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For The Kids : ENTERTAINMENT : Grown-Up Ally : Bill Harley sings and tells stories that appeal to adults as well as children.

January 03, 1991|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What kid--or parent--can't identify with this? It's a school day, and the thought of climbing out of a warm bed, pulling on some clothes and marching off to school is about as appealing as succotash.

Couldn't you stay home, just this once? Who hasn't fantasized about the perfect fib? Children's entertainer Bill Harley has taken that fantasy and woven it into a sort-of rap version of "Fifty Ways to Fool Your Mother."

Harley slaps his knee in hambone rhythm and spins out the 50 ways--an iodine-induced case of measles, an incoming tidal wave, your shoes shrank, the flu hit (heat up the thermometer over a light). And on and on.

Harley, who won a Parent's Choice Gold Award for his album "Fifty Ways to Fool Your Mother," will be performing in Ventura at 7 p.m. Jan. 18 at Buena High School, 5670 Telegraph Road. His appearance is sponsored by the Ventura Children's Festival.

Harley sings and tells stories that appeal to adults as well as children. He's been described as the Mark Twain of contemporary kids' music.

"I consciously try to deal with what kids go through," he said recently in a telephone interview from his home in Seekonk, Mass. "I try to name the stuff that is happening to them. Then they can say, 'I'm not the only one who has feelings like that.' Parents can say, 'Oh, someone else's kid is screwed up too.' "

The children's entertainment business has boomed in the last few years, thanks in part to the success of Raffi, the singing guru of the preschool set. It's inevitable that all other entertainers of children are measured against his gentle, simple style.

"Mine has more of a cut to it," said Harley, whose material is aimed more at elementary school-aged children. He's funnier too, and more versatile. He has a strong, rich voice.

His songs and stories all seem to harken back to moments in most of our lives. Who couldn't identify with the kid in his song, "You're in Trouble"? In this ditty, a boy arrives home to find a plate of freshly baked cookies with a note that says, "Don't touch, these are for dessert."

Naturally, he eats them all. Then he whips up another batch, nearly destroying the kitchen in the process. He goes for a walk while they are baking. When he arrives home, the fire truck is there. Throughout the song, the chorus repeats, "You're in trouble like you've never been before."

Some of Harley's material is based on his own humorous struggles as a child. He said he is working on a song about his first girlfriend in the sixth grade. It was love at arm's length. Each was too shy to speak to the other, so their friends relayed messages back and forth.

Harley spins a story with the same magic as Garrison Keillor or Jean Shepherd. But his style is more animated and he takes on the voices of other people and animals in his stories.

"The narrative thing is dear to me--it's something I think I can do," he said.

He's performed at storytelling festivals in Illinois, Oklahoma, Missouri and at the recent national gathering of premier storytellers in Jonesborough, Tenn. He was featured on the National Public Radio show "Good Evening," hosted by Noah Adams.

"I always wrote stories as a child," said Harley, 36, whose mother wrote children's literature. He grew up in Ohio and Indiana, moving to the East Coast during high school.

"I got interested in folk music and started listening to Pete Seeger," he said. "I played a bunch of instruments"--trumpet, guitar, banjo and piano, to name a few.

With a college degree in religion, he directed a program for inner city and rural schools, helping children, parents and teachers deal with conflict and violence in their lives.

He started performing for a living about 10 years ago in coffeehouses and at schools. Entertainment for children was just catching on. He cut his first children's record in 1984 and the response persuaded him to concentrate on that audience. He has done five more albums.

Now when he performs for an adult audience, he misses the interplay he has with younger audiences. "It's like, are you guys out there?" he said. Sometimes he performs with his band, the Troublemakers, but in Ventura, he'll be alone with his ever-present guitar.

Harley has a built-in audience at home to practice his stories and songs on. He and his wife, Debbie Block, have two sons, ages 3 and 7.

In the world of children, as he sees it, there is room for change and improvement. Children suffer from a sort of powerlessness simply because they are children.

"They are denied decision making," he said. "There's a certain tragedy in that. It's not fair. They need to know there are some things they can affect in their lives."

Harley's audiences are families, but it's hard to tell who enjoys him more--parents or children. His material works at both levels.

"Parents remember," he said. "It also affirms what the kids are going through."

WHERE AND WHEN

Bill Harley is in concert at 7 p.m. Jan. 18 at Buena High School, 5670 Telegraph Road, Ventura. Advance tickets are $3.50 for children and $5.50 for adults, $1 more at the door. Tickets are available at Ventura elementary schools or at Adventures for Kids, 3457 Telegraph Road, Ventura. For information, call 650-9688 or 648-5251. Harley is also conducting a workshop for parents and teachers, "How to Think Like a Kid," from 4 to 8 p.m. Jan. 17 at County Schools Conference Facility, 570 Airport Way, Camarillo. The workshop, including dinner, costs $25. For reservations, call 388-4410.

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