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CONCERTS IN THE PARK : Blasts From the Past : Nostalgic big-band music is featured at Ojai's popular Wednesday night summer gatherings.


If you want quaint, Ojai's got it. On Wednesday evening, under the spreading oaks in downtown Libbey Park, a time warp clicks in.

An Art Deco fountain bubbles softly and the smell of hot popcorn fills the air as a crowd settles around a lighted bandstand. Nearby, a balloon man hands out bright orbs to children who run with them through the shadows.

When the chimes in the post office tower sound eight, the Ojai Band strikes up "The Washington Post March," the grand sound oompah-ing out onto Ojai Avenue, the town's main drag. Stragglers, carrying their lawn chairs and blankets, hurry into the park.

Old-fashioned evening concerts in the park have fast become a tradition in this city that wants to be as small-town as it is. This one began last year, optimistically announced as The First Annual Summer Concert Series.

"I'd love to get a head count, but they move," said coordinator Sara Beeby, looking out over the crowd. It numbered probably a thousand--not bad for a town with a population of just 7,600.

Beeby was inspired to found the concerts after visiting Chatham, Mass., a genteel Cape Cod village where a band has played, under the direction of the same leader, steadily for 46 summers.

"Ojai is a West-Coast Chatham" in size and character, said Beeby.

She had not failed to notice the park's seldom-used bandstand.

So she applied for a grant from the City Council--it was awarded. The town Rotary clubs pledged support; she found a volunteer music director in Bill Wagner, Nordhoff High School's band director. Together they rounded up 27 volunteer band members.

The musicians have driven from as far as Port Hueneme and Northridge to play tonight's concert.

The tradition proceeds. A theme song, appropriately titled, "The Ojai Band Song," is sung by its lyricist, Claude Sully of Ojai. It moves cloyingly through eight stanzas with lyrics such as, "Oh, Ojai, Oh, Ojai, This valley so serene. . . ." and is followed by rousing applause.

Then the lights come up, and Wagner announces the parade.

Scores of children holding balloons form a line that stretches around the bandstand and down an aisle of onlookers. With the accompaniment of martial music, and the clapping of 2,000 hands, the children march jauntily around the audience, among the picnickers in the rear, double back and fall out in front of the band.

"I'm giving up the Olympics for this," said retired bank manager Jack Lockton, applauding heartily. He and his wife Bee are from Ojai, he said, and have become regulars at the concerts.

Arlou Mashburn of Ojai, former director of Ojai Valley Youth Employment, is another frequent attendee. "I always feel I am on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post," she said. "It's like the Fourth of July every week."

Nostalgia is the order of the evening. Marches and big band tunes are heavily represented, interspersed with jazz, waltzes, show tunes and a bit of folk.

By request, Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" is repeated from the week before, its sound strikingly similar to the original Miller version.

In between numbers, Wagner, a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory of Music who plays classical trumpet, keeps up a kind of "aw shucks" banter with the audience. He offers to announce birthdays, and asks people to call out hometowns.

Introducing a Count Basie number, he mentions that, of course, "Elvis is King," and is promptly corrected by a member of the audience who asserted: "Benny Goodman is King!"

Those over 50 seem to have the edge on attendance, followed by children under 10. Teen-agers are scarce. One who was present, Tim Denne, 13, of Ojai, at first tried to distance himself from the event with, "There's nothing else to do on a Wednesday night." Then he added, "It's pretty fun."

The rest of the audience seemed to think so too; after an hour and a half and a finale of another upbeat Sousa march, they lingered in the park, talking to acquaintances and members of the band.

Then they gathered up belongings, made their way through the exit gates, past the fountain . . . and disappeared into the serene valley.


The Summer Concert Series, featuring the Ojai Band, will perform at 8 p.m. every Wednesday through August at Libbey Park in Ojai. Street parking is available; admission is free.

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