The Topanga Banjo and Fire Contest
A year ago, I wrote here about attending one of my favorite events in Southern California, the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest, which I first went to about 30 years ago when they took over the athletic field at UCLA. They've relocated to other venues over the years, and I haven't gone on an annual basis, but they seemed to have finally settled into what is known as the Paramount Ranch, in the middle of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, about 30-40 minutes to the north and west of Los Angeles. It was an inspired spot for the event, not just for locale's natural beauty but also that it was filled with structures making up a Western town that was used for filming movie and TV Westerns over the years, perhaps most notably on the long-running series, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Rather than putting everything on the Main Stage, the structures throughout the Ranch (slightly more substantial that just the fronts or "shells" found on most movie lots, since filming would take place inside them) let the musical performances and various competitions branch out, and arts & crafts booths filled the "streets." Since they've settled there, I've made the drive out a bit more often. It's a wonderful place for it all.
Sadly, last November, when the California Wildfires broke out, the Paramount Ranch was almost directly in the center of the Woolsey Fire, and the area was wiped out. I wrote about that here. But the show (or in this case, festival) must go on, and event organizers worked with the Park Service (which emphatically wanted them back), and the 2019 Topanga Banjo & Fiddle Contest -- the 59th annual -- took place this past Sunday. And I made sure to go, not only to offer my support, but see how the place handled the changes forced upon them.
I took a bunch of photos as I explored the area. Below on the left, you can see the Western town last year with the buildings in the background and vendor booths lining the streets. To the right, that's the scene today, with much of the area fenced off, the tree denuded, and rubble surrounding it.
This is a closer look at the damage, along with the remains of those burned-down structures which haven't yet been cleared away.
Remarkably, though, two of the buildings survived. I don't have a clue how. And happily, one was the most iconic structure on the Ranch, the "church" on the outskirts of the Western town. And there's no sign of damage, though perhaps it got repaired and painted over.
By the way, though a lot of people brought pets to the festival, that's not a dog in the center-right (aligned in front of the door). That's the animal which belonged to fellow seated -- his pet goat. It was well-behaved and seemed to be enjoying the music and having a fine old time.
And this below was the other building that survived the massive fire -- the Railroad Stage. Again, how on earth it's still standing I don't begin to know how. And it too looks pristine, and in fact was in such good condition that they held one of the competitions there, for cowboy singing.
As I wandered through the grounds, I made a few observations. The first was obvious, how burned out so much of the area was, like this eucalyptus tree -- though as you can see, it not only wasn't killed of, but the leaves have started to come back.
The other observation was that if you hadn't been to the Paramount Ranch before (and didn't notice the blocked-off remnants of the destroyed buildings), you might not know how badly it had been destroyed. While you can of course see in the picture below the burned-out shrubbery in the foreground and off to the left, the surrounding area in only four months has already started to come in green and almost lush.
And though longtime visitors could see and feel what was missing, a lot of crafts booths returned (though not as many yet as before), and the main park itself is surrounded again by forest land -- some of the lower vegetation has grown back, and a good part of the surrounding forest was spared. So, for all that was no longer there, there was still the sensibility of being in a festive bowl of beautiful nature.
The festival wasn't as crowded as in the past, and while a bit of that may have been because some people weren't sure if it would be going on this year, I suspect most was because it was raining in Los Angeles that morning and drizzling and chilly out on the Paramount Ranch grounds -- though by about 11:30 in the morning it turned into a pretty nice day.
And the show did indeed go on. Which was a joy to see. The crafts booths, food trucks, and main stage, but also -- even though they had makeshift stages and not the buildings as in the past -- areas for the side competitions, performances, and jamming. Here are a few, brief videos of all that, about 30-seconds each, starting with the Main stage.
(Fun note: near the end, you'll see two young girls walk in front of the camera. They had just performed in competition right before this current musician, so I thought it was very thoughtful of the one girl to clap for the fiddler during his performance.)
Though it may have been more than a bit barren compared to the past ("a bit more" being the polite term), this side stage was set up for bands to put on secondary performances, and in some ways the makeshift, vagabond quality of the tent added a great deal of charm.
They even still had their Dance Stage back. It's not anything as part of the competition but more for entertainment and demonstration. You should be able to make out the woman clog dancing off to the left onstage.
Finally, one of my favorite parts of the festivities is always the Jamming area -- where musicians just gather randomly and begin playing together. This video is a little longer than the others above, about 2-1/2 minutes, but you get a sense of how one is encircled by so much music all around you, jamming anywhere you look, and there was a lot more off in the distance, as well. And as the video moves about, taking it all in, it ends up right back where things started -- which is when I thought of the legendary folk song, "Will the Circle be Unbroken?"
It was wonderful to see the Topanga Banjo & Fiddle Contest back -- and for all that's missing, the circle went on.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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