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What's Old Still Rings True : Nostalgia: As an enduring proliferation of poodle skirts and customized classic Chevys can attest, the 1950s are alive and well and living in Ventura County.


We'll let the magic take us away

Back to the feelin's we shared when they played

In the still of the night

Hold me darling, hold me tight

O, shoo doop shooby doo shoo doop doo

So real, so right

Lost in the Fifties tonight

--From "Lost in the Fifties Tonight." Words and music by Mike Reed, Troy Seals and Fred Parris

Music blares from a loudspeaker, doo-wahs echo into a vast crowd of teen-agers who sway to the beat, heads bobbing. They munch on chili dogs and Popsicles, fixed on the image of two dozen classmates caught up in the rhythm of the swing. The dancers, in poodle skirts and rolled-up jeans, clasp hands and lean out, step and turn, girls' ponytails bouncing.

Time: 1993.

Place: Ventura High School's center lawn.

It's Student Appreciation Day, and nostalgia is in.

"Every year there's a '50s something. The '50s will never go away. It has an appeal to every generation, and I don't know what it is," said Dennis Swindall, the school's college counselor, who stood watching the action in a leather jacket, white T-shirt and rolled-up jeans.

"It's true of every class I have seen since I started teaching in 1964," he said, confessing fond feelings for a decade that included his high school years.

The 1950s, which saw the United States embroiled in the Korean War, the paranoia of McCarthyism, growing anxiety over atomic weapons, the first sex-change operation and events in Little Rock that would lead to a massive civil rights struggle, are perceived by many as the age of innocence--a wholesome, happy time before cynicism and violence came to America.

The images that survive from the period are romantic ones: a scowling James Dean and a coy Marilyn Monroe, dancers twirling to the sounds of early rock 'n' roll, cars cruising down the boulevard, couples rendezvousing at the malt shop.

Forty years later, the '50s continue to be celebrated across Ventura County. Poodle skirts twirl around dance floors as music blares from a jukebox, customized Chevys cruise to the diner, and James and Marilyn are frozen in time on malt shop walls.


One of the most enduring aspects of the time is the music, which seems eternal. Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers are played daily on both rock and country radio, and vintage songs are bought on thousands of popular compact discs.

Fifties music, said musician Rudy Ruiz of Oxnard, still has that "feel-good beat and feel-good melody." Ruiz, entertainment coordinator for Saturday's California Beach Party '93, the annual bash put on by the city of Ventura, has been lining up a series of '50s groups for the event. The '50s style, he said, appeals to all age groups, including young people.

"I think more and more you see contemporary music reflecting the teen-age Angst and . . . making a political statement," he said. Older rock 'n' roll, in contrast, offers young people some relief. It says to them " 'Hey, this is just kind of fun stuff--I just want to feel good for a little while,' " said Ruiz.

Where you find '50s music, you find '50s dancing; and with the exception of the cha-cha and the mambo--which were imported from Latin America--the sounds and moves of the period had their roots in jazz of the '30s and '40s. In the '50s it might have been called the bop, the Lindy or the jive, but in every case it was a variation on the swing.

"The swing was still real popular in the '50s," said Melinda Comeau, founder of the Ventura County Swing Dance Club, who credited the Bill Haley song "Rock Around the Clock," as well as movies such as "Blackboard Jungle," with keeping the swing craze alive.

People in their 20s make up about a quarter of the membership in the Ventura County Swing Dance Club, said Comeau, who teaches members both swing and jitterbug--a bouncy version of the swing. The 1991 California Swing Dance Champion, Comeau says she has been hooked on the dance since her mother taught her as a child.

Comeau, who is 39, estimates the median age of her students at 40, and said in the past five years she has taught 1,500 to 2,000 dancers, in lessons offered privately and through Ventura College.

"Swing has had a complete renaissance worldwide," she said. "It's a classic American dance. It almost died in the '60s when the twist came in because everybody was dancing separate. When disco came in in the '70s, swing was reborn."

Some of the clubs that feature swing and jitterbug locally are Alexander's in Ventura and Jake's in Oxnard, said Comeau, adding that it has become popular partly because of the wide appeal of the music.

"People like the '50s because it's an innocent time," said Comeau, echoing the sentiments of Ruiz and others. "The way things are in our society, people are looking for a little bit of escape."


Riding the sentimental trend, and in some part causing it, Mario Lombardo of Moorpark has recreated an archetypal symbol of the era: the gaudy, bubbling, chrome-embellished jukebox.

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