THE ARTS WARS : A Tale of 2 Counties


By the standards of the commuter work force in Los Angeles, the 25-mile distance between Ventura and Santa Barbara is marginal.

For some artists--musicians, visual artists, theater people--the Ventura-Santa Barbara loop amounts to a tale of two cities, with separate audience types and cultural agendas.

For many other artists, borders don't exist. Making the trip is a matter of maximizing work opportunities.

Santa Barbara's theater scene relies partly on audiences from Ventura County. There is also cross-county traffic among the players. Recently, actors Peggy Steketee and Gary Best have appeared in productions for both Santa Barbara's Ensemble Theater and the Santa Paula Theatre Center. The Santa Paula Theatre Center has also dipped into Santa Barbara County to hire directors James O'Neill and Laezar Schlomkowitz.

In live music, Ventura musicians have figured heavily in the lifeblood of the Santa Barbara club scene over the years. For instance, one-man-band Tim Buley and saxophonists Dave Tolegian and Tom Buckner can be seen regularly at clubs up the coast.

At the country-Western hot spot the Galleon Room--in Goleta's Orchid Bowl--singer Jill Michael's trusty band includes dazzling guitarist Jimmy Monohan and drummer Bob Nichols. Both are Venturans who started playing together in the late '70s R & B band Mr. Skin, which also worked in both Ventura and Santa Barbara.

For many professional musicians on this side of the Rincon, commuting has never been a problem. "It's always been a matter of bouncing back and forth," Nichols said.

"Santa Barbara players always made some kind of distinction between the S.B. players and the Ventura players, more so than the other way around," he said. "We'd be more likely to go up there to play than they would to be coming down here."

In the rock end of things, many in the Ventura-Santa Barbara music express have gone back and forth in recent years. When Santa Barbara's Spencer the Gardener was formed two years ago, Charlie's Seaside Cafe in Ventura was one of the band's first stomping grounds.

Nate Birkey--trumpeter for the band and leader of his own spinoff band, the Avant Gardeners--claimed that Spencer has "had a good following in Ventura, and they come up here quite a bit, actually. There are very loyal fans down there--more so than here."

Spencer the Gardener, with two home-grown albums out and a publishing deal in the works, will headline at the Ventura Theater on April 11. For this and other rock bands, the concept of local is fairly broad.

The Avant Gardeners recently released a cassette album, "Kickin' It," recorded at the legendary Camp David studio in Thousand Oaks. The studio has become a hip place to record by many Santa Barbara bands--including Toad the Wet Sprocket, Spencer the Gardener and Nothing. So much, it would seem, for border disputes.

Classical composer John Biggs, well-regarded especially for his choral works, lived in Santa Barbara for many years. In November, 1988, he moved to Ventura, where he found lower rents and artistic pluses. The Ventura County Symphony has performed several Biggs pieces, whereas attempts to get either the Santa Barbara Symphony's conductor, Varujan Kojian, or the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra's Heichiiro Oyhama to program his music have proven futile.

Biggs blames the lack of Santa Barbara performances on his independent status. He asks rhetorically: "I'm not on a faculty, so how can I be a composer?" Most often, local compositions played in downtown Santa Barbara are written by UC Santa Barbara faculty members.

Ironically, the Ventura County Symphony gave a rousing performance of Biggs' "Mass for a New Age" at Santa Barbara's Music Academy of the West in May. This May, the Santa Barbara Chorale will perform his "Japanese Fables"--a commission from UCLA for the 1984 Summer Olympics--in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara, it seems, began to miss him when he went away.

Artist Joe Cardella, who operates his Art/Life magazine out of Ventura, was a sculptor who moved to Santa Barbara more than a decade ago. After moving back East for a few years, Cardella returned to the West Coast, this time to Ventura. "The most striking difference (between Ventura and Santa Barbara) is that space is so much more affordable down here," Cardella said grinning. "And space is the final frontier."

Cardella believes that the wealth of affordable space in Ventura, and the artists taking advantage of it, amounts to an atmosphere that recaptures an earlier era in Santa Barbara. "There's an attitude in Santa Barbara that Ventura is farther down on the evolutionary scale, but it's very unfair."

Cardella believes that Ventura is in a very promising position at the moment. A vital art scene "is starting here, but it's very young," he said. "It's prenatal. . . . It's the people who aren't here yet who will really make things happen in Ventura."

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