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Fair Officials Put Emphasis on Tradition : Entertainment: It's hoped more east county residents will attend, attracted by such old favorites as pig races and chili cook-offs.


As the Ferris wheel is raised and the last food booths hammered together, organizers of the Ventura County Fair opening this week hope to draw enough visitors--including more from the east county--to at least equal last year's turnout.

"I'd love to be up, but this is another economically fragile year," fair spokeswoman Teri Raley said. Last year's attendance was nearly 275,000--about the same as the year before.

But fair officials are taking an unusual tack in their bid for residents' entertainment dollars: They don't promise anything really new.

Except for grandstand entertainers, which change every year, and some innovative exhibits, the 12-day fair that begins Wednesday will offer mainly old favorites such as quilt exhibits, pig races and chili cook-offs that visitors count on year after year.

That's the point, fair officials said.

"The traditional presentation of our fair will continue to be possibly our strongest asset," Raley said. "It's just a real, clean old-fashioned way to have fun."

And the fair offers plenty of opportunities for people to get downright silly, from pie-eating competitions to look-alike contests.

"There's something about the fair that's uninhibiting," Raley said. "That's because it feels protected. It feels like a family party."

Ordinary residents aren't the only ones who will be getting silly.

Five local celebrities or public officials, including Oxnard Police Chief Harold Hurtt and Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, have volunteered to be the one to kiss a pig at the end of the fair, depending on which name attracts the most votes from fair-goers.

If such contests seem old-fashioned, Raley said, it's because the Ventura County Fair has retained an authentic rural flavor, unlike some fairs in urban counties.

At the Ventura County Fair, egg ranchers fight public concern over cholesterol by sponsoring demonstrations on how to cook with eggs. Teen-age 4-H Club members auction lambs they have raised. Residents of all ages rope calves and ride broncos in an amateur rodeo.

"Here is a chance to participate in real Americana," fair board member Charles Schwabauer said. "County fairs are great for that. It showcases things that are done within the community, things that are produced within the county."

Indeed, organizers expect the total number of exhibits this year to exceed the 22,000 entered last year, ranging from extravagant landscaping displays in the floriculture building to single plates of home-grown tomatoes and other vegetables in the agriculture department.

While many residents who have entered exhibits are vying for the more than $100,000 in prize money, others say they just want to show off what they have done.

If the fair draws county residents together, as Schwabauer said, then he hopes this year's extravaganza will fulfill its promise by attracting more east county exhibitors and visitors than in the past.

One reason Schwabauer, a Moorpark citrus rancher, joined the fair board two months ago was to boost east county awareness of the fair, he said.

"Moorpark has always been active, but Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks not as much," he said.

The biggest problem is probably just distance, he said. From Simi Valley, for instance, the drive to the fairgrounds is at least 45 minutes.

But Schwabauer said he hopes the new Metrolink service from the east county to the fairgrounds on the fair's two weekends will draw visitors who may have never been to the fair.

One indication that fair organizers may already be succeeding in their quest to lure east county visitors is the lineup of bands in the annual fair parade for Saturday.

This year, the 119 entries in the parade include 13 bands--about twice as many as usual, said Bob Cornett, fair superintendent.

And at least four of the marching bands come from the east county, including entries from Moorpark and Newbury Park high schools. "What I like about it is, it's so representative," Cornett said.

As always, the fair will offer a rich choice of foods for hungry visitors.

In addition to concessionaires who will have booths throughout the 62-acre fairgrounds, some food exhibits will offer free tastes to visitors.

The agriculture building will continue a practice begun last year: featuring different taste treats on certain days. This year, mushrooms, citrus and cups of beef chili cooked by the county's cattlemen's association will all be free to visitors on various days.

Last year's beef chili was so popular that visitors consumed 32 quarts in just two hours, said Sue Kleine, the fair's agriculture superintendent.

"People were just lined up outside to get their little bit," she said.

Many events at the fair, of course, highlight food that hasn't yet been prepared.

In the junior livestock auction that will be held the last Friday of the fair, county business and community leaders pay top dollar to purchase steers, lambs and other farm animals raised by 4-H youngsters and other youths.

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