The preschool children seated on the floor of the South Pasadena Library auditorium raised their hands and squirmed excitedly, hoping they would be chosen to help Uncle Ruthie act out the next story.
Ruth Buell, a children's entertainer known even to her own nieces and nephews as Aunt Uncle Ruthie, chose some volunteers and began to relate "The Missing Piece." As she unfolded Shel Silverstein's popular fable of the quest for fulfillment, she pranced from one side of the makeshift stage to the other, instructing the neophyte actors in their simple supporting roles. All the while, her kaleidoscopic and supple voice compelled attention from children and parents alike.
Buell's protean voice is well-known to the listeners of her weekly radio show, "Halfway Down the Stairs," which airs Saturdays from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. She has performed the variety program of songs and stories on KPFK-FM (90.7) for 16 years. She chose the name Uncle Ruthie as a way of making fun "of all those other radio uncles, like Uncle Bob and Uncle Ben, who patronized children," said Buell.
Poking fun at all things stuffy and pretentious is one of the many themes in Buell's extensive repertoire. "The Very Best People's," a song on her record "Take a Little Step," pokes fun at people who think they are better than others. "My Cousin Barbara," one of Buell's newest songs, has the line "Why can't you be like your Cousin Barbara who's perfect?" Young listeners soon discover that Barbara isn't perfect, but is a typical little girl who gets in trouble like they do.
Some of Buell's songs are about aspects of childhood that are misunderstood by adults. "The Super Song," for example, relates a small child's longing to be loved even when she is doing nothing especially "super." Other songs, and many of the stories Buell tells, deal with negative feelings. "I let children know that you can feel very angry but underneath is always the core of love," she said.
Her topics range from dogs to sleep to siblings to death. The breaking of all stereotypes is high on her musical and storytelling agenda. Her leading characters are often strong women, nurturing men and children who stick up for their rights. "You don't want to go the other way and make all the daddies take care of the kids and all the women ditch diggers," Buell said. "But very often, just for balance, I will change the sex of a character in a stereotyped role."
According to ethnomusicologist Carol Merrill-Mirksy, Buell's songs are designed to promote ideological content, as opposed to school music textbooks that emphasize the teaching of musical skills and concepts. "I like the way she manages to be funny without being cutesy," said Merrill-Mirsky, a former music specialist for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "She never, ever talks down to children. It's a good thing to let kids poke fun at stuff and let them get things off their chests. Ruthie is allowing kids to relate to feelings that are not allowed any other place."
Buell attributes much of her sensitivity to her experience teaching handicapped children at the Alfonso B. Perez Special Education Center in East Los Angeles. She works with children with a wide variety of disabilities, including those in wheelchairs or with Down's syndrome.
Uncle Ruthie's concerts are highly participatory. She likes to say she brings books to life. Wearing homemade whimsical costumes, such as paper bags on her feet and a pot on her head, Buell moves with a great deal of energy.
She started running competitively in her late 30s and is extremely proud of the trophies she has won, including an age-group win, a team win and a second place in a 15K run. "I've always been a good runner because my approach to school bullies was always to run," she said.
Born and reared in Chicago, she began her career at age 13 as an actress on radio and the stage. She was one of the Jack and Jill Players, a professional children's group. "I wanted to be an actress, a waitress, or a nurse--I've kind of done all of them," she said.
Later, in Aspen, Colo., she studied music, dance and guitar at the Richard Dyer Bennett School of Minstrelsy. She also plays piano, harmonica, spoons, "whatever is around." After attending Bennington College in Vermont, she worked as a recreation director on an Indian reservation. Eventually she came to California to complete a paper on how the mass media affected the fantasy life and the political views of eight little girls.
"Television, especially, is very destructive of daydreaming," she said. "When you act things out on the radio, there's less structure."
She married, had three children and then divorced. Her second husband, to whom she has been married for 20 years, is former KFAC announcer Bruce Buell. Her children are grown, and the Buells now share their home in Los Angeles with an old pit bulldog named Hathaway.