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An Affair to Remember : Thousand Oaks Puts on the Ritz for Civic Arts Plaza's Christening

October 23, 1994|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In their blue sequined gowns and starched tuxedos, in their long velvet capes and crisp dark suits, the guests clustered inside the lavender lobby of the Civic Arts Plaza and chatted--about traffic.

Or rather, the lack of traffic.

They exclaimed over the easy trip down the Ventura Freeway. The smooth flow on Thousand Oaks Boulevard. The hassle-free parking in the well-lit garage.

From Camarillo, Simi Valley, Agoura Hills, even Canoga Park, they had flocked to opening night of Thousand Oaks' razzle-dazzle theater--and they professed themselves awed at the sheer convenience.

"We always had to drive down to Los Angeles for everything," Thousand Oaks resident Roxana Veltze said. "This is just grand."

Her husband, Tony, looked a little aghast at his wife's enthusiasm. "We want to keep this hush-hush," he reminded her, only partially kidding. "We don't want everyone to know about this."

But on Friday and Saturday, it seemed everyone already knew. Thousand Oaks' Probst Auditorium hosted sell-out crowds both evenings for splashy grand-opening concerts featuring the Conejo Symphony Orchestra and Broadway star Bernadette Peters.

Many spectators agreed with Councilwoman Judy Lazar, who addressed the Friday night audience with a simple, heartfelt exclamation: "Aren't we lucky?" Before leaving the stage to the musicians, Lazar vowed, "We'll be back many times to party here together."

For this weekend's party, Thousand Oaks rolled out the red carpet. Guests emerging from the parking garage strode down a short red carpet into a crowded plaza, where a trombone-and-synthesizer duo struggled to be heard above the excited buzz.

*

At a black-tie party Saturday for major donors, hundreds of people sipped champagne and nibbled on salmon and ham hors d'oeuvres. Architect Antoine Predock roamed the crowd, beaming and pausing to peer out windows and admire every facet of the building he designed.

"It's fantastic," Predock said. "It's a whole sort of adventure. People are using the places in this building like I never imagined."

On both evenings, patrons stood in lines a dozen deep at the bar to order drinks, and on Saturday mimes with their faces painted white entertained the crowd with exaggerated gestures befitting the blow-out party.

The lines at the bar were the only place there appeared to be a traffic jam before Saturday's performance. Outside along Thousand Oaks Boulevard and in the plaza's main parking lot, cars moved along at an efficient clip.

Parking attendant John Wimiarski said the black-tie crowd kept valet parking attendants twice as busy as Friday night.

John and Emily Freeman of Newbury Park--who chose to park their car themselves--found time to pause in the parking structure to consider the Chumash-inspired mosaic on the plaza's west wall.

John Freeman said the plaza is "so attractive and so convenient. . . . I kept telling my wife to hurry up, but it looks like we'll have time for an extra glass for champagne."

Throughout the weekend's celebrations, party-goers expressed pride and pleasure over the sprawling new complex.

"This is something that will make Thousand Oaks really special," Noomi Wennbergsaid. "It's great."

*

Like many longtime Thousand Oaks residents, Wennberg and her husband, Jan, recalled bringing their children to the Jungleland wild animal park--now the site of the Civic Arts Plaza.

Curving rows of lilac seats have replaced the rusty lion cages, and a well-groomed park has covered the dried-up lagoon. But to some, the Civic Arts Plaza still retains echoes of Jungleland--as a popular attraction sure to bring fame and fun.

"We're very proud of our city," Clarence Chatman said. A Thousand Oaks resident for 18 years, Chatman patiently held a stack of coats while his wife, daughter and neighbor took turns snapping photos of themselves in the auditorium lobby.

Cora Chatman declared: "This event is very chic. Very elegant." All that elegance, however, bothered Madeline Adinoff just a tad. After all, Thousand Oaks prides itself on maintaining a small-town atmosphere--and Adinoff wanted her city to uphold that reputation, in spite of the Broadway glitter.

So Adinoff parked herself at the door and welcomed guests.

"I'm the official greeter," she said. "I'm doing this for the love of the city, the people, the arts."

*

If Adinoff's greetings expressed Thousand Oaks' style, so did the brief ribbon-cutting ceremony before Friday's concert.

Mayor Alex Fiore and council members Judy Lazar and Frank Schillo addressed the crowd of 1,800, earning a standing ovation.

Although council members Elois Zeanah and Jaime Zukowski attended Saturday's festivities, the two women--the arts plaza's most outspoken critics--did not show up for Friday's official opening. Their conspicuous absence from the podium underscored just how deeply--and how bitterly--the $86-million project has split the community.

Fiore, who will retire next month after 30 years on the council, could not resist calling attention to that schism on Friday.

"This first night has been a success by at least a 3-0 vote," he said.

*

As soon as the politicians cleared the stage, symphony conductor Elmer Ramsey strode to his podium, and the orchestra launched into the national anthem.

Bernadette Peters swooped into the spotlight after intermission decked out in a shimmery gold-and-white gown.

In a performance that delighted the crowd, Peters sang and shimmied and even waltzed into the audience. She belted out "We're in the Money" in pig Latin. And later she invited the orchestra musicians to join her on "The Glow Worm."

"Congratulations," Peters told the audience. "I'm so glad you recognize the importance of having performing arts centers. We need to have places where the soul can be fed--and where I can work."

Times staff writer Pancho Doll contributed to this report.

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