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Still Reaching Kids Through Radio

'Uncle Ruthie' is L.A.'s longest-running children's show, helping make sense of an often confusing world.

January 31, 2002|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I'm jealous of my dog, Godot,

No fields to plow, no seeds to sow;

With lifted leg, tail taut and curled,

He leaves his mark upon the world.

I'm jealous of my dog, Godot,

For all the things he does not know.

He leads a fuller life than I,

Not fearing that some day he'll die."

--from "Godot," by Ruth Buell

"Uncle Ruthie" Buell, host of L.A.'s longest-running children's radio show, "Halfway Down the Stairs" on KPFK-FM (90.7), is mourning the loss of her beloved companion, Godot, a canine of indeterminate breed that she had taken to identifying, straight-faced, as a "New Zealand Penguin Hound," after hearing the joking term from another fond mutt owner.

"He used to come to school every day," she said of the stray she took in more than 18 years ago, when he was found outside the East L.A. school where she taught music to children with disabilities.

"He would pull the kids in their wheelchairs, he would be the reward for doing work and," she laughed, "if we had an assembly, he would sing off-key for us."

Buell's show this Sunday will be something of a Godot memorial--she will read her poem and reminisce--but also, through story and song, Buell will celebrate the special connection between humans and dogs, and reach out with comfort and empathy for listeners who may have lost a pet of their own.

Reaching out--with storytelling, music, humor and sensitivity--is what Buell does in her signature low-key way. As with the death of Godot, real life fuels her choices, especially when events occur that may make children feel alone, sad or fearful.

Buell has done shows about the Oklahoma bombing and the events of Sept. 11; after the 1998 killing of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, she devoted one show to reading the series of comic strips by Lynn Johnston (creator of "For Better or Worse") about a teenage character's difficult coming-out to his friends and family.

"Every time something happens I'll deal with it on the radio," Buell said.

One of L.A.'s

Best-Kept Secrets

Buell started with KPFK at its inception in 1959. (Her late husband was longtime classical music radio personality Bruce Buell; she is now married to sculptor Stan Schwartz.) More than 30 years ago, the folk singer and teacher adopted the name "Uncle Ruthie" and began hosting "Halfway Down the Stairs."

She's wryly aware that it's still one of L.A.'s best-kept secrets: an eclectic, thoughtful, feel-good children's show on local radio's counterculture haven for progressive politics, multiculturalism and alternative programming.

Buell calls her quirky mix of entertainment, education and empowerment her "radio ministry," created for "warm, loving, community-active beings" of all ages.

It includes readings from authors ranging from Maurice Sendak, Tomie de Paola and Daniel Pinkwater to James Thurber, Pablo Neruda and William Saroyan, because she knows that at least as many adults as children are fans.

"If I like a story, it will be multilevel. Most good stories for children are very good for adults." Her musical picks are equally eclectic, with "hundreds of folk singers," children's artists and her own songs, too.

But Buell, warm-voiced, impish and indefatigable, isn't just a radio personality. She does artist-in-residencies at schools, workshops for teachers, records independently and performs in concert. After Sunday's show, she'll appear at McCabe's Guitar Shop, her own guitar in hand, where she'll perform an upbeat family matinee with a varied program of folk tales, funny stories and children's songs, along with multi-instrumentalist Fred Sokolow.

The next morning, she'll be back at her staff job of the past three years: teaching music and chorus to vision-impaired children at the Frances Blend School in Hollywood.

Did we mention that Buell, 71, is also a long-distance runner?

"I can outrun all of the P.E. teachers at school," she joked. "I'm turning into my mother: At 90 she would bat her eyes at people and say, 'How old do you think I am?'"

Buell, whose teaching partner is musician David Wulff, thought that she had retired as an educator until three years ago, when she joined the teaching staff at Frances Blend. She has no intention of retiring again and Principal Joy Efron is grateful.

"She's tremendously energetic," Efron said. "She's creative, she does an outstanding job of linking music to language and communication, she has an intuitive sense in working with multi-handicapped students, and she does tremendous things for self-esteem. And she makes everything so much fun. We are so lucky to have her."

"Halfway Down the Stairs," KPFK-FM (90.7), Sundays at 8:30 a.m. "Uncle Ruthie and Fred Sokolow in Concert," McCabe's Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, Sunday at 11 a.m. $6, adults; $3, ages 2 to 10; under age 2, free. (310) 828-4497, (310) 828-4403.

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