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FAMILY : TAFFY Festival Still Has Lots of Pull With Kids


It started in 1985 with just a handful of veteran children's performers and a few amateur groups putting on a show at the Peter Strauss Ranch in Agoura. That year, a scant 800 people found their way to the first Theatre Arts Festival for Youth--TAFFY for short--for an outdoor family day of songs, stories and puppetry.

Word spread and TAFFY grew into an annual, all-professional event of top children's entertainment, attended by thousands of parents and children each October and frequently referred to as a Woodstock for kids.

Craig Taubman and Craig 'n' Co., Joanie Bartels and Dan Crow are among the popular children's performers whose exposure at TAFFY gave their careers a big boost.

When the festival returns for a 10th time to the rustic Peter Strauss ranch on Saturday and Sunday, a little show-biz gloss will be supplied by Adam Wylie of "Picket Fences," Ryan (R.J.) Francis of "Sisters" and "Married . . . With Children's" Shane Sweet.

But producer John Wood promises that the festival remains true to its home-grown roots, with a generous lineup of talented children's favorites, multicultural music and dance and hands-on activities.

"We've dropped ticket prices $1 across the board and we're turning the event into a 10th birthday party for Taffy the Mouse," Wood said, referring to the festival's mascot, a member of TAFFY's Puddledumplin' Players.

The Players, a troupe of professional actors in artistic animal makeup and Victorian-era costumes, interact with festival-goers.

"Kids can make birthday presents for Taffy, wedding gifts for Lord and Lady Bacon (Puddledumplin's swine gentry) and scenery for the plays the characters put on," Wood said.

Stages on the patio, on the green and in the shady, stone-tiered amphitheater will again present a varied roster of performers. Vermont-based singer Bill Shontz, best known as half of the popular Rosenshontz duo, is new this year, as is singer-author-illustrator Barney Saltzberg.

Witty musical wordsmith and prolific songwriter Crow ("Milo and Otis") is back and so are master storyteller Paul Tracey, Japanese dance troupe Fujima Kansuma Kai, the Magical Moonshine Theatre puppets and ex-comedy duo Schwartz & Chung, zany mimes and sketch artists who will team up again for the event.

Reflecting upon TAFFY's evolution, Wood said the most noticeable change has been the shifting popularity of children's music and children's theater.

"When I started the festival," Wood said, "there was still a yearly Southern California Educational Theatre Assn. festival featuring college and professional groups. It was kind of a fun concept but it died out."

The popularity of children's theater seemed to "level out" with the recent rise of the children's music business, Wood noted. Lately, however, he has seen a keener interest in theater and storytelling among young audiences.

His own troupe "used to do theater pieces and then we'd do a song and everybody would stop and look. Now we do a theater piece and it gets the most attention."

A 10th TAFFY looked iffy until July. Wood is grateful for the support the festival receives from such companies as Mervyn's and Target, and the National Park Service waives some expenses in return for the Woods' producing free concerts and other events in the park, but more than half of the $65,000 cost must "walk through the door."

From the artists' standpoint, TAFFY continues to be an unusually friendly performance venue.

"I always make TAFFY part of my schedule," said Dan Crow, who performs nationally more than 250 times a year. "It's exhilarating. I've had kids come out who are now in high school . . . and they always want to talk to you about the fun they had at TAFFY when they were (little)."

"This one is as much for the artists as it is for the children," said Carl Weintraub, a TV actor best known as Sharon Gless' boyfriend in "Cagney & Lacey," and the longtime artistic director of We Tell Stories. "I can't imagine a year without a TAFFY festival. I just can't imagine it."

* TAFFY, Peter Strauss Ranch, 30000 Mulholland Highway, Agoura, Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Advance tickets: $8 per adult, $7 per child, $6 per person in group (10 or more), $1 more at the door; under age 3, free. (818) 998-2339, (213) 480-3232, (714) 740-2000.

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