drive-in The drive-in shut down in 1983.

The way we were

Thousand Oaks locals reminisce on simpler times

By Daniel Gelman 08/01/2013

 

“The early years of my life were pretty much paradise, so I get real mushy about this junk,” writes Brian Worschum in his Conejo Valley Memories blog. The 42-year-old from Newbury Park started sharing his memories of a 1970s childhood in Thousand Oaks, after living in New York City for years. Although he was quite young, the freshness and innocence of the era made a lasting impression.


Tyson, on the other hand, just discovered T.O. He’s 26 and a transplant to Ventura from Grants Pass, Ore. “The generosity of the people is comforting and so different. I notice it every time I come over the hill,” he said, while working the graveyard shift at a local gym. He marveled at the total silence and safety on the street at midnight.


Not long ago, veterans, cowgirls, shepherds and small businessmen roamed the bucolic neighborhoods of this once-semirural slice of Americana. Horseback riders and kids on apple-green bikes shared the streets on the lazy days of summer. Although technically suburban, a conservative Middle American ethic distinguished the town from the urban behemoth south of the hills.

 


Students playing with a beach ball at the
Cal Lutheran University field during the 1970s.


In 1973, Thousand Oaks was Anytown, U.S.A. You could have placed it in the “Heartland,” and no one would have noticed. Life was about work, sports, faith, family, horses, dogs and community. Nature was bountiful, cars less so, and shopping was utilitarian at best. Most significantly, the population of California was about half what it is today.


Little did the 50,000 residents know that 78,000 more would join them over the next two generations. But the city’s fate was tied to the same geopolitical, demographic and technological forces that would change the face of SoCal forever. For the time being, the Cold War was on and the future was wide open.


“In Conejo Village Bowl’s heyday, local defense contractors lined the alley’s polished wood lanes, rolling 16-pound balls, smoking cigarettes between frames and spending money in pre-recession style,” said the L.A. Times in a 1995 story about the closing of the alley.

 


The Conejo Creek Equestrian Park, built in 1972.


Blue collar veterans and their Vietnam veteran sons bowled a few, smoked a few, and bonded over pancakes and cherry pie at Du-par’s next door. That was one of those diners with swiveling bar stools and bee-hived waitresses with names like Flo and Margie.

 
The Space Race was booming as local companies like Northrop, Rocketdyne and Westinghouse employed thousands of engineers and technicians. Others commuted to the sci-tech corridor in Canoga Park. These were solid middle-class jobs that supported a ranch house with a spacious backyard and horse stall.


A small town’s enduring values are preserved when multiple generations of families remain. Michaela Crawford’s family moved here in 1959 when her dad worked for Atomics International in Canoga Park. They purchased a modest ranch house on the G.I. Bill, five years before the city incorporated  Jimmy Reaves lived next door. He was 3 and she almost 5.

 


Gazebo at the Conejo Creek Equestrian Park.


Today, she is Professor Reaves, chair of the History Department at California Lutheran University (CLU). She’s 55 and still lives in her childhood home. “I was literally the girl next door,” she remembers. Her in-laws still live next door. “I think he first noticed me when I was washing my car in the driveway,” she said, remembering her husband as a boy. Now she teaches a course on the era she lived through, at the school she attended.


The Dallas Cowboys were the stars of the summer at the university. “America’s Team” opened its practices to the public for free for 27 years. Locals rode their horses to the open prairie bordering the field. Built by Norwegian immigrants on 130 acres of former farmland, the campus looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. The Cowboys wore crew cuts and sideburns, slept in the dorms, and were gracious with autographs.


“Bring Your Horse to School” days were common at then-CLC, which had its own equestrian team. Jeanette Berard remembers a riding stable behind the football field. “We used to ride from the campus to Wildwood Park through nothing but open space,” said the Special Collections librarian. Berard’s dad was also in aerospace. Her friends in the Waverly neighborhood took their horses to the Conejo Creek Equestrian Park, built in 1972.

 


CLU football field today.


Librarian Heather Stapel is third-generation local. She works with Berard at the T.O. Library. Her grandmother still lives in the home she bought in 1964. Her dad attended CLU, and her uncle works for the city. While her peers revel in digital culture, she beams with pride in local history. “I love this stuff,” she said as she pointed out her family in old high school yearbooks.


In 1986, CLC added graduate programs and became CLU. A few years ago, it completed a massive renovation, including a new sports complex. Once mostly Lutheran, it is now heavily Roman Catholic, with outreach to Hispanic prospects. The Cowboys left town when the Berlin Wall fell. They spend summers in Oxnard now (though this will be the team’s last year in Oxnard) with an edgier crowd, admission charge and heavy security.


Many puppy-love romances began at the Ska Teen roller rink on Hampshire Road. Hand-holding was the goal when the lights dimmed, the disco ball swirled, and the DJ spun the hits. “It was with this soundtrack that a lot of us first began to learn about love, politics and heartache,” said Brian Worschum.

 


Tom Landry, 1970s Cowboys coach, at CLU.


A weekend matinee at the Melody Theater was the place for kids to see and be seen. Cartoons preceded the feature film and there was a raffle at intermission. The theater showed Disney favorites like The Barefoot Executive, starring former Thousand Oaks High student Kurt Russell. The iconic theater shut down in 1996.


At the Fox Twin, you could watch Basque shepherds herd their flocks in the adjacent lot, remnants of the historical Spanish ranch culture. Romances initiated at the skating rink, blossomed at the drive-in in Newbury Park. It shut down in 1983 after showing the last double feature of Risky Business and Private School.


While the ’70s were far from pre-Beatles America, worship still played a major role in fostering community. Professor Reaves went to school at St. Paschal Baylon Church and graduated from the Catholic La Reina High School. Michelle is the daughter of Temple Etz Chaim’s original Rabbi, Shimon Paskow. The temple still shares a property with the United Methodist Church. “I remember our interfaith Thanksgivings. I’m really proud of that heritage, which is still going,” she said. She now has her own congregation in Simi Valley.

 


Conejo Creek Equestrian Park.


“It was all about Bob’s Big Boy,” said Worschum about the working-class burger joint. Reaves remembers it fondly. “You could see all your friends at Bob’s on Friday nights after the football games. We don’t have anything quite like that anymore.” Hooters moved in on Mother’s Day last year and a Chinese buffet stands in place of Bob’s.


Conejo Valley Days celebrated the area’s Western heritage. The highlights were the chili cook-off, the parade and the rodeo. It’s been said that almost everyone in town had someone involved with the parade. Due in part to changing demographics and fiscal concerns, the parade and rodeo are gone. The fair took place where the auto mall is now along the freeway. The carnival and musical acts dominate the fair these days at Conejo Creek Park.


The Santa Rosa Valley is connected to Thousand Oaks via Moorpark Road. Before it was developed, locals took the rural road to pumpkin patches and fruit stands. It was a way of going even deeper into “the country” while bypassing the freeway.


Barbara Kloster has been active in the equestrian scene for years. She says that people now are choosing pools and tennis courts instead of horse corrals. “They want it to look like Beverly Hills, but it doesn’t fit a rural community.” But she takes pride in the fact that 3,000 people came to the equestrian park last year for the annual Day of The Horse.


The Hollywood film industry used Jungleland to board and train wild animals for its films. It became a zoo, and after closing in 1968, its remains served as an unofficial skateboard park. The Civic Arts Plaza is there now.


Completed in 1994, the huge structure has played host to world-class entertainers. Some of it was built with a generous donation from Richard Carpenter from ’70s musical sensation The Carpenters. For those who remember, the transformation of this land from wild animal park to a theater for Broadway shows speaks volumes about a shift in local culture.


Small business has endured on Thousand Oaks Boulevard. Harold’s Omelettes has been there since 1961 and Lupe’s Mexican Restaurant since 1947. But there are now about 20 “Asian massage” parlors facing the street. To some, their colored lanterns and shuttered windows herald the encroachment of the dark side of urban life.


A Salvadoran tapas bar occupies the Du-par’s space, and most of the defense contractors are gone. But the 1980 arrival of Amgen energized the economy. It spawned new businesses to address the paradigm shift from blue collar to white. Employing about 6,000 people, the multinational biopharmaceutical company is the largest private employer in town.


There are more areas designated as “open space” now than ever before. That’s due to the formation of the Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency (COSCA) in 1977. Most of the open land in the past was privately owned but accessible. Although the city is built out and the random open fields are scarce, there are now about 15,000 acres of open space and 140 miles of trails.


Brian Worschum sums up his attitude toward progress in his blog. “I think it’s funny when people complain about how crowded it is now. I remember what it was like, but can you really blame anyone for wanting to live here? As different as it is from my childhood, I still love it, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

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