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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

Conejo Valley Days Singing a New Tune

The annual fair started as a celebration of the area's western heritage, but country music will play second fiddle to rock 'n' roll this year.

April 18, 1996|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For a few days every spring folks in the Conejo Valley contract a nonfatal strain of valley fever that makes 'em want to dress up like Annie Oakley or Wyatt Earp. They can't seem to get enough rodeos or country dancing. And it seems like every bank teller and store employee is sporting denim or a red bandanna.

Fortunately, most years since the late '40s, they've had a venue for these symptoms--Conejo Valley Days, an annual event spawned as a western-days celebration. This year's main Conejo Valley Days events begin Saturday in Thousand Oaks and culminate with a five-day fair and on-site activities Wednesday through April 28.

In keeping with tradition, this year's 40th anniversary theme is "Western Kicks in '96." Sounds straightforward enough.

But somehow, unlike in years past, that western flavor this time around doesn't extend to most of the musical entertainment--unless, of course, Elvis impersonator Raymond Michael dons a cowboy hat or 1960s rockers Canned Heat and several blues bands sport spurs.

Hoedown lovers will have to wait until the last day of the fair for a good, healthy dose of country music.

This change in musical approach has much to do with a change in the Conejo Valley as a whole, said Steve Rubenstein, president of the Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce.

"When this event was started we really were a country-western town," said Rubenstein. "Then we became a rural community, then semirural. And now we have become a highly sophisticated community and Conejo Valley Days has lost some of its original focus and country-western flair."

Along with that change of focus has come a change in Conejo Valley Days leadership.

"People get involved and sometimes forget what Conejo Valley Days is all about," said Pete Turpel, executive director of the Conejo Valley Days steering committee. "There is a division between those wanting to go with a more rock feel. But the consensus is to maintain our country-western heritage feel and ensure that our western heritage theme rings true."

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The shift this year to less country entertainment is partly due to the way events are organized by an all-volunteer crew without many guidelines for quality control or approval.

From 1963 through 1993, Conejo Valley Days was run by volunteers who were overseen by the Thousand Oaks Chamber of Commerce. But two years ago, a slumping economy caused a reduction in chamber membership, which in turn caused a reduction in chamber staff. The resulting staff shortage meant fewer chamber employees available to oversee Conejo Valley Days.

So the chamber's board of directors voted to turn over control of Conejo Valley Days to the nonprofit Conejo Valley Activities Corp. The corporation, a coalition of 29 volunteer service clubs and organizations, is a resurrection of the group that ran Conejo Valley Days in its earliest years.

Entertainment co-chair Kevin Rock, who coordinated this year's entertainment lineup, prefers to see the move away from all country as an attempt to incorporate more variety, rather than an attempt to ignore tradition.

"The basic idea was to broaden the appeal and to include different styles of music, hoping to reach out to more of the community," said Rock, owner of the Pink Cadillac entertainment booking company in Newbury Park. "Not everyone likes country music. So we wanted there to be something for if you're a rocker or a blues fan. But next year we look for this to be more country-western."

Rock said that his desire to see local acts represented in this year's event is why they have booked rockers such as the Big Ugly Dummies and Side Show along with such blues bands as Randy Rich & the Ravens, Rocket Science and the Rick Ambrose Band.

"These are musicians who deserve some wider exposure and who we can hopefully support year-round," he said. "I hope next year we can expand to have a mix of local and national acts but still keep the local flavor and wide musical appeal."

Until this year, when Rock came on board, Frank Akery, owner of Buster Lighting Design, was the sole entertainment chair. This year, Akery focused more on stage production and Rock coordinated the lineup based on his own resources.

As far as staffing goes, each chair appoints his or her own assistant and needs no approval from the steering committee, explained Walt Schaedle, a local businessman who has twice been Conejo Valley Days executive board chairman and currently is an advisor on the steering committee.

The same laissez faire attitude holds true for selecting the musical lineup.

"The entertainment chair has the sole responsibility for choosing the entertainment," Schaedle said. "And he does not need any approval for any band or event."

Though Akery and Rock may go after local bands, the local bands also go after Akery and Rock, Schaedle said.

"People know about Conejo Valley Days. A lot of bands that have worked it kind of tell others and word spreads from band to band," Schaedle said. "It's probably an excellent way to get bands."

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