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STRUCTURES : Quaint Libbey Park Has Global Appeal : The Ojai amphitheater serves as focal point for local talent and as the venue for a world-class music festival.

June 01, 1995|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They'll come here next weekend, a horde of music lovers from Ventura County, Los Angeles and various points around the world, to partake in the Ojai Festival. The scene will be familiar to most who show up for the weekend of June 9 to 11: sounds of the great outdoors mingling with the classical music spilling out of Libbey Bowl.

Listeners will brave the hard, humble benches and pray for good weather, and trust that the Ojai Festival--born in 1947 and still going strong--will remain a cultural constant at a time when funds and organizations are withering, downsizing or crouching in fear. They hope that the festival itself has the tenacity of that giant old sycamore tree, a county landmark, forming a strange arch to the right of the benches in the amphitheater.

This modest amphitheater is known internationally and, ever since the festival moved to the park in 1954, has been the stage forsome of the most stellar musical figures of our times: Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, Pierre Boulez and John Adams, among others. This year, the eminent conductor Kent Nogano will return to the park after leading the festival a dozen years ago.

When tracing the history of the park and specifically the bowl, the Ojai Festival looms large. It was through the fund-raising efforts of the festival and its supporters that the band shell and dressing rooms were built in the mid-1950s; they were designed by the noted local architects Austin Pierpont of Ojai and Roy Wilson Sr. of Santa Paula in time for the 1958 festival. The festival was on an upward track, as the next decade of stellar programs would bear out.

At the time, an editorial in the weekly paper The Ojai offered a civic kudos: "The new shell at the Civic Center Bowl will serve in years to come as a reminder that in AD 1957 our city was populated by some very forward-looking, hard-working and imaginative people. . . ." Obviously, some of that spirit remains in AD 1995, too.

As integral as the Ojai Festival has been to the Libbey Bowl, there is a vital life in this park the other 51 weeks of the year. The Bowlful of Blues, for instance, brings another kind of musical groove here every autumn.

Libbey Park belongs to an elite class of municipal parks and is, by now, all too easily taken for granted as part of the local landscape. It is, for all intents and purposes, a central park, the history of which is interwoven with the history of the town.

Glass magnate Edward Drummond Libbey, an early developer of what was originally Nordhoff and became Ojai, gave the city 7 1/2 acres of parkland in 1917, establishing a sprawling natural green space in the heart of town. It wasn't until 1971, as the city celebrated its official 50th birthday, that the name of the park was changed from the generic-sounding Ojai Civic Park.

As parks go, Libbey Park is a diversified, multi-functional one. The entryway is marked by a fountain built in 1977. (An earlier proposal for a fountain involving a nude Native American woman, by Boris Bruenwald, was blown off the table by the winds of controversy.) Beyond the labyrinthine playground, a tree-covered open space serves as a buffer before the tennis courts and the bowl to the rear.

Sitting like a noble, mute witness to the progress of Ojai, there is the sycamore tree, designated as a landmark in 1975. Estimated to be more than 200 years old, the tree appears to have been bent to form an arch and has attached itself to the ground. According to Chumash legend, this horseshoe shape marks the beginning of a trail, spring or campsite.

A huge, disfigured thing, pruned and propped up on metal crutches, the tree seems to have a stubborn will to live and to spread its limbs. For all of the man-made contributions to the park, this tree might be the worthiest symbol for the town, resistant to the encroachments of outside development, and for the festival, resistant to easy programming compromises.

From this historical vantage point, the Libbey Bowl, with a shell form evocative of 1950s design, may seem like a humble and antiquated locale for one of the music world's prime little festivals. But, for anyone who has enjoyed the unique Ojai Festival experience, it's home.

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