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ENTERTAINMENT : Classy Shows : A Ventura teacher will bring the performing arts to schoolchildren from all over the county this year.

August 22, 1991|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kindergarten teacher Brian Bemel has been Ventura's unofficial children's entertainment czar, bringing nationally acclaimed performers to area schoolchildren for three years.

This year, however, Bemel is expanding his kiddie show-biz talents. In his new job as performing arts specialist for the Ventura County superintendent of schools, he'll be providing classy entertainment for school kids all over the county.

Schools as far away as Simi Valley will bus children into Ventura to see the likes of puppeteer-singer Linda Arnold or the Broadway polish of a Theatre Works/USA show.

Nine performing groups are scheduled throughout the school year. The first, appearing Sept. 26, is the Magical Moonshine Theater Company, whose troupers use puppets, masks, music and humor to dramatize the cultural traditions of Mexico and Central America.

Some might look at such an outing as a frill. Not Bemel. He's been using the performing arts as a teaching tool in his elementary school classrooms for the 18 years he's taught with the Ventura Unified School District.

He's written musical productions around children's literature and his students have sometimes spent two or three months putting the show together. All the while, they are boosting their reading skills by practicing song lyrics and learning lines.

Bemel, 42, admits to a passion for music, especially folk music. His guitar is always nearby.

"I'm a lousy musician," he said. "I really don't have much talent, but I do have an ear for a good song. The important thing is that you love it."

Three years ago, while a kindergarten teacher at Sheridan Way School, Bemel became a fine arts mentor of sorts and began bringing entertainers into the school to perform. That blossomed into nighttime performances for the public as well.

"It was like a hobby that has grown and grown," he said. Last year, virtually all the Ventura elementary schools saw at least one of the five shows Bemel offered.

"We had a tremendous response from teachers last year," he said. Schools in Thousand Oaks and even Agoura wanted to participate. "I quickly saw that I couldn't continue to teach full time."

He pitched the idea of a countywide performing arts specialist to school officials. They liked it, provided that he would continue to teach half-time.

So this fall, he'll teach first grade part-time at Elmhurst School. But the other half of his job will be devoted to booking entertainers and showing teachers how they can weave material from the shows into their curriculum.

It will be up to each elementary or middle school to choose which, if any, of the performances kids will see. Some shows are for older students, some for younger. The children will be bused to either Buena High School or Ventura High School, both in Ventura, for the performances. Show times are 9:45 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

The cost per child is $3, but the fee won't be paid by the students. In most cases, the parent-teacher association at the school, through fund-raising, will pick up the tab, he said.

"This doesn't involve any tax money," Bemel said. "It's totally self-funded, and that's why the county decided to support it." Budget cuts have eroded the schools' performing arts programs. "This fills a real void."

The county, which employs Bemel part time, is picking up a portion of his salary for the project. The rest is expected to come from revenue from the shows.

Diana Rigby, coordinator of curriculum and staff development for county schools, said students need exposure to the performing arts.

"We needed someone to coordinate that, someone with a passion," she said.

Enter Bemel, a guy who thrives on the stuff. He travels to conventions of children's entertainers to scout for performers. He listens to countless tapes. He spends hours on the telephone dealing with agents.

His best critics, he says, are his own children--a daughter, 7, and a son, 3--who live with him and his wife, Anne, in Ojai.

The talent he has lined up for this year includes singer Bob Schneider, who arrives a day early to work with 12 local kids so they can join him on the stage in song and dance. Charlotte Diamond is an award-winning Canadian singer. Another singer and puppeteer, Norman Foote, is wacky but hip. Bill Harley's songs are about growing up.

Theatre Works/USA will be back again this year with a musical based on the story, "Harold and the Purple Crayon," a classic about a boy who draws things that come to life.

Perhaps the most incredible performance is the one scheduled in the spring by the Robert Minden Ensemble. Using flute, trumpet, French horn, vacuum cleaner hoses, bottles and saws, the cast of five provides the haunting musical backdrop for a story about a boy who dreams of singing with whales.

"Parents want this for kids," he said. "They are disappointed there are not more performing arts in the schools. I think they will be happy to pay for this."

* FYI

For information about Adventures in the Performing Arts, a series of performances jointly sponsored by the Ventura County superintendent of schools and the Ventura Unified School District, call 388-4410.

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