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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

43rd Conejo Days Carnival Is Buried With Its Boots On

Entertainment: Annual celebration of Western heritage ends with a day of riding and roping. Nonprofit groups earn $250,000.

April 26, 1999|PAMELA J. JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THOUSAND OAKS — While the twangy theme song of "Bonanza" played, Gene McLaughlin stood on the leather saddle of his galloping horse and twirled a looped rope over his head.

"Dum, diddi-dum, diddi-dum, diddi-dum, duddi-DUM DUM!" echoed in the rodeo arena, while McLaughlin, a world champion trick roper from Simi Valley, jumped off his tan horse and tipped his black cowboy hat to the crowd.

"You're cookin' today, Gene," the announcer said in a baritone voice that boomed from the loudspeaker. "That was one Texas skip, whaddaya say folks?"

Loud cheers erupted from the hundreds of people in the stands who attended the final day of the 43rd annual Conejo Valley Days carnival Sunday. Many munched on hot dogs and soft pretzels smothered in mustard and sipped beer or soft drinks while being entertained by a dwarf cowboy clown named Charlie "Too Tall" West.

"That was awesome," said John McCauley Jr., 14, of Westlake Village, referring to McLaughlin's rope tricks and other cowboys struggling to stay atop bucking broncs and bulls during the rodeo stunts.

"We come here every year," said McCauley's father, John, 45, who has lived in Conejo Valley for 20 years. "If you have kids, you just can't miss it."

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Organizers say about 55,000 people attended the last five days of the Conejo Valley celebration, which brought in an estimated $250,000 for the 200 local nonprofit clubs and organizations that set up food and activity booths, said Frank Lussier, general chairman of Conejo Valley Days Activities Corp.

Conejo Valley Days began last month and has had events nearly every week leading up to the concluding carnival. Overall attendance for the celebration of the area's Western history was expected to reach 200,000.

"This is Conejo Valley's last big party of the millennium," Lussier said. "Everyone's been really upbeat."

Lussier said he believed that patrons spent more money in 1999 than in previous years, mainly because this was the first time an ATM machine was set up on site.

"That machine has been cranking out $1,000 to $1,200 an hour," Lussier said.

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He said the event--which in the past 10 days has included a chili cook-off, parade, 5K and 1-mile runs and air show--symbolized the heart and soul of Conejo Valley, and has since it began in 1947.

The final Conejo Valley Days activity will be a golf tournament at the Sunset Hills Golf Course on May 3.

"This is like one big family," Lussier said. "Everyone who works here is a volunteer. Some people go way back. I've been volunteering for 25 years. Our oldest goes back 43 years."

That person is Mary Ann "Ma" Keeler. In 1956, she was a 21-year-old lifeguard and mother of two babies when she offered to help with the festivities. It was the year before Conejo Valley Days became the event's official name.

"Back then it was a one-day event," Keeler recalled Sunday. "Everyone who lived here or worked here chipped in."

At the time, Keeler lived in Glendale and came to Thousand Oaks during summers to work as a lifeguard at local pools. The event then included a stagecoach race, she recalled.

"I thought it was a Godforsaken country back then," said Keeler, who moved to Thousand Oaks within a few years. "Now I wouldn't live anywhere else."

The community celebration would not be complete without the annual Badgeroo, locals say. At the Badgeroo booth, Conejo Valley Days badges from 1961 until the present were sold for from $2 to $425 each. There was also a badge-wearing contest, in which winners scored points for the size of their collection and how well it was displayed.

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Duane Mayor, 36, of Newbury Park, is the owner of a rare 1964 button that has been valued at $425. But he refuses to part with it.

"Maybe someday I'll sell it," said Mayor, who was born and raised in the Conejo Valley. "It's part of the Conejo spirit."

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