Bowl-Bound : Amphitheater: Elizabeth Harris may face her ultimate challenge. The theatrical company owner might use the neglected Foster Park Bowl if she renovates it.


She's staged Broadway comedies and Shakespearean dramas and such offbeat shows as "Daytime for Dracula."

Now community theater organizer Elizabeth Harris really has to produce.

The Ventura theatrical company owner has been given free and exclusive use of Ventura County's most unusual stage for the next four years.

But there's a catch: In exchange, Harris must rescue the place from 62 years of ravage by nature--and man.

Ventura County parks officials have turned over the keys to the Foster Park Bowl to Harris in return for a promise that she will renovate and upgrade the open-air amphitheater that is tucked into the side of a hill between Ojai and Ventura.

That means constructing an electrical and plumbing system that will help make the 1,000-seat bowl attractive to visitors. And installing a fence and new security measures that will make it unattractive to vandals.

The improvements could cost tens of thousands of dollars to Harris' nonprofit Ventura County Repertory Theatre, a volunteer group of 20 actors that sometimes has to rely on donations from its audiences to help pay for costumes and scenery.

Harris' actors say that good crowds at this summer's still-unscheduled selection of plays will demonstrate the value of the bowl to potential donors.

"We thought it would be a miracle if we pulled it off when we first started cleaning this place up," said actor Karl Thomas of Port Hueneme who also serves as technical director for the theater."It's a lot of fun to play up here. Sometimes dogs that are barking across the street interrupt the shows. Sometimes the dogs join us on the stage. But it's worth it."

After two years of preliminary maintenance work at the bowl, Harris feels her troupe is ready to tackle the roles of historic preservationists.

Last month, her theater company won the backing of a key arts support group that pledged to make the bowl its top fund-raising priority for this year. Meantime, her actors have decided to perform a series of free shows at the vine-shrouded stage this summer to draw attention to the place's potential.

Tickets to last summer's bowl shows, the first season of the troupe's five-year lease, were priced at $6 and $7. But performances lured only about 100 spectators each to the tree-shaded amphitheater.

"We were stunned," Harris said. "There were lots of people who didn't know about the bowl, even people who had lived here for years.

"This is the difficult part. There's so much to do and we're not getting the crowds that could potentially be here. We just need people in Ventura to wake up and see what Mr. Foster did for their community."

Pioneer Ventura County rancher and nurseryman Eugene P. Foster, who settled in the area in 1873, is credited with launching the county's public park system.

In 1906, Foster purchased 30 acres of woodlands at the entrance to Casitas Pass to protect it from destruction by loggers. When he encouraged other property owners in the area to do the same, what became known as Foster Park grew to 205 acres.

The Foster Park Bowl was built there in 1928. Its construction was proposed by Ventura real estate agent Sadie Brown, who was supported by Ventura Chamber of Commerce leaders, churchmen and other business owners.

The county Board of Supervisors allocated $13,000 to build the bowl after Brown and her group pledged that "organizations that often conduct open-air meetings and sponsor conventions and public gatherings needing open-air facilities" would use it.

They petitioned supervisors to build a speakers' platform and bandstand.

As eventually designed by Santa Paula architect Roy C. Wilson, the bowl resembled a World War I concrete bunker tucked into the hillside when viewed from Casitas Vista Road.

Inside, however, "tall trees form a green canopy over the theater," stated newspaper editorials at the time. "This will give to this county a miniature Hollywood Bowl."

Several groups, including student bands from Ventura's high school and junior college occasionally used the bowl after it opened. But old-timers say the place never really caught on like its backers had figured.

"I don't think the bowl was ever used that much," said John H. "Jack" Morrison, an Ojai resident since his birth in 1917.

"I remember there would be plays and concerts there. When I was in high school, we had an awards assembly there. But I don't think it was used enough. They'd envisioned a Hollywood Bowl, and it was never used as such. Maybe the Depression had something to do with it."

Robert Pfeiler, who represents the area on the county Cultural Heritage Board, remembers Foster Park was a popular place in its early days.

"As the years went by, we had other county parks and Foster Park was neglected . . . The county gave up on it. The bowl was successful for a number of years, then it fell in disrepair," Pfeiler said.

According to documents on file at the Ventura County Historical Museum, there was a "short-lived" attempt by a local group in 1971 to renovate the bowl.

The bowl was overgrown with brush and vines and littered with debris, including a pair of oak trees that had fallen across its concrete bench seats, when Harris stumbled across it about three years ago.

She was looking for a permanent site for a "Shakespeare-in-the-Park" series that she had produced for eight years at various city parks around the county.

"I was foraging around for another outdoor location because the city parks could no longer reserve consecutive dates," she said. "It was like an archeological dig. I felt like I'd found something that had been lost."

The county was more than happy to let Harris use the bowl during the summer of 1988 in exchange for cleaning it. Her acting troupe eventually hauled out 180 large bags of trash.

The five-year lease was approved last year when Harris agreed to make permanent improvements at the bowl in lieu of paying $100-per-event rent. The deal gives her authority to sublease the bowl to other groups or individuals who want to use it for such things as weddings.

County officials, who say they lack the money to pay for the improvements themselves, are pleased with the arrangement. They say no timetable has been set for Harris' group to complete the bowl work.

"We'd applied for a $200,000 grant from the State Historic Preservation office in Sacramento to use on renovating the bowl, but it was denied," said Katherine E. Garner, an administrative assistant at the county's Recreation Services office.

Sandra J. Sanders, who is also a parks administrator, said there is no timetable for Harris to meet. "One of the first things on the agenda would probably be putting alarms on the doors" and fencing, she said.

Although there have been break-ins at the bowl's basement storage area, vandalism is not as much a problem as "inappropriate activities, such as barbecues on the stage," Sanders said.

Responsibility for the initial money-raising for the bowl will fall to a group called Arts Partners, officials said. It is a group of Ventura-area business leaders who serve as the fund-raising arm of the county Arts Commission.

"The bowl probably needs tens of thousands of dollars in work," said Gig Wishon, Arts Partners' president. "I think the project is a good one. I think the bowl is really worth saving. It's a natural, beautiful place."

Wishon, who for 15 years has conducted a community affairs program for radio station KVEN, said it may take longer than the remaining four years of Harris' lease to renovate the bowl, however.

She said she will be approaching companies, groups and organizations such as the Port Hueneme-based Naval Construction Battalion Center for help.

"I'm looking for donations of things like one light pole or so many feet of fencing," she said. "But we'll certainly take donations of cash, too."

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