salinas, "was terrible . . . I was really into the open-education movement. . . . But I was really green, and I didn't know how to make something happen effectively."

After one year, Bemel made his way south to Ventura and the second-graders of Saticoy Elementary. He was more conservative than he had been in Salinas, but still strayed from the beaten educational path.

In 1980, Bemel moved to a suburb of Vancouver on a Fulbright teacher exchange. When he returned in 1982 he was married--his wife runs a preschool at their home in Ojai--and he had become a kindergarten teacher. And since kindergartners were too young to stage proper shows, Bemel started bringing in performers.

"I guess, inside of me, there's a promoter and publicist," he said. "I found out there are a lot of things I can do that I'd never done before."

UP CLOSE BRIAN BEMEL

Age: 41.

Occupation: Kindergarten teacher at Sheridan Way Elementary School and founder of the Ventura Children's Festival.

Stage: After 18 years of teaching and eight years of pulling together presentations for children, Bemel divides his loyalties between the individual satisfaction of teaching and the broader possibilities of producing children's performing arts programs.

Rage: At the attitude that arts education is a frill and not an essential.

Adage: "If you bring exciting people in, kids are just enraptured."

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