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A Lean Teen Scene : Ballistics, Ojai Group’s Club for Youths, Finds Coming of Age Difficult as It Tries to Click With the Right Cliques

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A pair of teenagers sprawl on a couch, tentatively tapping their toes to the metronomic rhythm of reggae band Conscious Souls.

A half dozen dancers listlessly undulate to the music as a black-light poster of Jimi Hendrix glows from a wall, the room’s sparse decor accentuating the barren expanse of the largely unpopulated dance floor.

Outside on the patio, empty plastic chairs surrounding empty plastic tables outnumber the occasional cigarette smoker.

It’s about 11 p.m. on a Saturday at the only nightclub aimed at teenagers in the Ojai Valley--in fact, the only one of its kind in Ventura County--and man, the scene isn’t just mellow, it verges on the catatonic.

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The nonprofit group that started Ballistics, as the club is called, had expected dozens of gyrating youngsters--propelled by nothing stronger than sugar or caffeine at the drug-free, alcohol-free venue--to be dancing the night away.

And maybe they are, somewhere in the Ojai Valley. But not here.

“We expected a much bigger turnout,” concedes Terry Mitchel, one of the adult founders of the club that has been less than enthusiastically embraced by local teens since it opened April 5. “We just don’t know what the answer is. Maybe it will work and maybe it won’t. . . . I’m a believer in the process--and I’m not a quitter.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this when Mitchel, a former marriage and family counselor and high school teacher, decided to respond to the needs of local youths by forming a nonprofit group called Teen Net last year.

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Ballistics is its first endeavor. A teen nightclub seemed a no-brainer.

Find a place where kids feel comfortable hanging out. Bring in top-notch local bar bands such as Papa-Nata and Euphoria. Watch eager youths, anxious to swap street corners for a cool place they can call their own, stream through the doors.

Three days after the Conscious Souls concert, the teen advisory council set up to oversee the club’s operation met for a weekly debriefing.

It was more like a statistical post-mortem of the event.

Paid attendance: 42. Door take: $163. Band cost: $300.

Attendance was lower than the average of 60 people who had passed through Ballistics’ doors since the club’s opening two months ago. Net loss during the period: $1,800. Mitchel projects the club will break even if attendance reaches 100.

Discussion ensued over possible solutions to the lagging attendance.

Publicity wasn’t the problem, declared council members, since posters and fliers advertising the event sprouted all over town.

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What about the fact the Ojai Valley’s entire on-duty contingent of peace officers--four deputies in two patrol cars plus one on bicycle--camped out in the parking lot much of the night, Mitchel wonders.

The council contemplated pushing the age limit down from the present spread of 14 to 25 years to broaden the club’s potential market, but decided that would simply alienate the small, but present club members who don’t want a younger crowd hanging around.

Hopes are pinned on graduating eighth-graders who are now eligible to attend, giving the club’s attendance a boost this summer.

“The bottom line,” Mitchel warns darkly, “is we have to become more successful very quickly.”

The club subsists on donations from Ojai Valley businesses and community members but needs to start making money at the door.

“They’re not coming, so maybe they have stuff to do,” offers Ethan Ducker, a dreadlocked 14-year-old from Ventura. “Maybe it’s not needed. Maybe this is a little extreme, but maybe we should move into a different area.”

Ballistics is essentially teen-run--the club’s 13-member teen advisory council consists of 10 youths and three adults. There is also a board of directors that has six adult and three teen members.

Teens provide security, run the concession stand and the like, while the few watchful adults try to melt into the background.

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The cost is modest--a one-time $1 membership fee, plus a $5 cover charge with a $2 discount for those teens arriving before 9 p.m. The club closes at midnight.

“A lot of kids [in the Ojai Valley] do drugs because they say there’s nothing to do,” said 13-year-old Canyon Cody, an articulate eighth-grader designated as the group’s unofficial spokesman. “So we thought if we opened this up they wouldn’t have that as an excuse. Kids that aren’t getting stoned, that aren’t getting drunk, they can come here.”

Apparently, those teenagers are in the minority.

“We need more kids is the bottom line, we need a critical mass,” said Bobby Houston, owner of the Ojai bookstore Local Hero and one of the club’s founders.

“We’re fighting an entrenched teen culture in Ojai which basically says, ‘Where’s the beer, Whose parents are out of town?’ . . . So it’s hard, even though we’re offering great bands, for us to get their attention. They just want to get drunk.”

The club has had its share of growing pains during its short existence.

A civic group made an offer of space to house the club and then applied impractical, onerous conditions, Houston said. The local American Legion post stepped in, enabling the club to use a meeting room at its East Ojai Avenue hall.

On opening night, some teens showed up in the parking lot with beer and were turned away.

Then the board of directors banned moshing, a more violent outgrowth of slam dancing, although the teen advisory council overturned the ruling after threatening to boycott their own club, Houston said.

Now hardy teenagers are able to mosh--or crash into other dancers--when punk bands play. The casualty count when punk band Disfunction opened for Conscious Souls: one chipped tooth and a bloody nose.

No one seemed too alarmed.

“We’re learning a lot about teen culture,” Mitchel said. “How things happen and don’t happen. What’s cool and what’s not. Its been a tremendous learning experience.”

The club is still learning how to attract kids.

A common refrain is that it’s not as if there’s plenty for teens to do in Ojai. Teens lost their main hangout when the bowling alley closed a few years back, said a 22-year-old known to his peers as “Spanky.”

“This town is at a struggling point because there’s so many kids and there’s nowhere for them to let loose,” he said. “There’ll be more people showing up eventually.”

Frustrated at the lack of attendance at the Conscious Souls show, the teen advisory council conducted an informal survey.

Those who had attended the club said they enjoyed it, but that not enough people were there, Mitchel said. Those who had not come to the club dismissed it as “lame” and said it needed better bands. Among those mentioned were bands that had already played at Ballistics.

The 1,100 students who attend Nordhoff High School, the Ojai Valley’s largest, are the missing link.

“People are bagging on it and they haven’t even been,” said Mason Miller, 14, a Nordhoff freshman.

Ballistics’ largely futile attempt at drawing the high school crowd isn’t unique, said Principal Susana Arce. The school stopped sponsoring dances for students because of paltry attendance.

“We’re probably just as much at a loss for understanding this as anyone else is,” Arce said, adding the school has advertised the club’s existence. “The kids aren’t talking much about it. . . . I know that people say there needs to be more activities for kids, but I have not seen large participation in many of our organized activities.”

Matt Merritt, the 18-year-old student body president, isn’t surprised at the tepid reaction.

He believes youths don’t have an investment in the club because it was initiated by adults who recruited teenagers to nominally run it, rather than the other way around, he said.

But for the most part, teens have other options, he said.

Where was Merritt the night Conscious Souls played?

Drinking at a party at a friend’s house whose parents were out of town.

“I applaud them for their work and their effort,” he said of Ballistics. "[But] I probably won’t go.”

Ballistics is modeled on The Livingroom, a 4-year-old alcohol- and drug-free teen nightclub in a Goleta strip mall that founder Clay Dickens claims is the oldest and largest club of its kind in the state. More than 600 show up on Friday and Saturday nights to dance to the likes of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Nerf Herder with high school bands opening the show.

The club is virtually run by kids, and adult supervision is kept to a minimum. Dickens winces upon hearing Ballistics is mixing hard-core punk bands with other music and that the mosh pit is violent enough to cause the occasional minor injury.

“That’ll keep the girls from ever coming back, and if the girls don’t come the guys won’t come and you’re dead,” he said. “It’s a numbers game and they don’t have the numbers.”

Brenda Coleman, director of the Teen Center in Thousand Oaks, which is funded jointly by the city and local parks and recreation district, also doubts the Ojai Valley has enough teens to draw the numbers it needs to survive.

The Thousand Oaks center offers a variety of sports and activities, including monthly dances featuring local high school bands that attract as many as 400 kids. Well-known local bar bands don’t bring in the crowds, Coleman said.

“We have more success featuring local teen bands as far as drawing numbers,” she said, citing widespread community support as crucial factors in the center’s success. “Lots of times, both in the public and private sectors, teen facilities are unsuccessful.”

Still, Ballistics plans to soldier on. Mitchel estimates the club can make it through the summer and will reevaluate operations this fall if present attendance trends continue.

The club skipped opening last weekend because of graduation activities and has a ska night planned this Saturday.

“It’s good,” said Nordhoff sophomore Haley Lemmex after emerging from the mosh pit unscathed. “It’s finally something to do on a Saturday night.”


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