CVIndependent

Fri01192018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

This is a personal column, about me, Anita Rufus, one of your neighbors, and my holiday-time trip to the island of Samoa.

My cousin, Barry Rose, with whom I’ve been in love since I was 16, and my very best friend, Barbara, whom I met when she was 19 some 54 years ago, just got married at Barry’s resort, Coconuts Beach Club, an idyllic slice of paradise some 12 flying hours from Southern California.

Barry and Barbara met through me, more than 50 years ago, so I was asked to walk them down the aisle. What took them so long? Timing is everything: Through marriages and deaths, Barry and Barbara finally were ready to be happy with each other.

Coconuts is the result of years of work, begun when Barry and his late wife, Jennifer, wanted to find paradise. They left Beverly Hills in 1984 and traveled the world over, not finding what they had envisioned. After developing a list of criteria, they settled on the South Pacific, including places like New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tahiti and the Cook Islands. The place that fit best turned out to be Western Samoa—due to its size, stability, safety and absence of serious diseases. Perhaps the most influential criteria were the culture and the friendliness of the Samoan people.

After years of negotiations, a lease for the property they wanted in the village of Maninoa was finalized in January 1990; that November, a limited opening took place. Together with an amazing architectural designer, Robert Ross, Barry and Jennifer’s vision began to come to life.

Coconuts has grown into a thriving, lush and very special place. The rooms, called fales (fa’lays), have thatched roofs that are fully waterproofed, air conditioning and purified water; they are spacious with four-poster beds made of bamboo trunks, rock-lined tubs with showers, and porches where one can sit and look toward the ocean. The food is gourmet: local fish, New Zealand steak and papayas are to die for. The staff members, mostly from the local village, are friendly and accommodating—their laughter floats throughout the property.

When Jennifer got ill, Barry took loving care of her for several years. Barbara, who knew them both, got in touch with Barry to offer her support and friendship. She was single once again, and after Jennifer’s death, the conversations between Barry and Barbara began to increase to hours daily—with him calling from Honolulu, where he lives when not in Samoa, and her calling from her lovely home in Beverly Glen in Los Angeles.

Barbara agreed to travel to Hawaii for a week—an extraordinary decision for someone I’ve never known to act on impulse—and the relationship blossomed. Barbara soon decided to move to Honolulu, and in three short weeks, she sold her house and either got rid of or shipped over her belongings. Barbara and Barry are both beaming with happiness, having once again found love.

The wedding at Coconuts was just what it should have been: picture-perfect. Barry wore an 'ie lavalava (a man-skirt, the custom dress for Samoan men), and Barbara wore a crown of flowers. I walked them from their fale to the beach, accompanied by a strumming guitar. The staff had constructed an arbor draped with flowing fabric and trimmed with flowers. After I said a few personal words that I had written and practiced for hours, a local minister had them say their vows. It was magical.

Along the beach were friends and family who had come from Arizona, North Carolina, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Fiji and Bali, along with the Coconuts “family” of staff and local invitees. A jolly celebration ensued.

After my return, I was asked what the highlight of the trip was for me, obviously other than the wedding. I will treasure the sound of the surf, eternally rolling toward shore. I loved the schwiffing sound of the dried fronds used to sweep the walkways throughout the day. I will never forget the stifling humidity, so enervating to a desert resident. I enjoyed the slow pace of Samoa, the lazy schedule, the walks along the beach, the sublime sunsets, and the occasional sheets of rain with children splashing in the pool in the downpour. I was able to read six books in two weeks—pure heaven!

The real highlight, however, was the people who had come to witness the wedding—some I had known before, and some I met as we joined together for this momentous occasion. They are a multicultural and multiracial group of friendly, smart, interesting, down-to-earth individuals, including Barry’s son, daughter and grand-daughter.

There’s the Coconuts architect and his beautiful Balinese wife. The TV producer and her husband, a doctor and teacher at Harvard who also lectures worldwide. The lesbian paper-hangers, now retired. (There’s a good story there.) The psychologist who knew how to listen to others and spoke pearls of wisdom. The hairdresser and the makeup stylist. (They made the bride look fabulous!) The stunning author and broadcaster who filmed and snapped everything. The watercolor artist, one of Jennifer’s best friends, SO happy that Barry has found happiness again. The brilliant photographer and her radio executive/philosopher husband. The Hawaii restaurateur and his California wife. The jazz fans from Honolulu. And there was the other Barry Rose—talk about coincidences! (After finding out he and my cousin shared the same dentist in Honolulu, he quipped, “I almost took a root canal for him!”) On our first night at Coconuts, someone said: “You can always tell a lot about people by who their friends are.” Amen to that.

One other moment stands out for me: the evening when I strolled to the open-air dining room to have a pre-dinner drink, with a clear blue sky, the sun setting and the sound of the surf in the background. Low-key music is always playing, everything from classical to jazz. That night, I entered to Sting singing “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”

My cousin and my friend have figured that out.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Don Cilluffo found his calling in his native Michigan.

“It wasn’t business or accounting, which is what I was supposed to be good at,” he says. “It was when I did an interpretive reading from The Godfather and got an ‘A’. When you do something really well, you just know. It was so rewarding—that feeling of gratification out of communicating a character, the passion of that character. I knew I wanted to share my talent.”

The actor and director comes from St. Clair Shores, near Detroit. He has been in the Coachella Valley for the past eight years.

“It was the weather,” he says. “I was tired of shoveling snow and wanted to get to a warmer place.” Cilluffo and his long-time partner, Tom Hipp, live in Palm Desert.

Born into an Italian-Catholic family as the middle child—with an older brother and younger sister—Cilluffo calls himself “a late bloomer.”

“I was supposed to be the intellectual; I got all A grades,” he says. “My brother was supposed to be the artsy one; he got the dance and accordion lessons. But growing up, we were all exposed to theater, dance and music.”

Cilluffo grew up with his grandparents just around the block.

“That saved me,” he says. “They always just loved me and showed me lots of attention. When I was about 8 to 10 years old, I was selling vegetables from their garden.”

After three years at Wayne State University, Cilluffo dropped out. “I had started working in a flower shop when I was 15. I was making good money in the floral industry. I was a pretty good businessman, and I was creative and inventive.”

Cilluffo came out as gay in his mid-20s. “It was considered a mortal sin, you know. My mom was crushed, but she got over it. I think my father knew before I did. He used to say, ‘I worried about you son, but you turned out OK.’”

So what took Cilluffo into acting and theater?

“When I was in elementary school, my mom said I was a born actor. I believed her. I was doing flower-arrangement classes for a local youth theater, and they told me I just had to try out for Jesus Christ Superstar. I had never had any training, but they told me they just knew I could do it.

“I lucked out, and then learned everything I needed to know from the elders at the Grosse Pointe Theatre just outside Detroit—set design, acting, directing, even studying improv and comedy with a teacher from Second City in Chicago. I loved it all.

“I ended up being with the theater for 40 years, and won awards for acting, set design and directing. I also began doing commercials and got a (Screen Actors Guild) card. But I followed my mom’s advice and didn’t want to ever depend on it for a living. I stayed in the flower-shop business for 30 years.”

Cilluffo has worked locally with Desert Theatreworks, Dezart Performs and Script2Stage2Screen, among other companies.

“I usually do comedies, and I’ve won some local awards, but I was really proud to be honored for playing a serious bad guy in To Kill a Mockingbird,” he said. Cilluffo’s next project is The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife with Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, coming in April.

When I asked about his most memorable moment in theater, Cilluffo’s eyes lit up. “One of the most beautiful sets I ever built was a cottage by a lake. We had artificial tree trunks, a dock with a sand beach, vines, lots of fall leaves we had collected, and a false perspective. I love making magic on a stage.”

As a director, Cilluffo’s philosophy is to help actors see a character through the character’s eyes—and then see that character through their own eyes. I’ve worked with Cilluffo on a couple of presentations, and he spends a lot of time explaining the character’s motivation.

“It’s easy to see a vision, but much harder to communicate it and make it true,” he said. “… It was 15 years before I began to direct, after workshops and classes. You have to be able to communicate and make it true for the audience. When I work with actors, if they put out their best, I can’t ask for more. If you get 95 percent of your vision, that’s a big success!”

If money weren’t an issue, what would Cilluffo do? “I’d love to produce a movie and be the star—but not direct it. It’s too hard to direct yourself. As an actor, I may feel the emotion, but I can’t know if I’m giving out what’s needed for the viewer to feel it.”

Don Cilluffo was fortunate to be affiliated with a strong, influential regional theater for so many years. His advice for locals aspiring to follow a similar path? “Find people who see your potential and are willing to work with you … then listen and learn from them.”

Is retirement in Cilluffo’s future? “I don’t know what retirement really means, except it’s a time when you can do everything you want to do. I can’t see myself retiring. I’d be bored. In fact, I’ve recently taken up rediscovering the Italian foods my grandmother made.” His homemade olives are incredible!

“And I‘d like to go to Sicily. I love the idea of being able to see my face in somebody else—and there, I’d get to see it in everybody!”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

I first met Deanna Bogart when I saw her playing saxophone and sitting in with the band at The Nest in Indian Wells. I was struck by the joy with which she played—which makes it seem as if the music is coming through her rather than the instrument.

Bogart, 58, a Palm Desert resident for four years, has been making music since she began playing piano by ear at the age of 2. She went on to the guitar, to the saxophone, and to writing and singing her own songs. Whether it’s blues, boogie, jazz, rock or country, she does it all.

“I was born in Detroit, the middle of five sisters, and raised in New York and Arizona,” says Bogart. “I remember what it felt like to always be the new kid in school. When it came to music, I just knew it was something I could do, in spite of being kicked out of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music at 5, when I didn’t want to learn to play the notes!”

She laughs with the same sense of abandon you hear when she plays.

“At about 9, I began playing the guitar. My mom had bought a guitar from the Spiegel catalog and was playing in the living room while I was in my bedroom. I could hear she just wasn’t playing well; the timing of the chords was off. I walked out and grabbed the guitar out of her hands, knowing I would probably get in a lot of trouble. I showed her the right way to play the chords and then gave her back the guitar, and went back to my room expecting the worst.

“Mom tapped on my door, and when I opened it, she gave me the guitar.”

At age 14, Deanna got a job, and her grandparents agreed to match what she was able to save. She bought a 12-string guitar that she still has to this day.

In the fifth-grade, at age 11, Bogart wanted to be in the school band—and decided she wanted to play the saxophone.

“To this day, I don’t know why,” she says. “But I was told girls don’t play saxophone. In my 20s, learned to play the sax by ear, and now when people respond, I can’t tell you how it affects the 11-year-old inside me.”

Bogart’s first experience onstage was also in the fifth-grade. “When I closed my eyes and sang, nothing else mattered.”

Bogart left home at 17 and came to Los Angeles on a bus. She met musicians who turned her on to an opportunity to sing harmony. Her first gig was at 20 with a band on the road. Being a woman in what was a man’s game was a challenge.

“One of the lessons of my life is that people try to thwart you along the way, so my music is a way of showing I can do what they thought I couldn’t or shouldn’t,” she says. “When things are scary, if you just push through, something amazing happens.”

Bogart’s professional life has indeed been amazing. She is the winner of three consecutive Blues Music Awards for sax, and has been featured at music festivals and clubs all over the world. “I was recently in Norway at the Dark Season Festival, on the edge of the Arctic Circle,” she says, “and then two concerts in London. I’ve played in New York and Washington, D.C., and I’ll be in Panama in February.” She has played with Ray Charles and B.B. King, among many others.

On a trip to Las Vegas, someone broke into Bogart’s hotel room and took her instruments, passport and identity. “I got the instruments back, but I’m still fighting through the ID theft and bank fraud. I feel as if the people who did this are the real victims by having chosen to do what they did. Something good will come of it—I believe that’s the way the universe works.”

Bogart also took a trip to Egypt to play at the pyramids during a “Blues on the Nile” tour—and it was was life-changing. “I came in on a camel, playing my horn,” she laughs.

Bogart is the featured draw at the annual Jam on the Rocks, at a private home up Highway 74 overlooking the Coachella Valley; the event has become a large draw for locals who love blues and jamming. (The next one will be in November 2018.)

Being on the road is not easy, especially for a single mother. Bogart’s daughter, Alix, is now 23 and heading into a career as a marriage and family therapist.

“Even though we were divorced, her father helped, and that made it possible for me to do what I do,” she said.

Watching Bogart lead her band—excellent musicians with whom she has played for the past 20 years—you sense the intimacy with which they relate musically. “For me, it has to be authentic,” she says. “I trust them, and they trust me. That’s what live music is all about. I’ve always wanted to work with people better than me.”

When Bogart first began writing songs, they were on the guitar. “When you get into the intention of the music, you connect to your true self,” she says. “I had music and lyrics in my head that wouldn’t go away. But I’m the most undisciplined writer ever. It takes until a deadline, and then I go into my psychotic place and get it done.” One of her most beautiful songs was written for her daughter, “Back and Forth Kid.”

Bogart loves to do improv rather than just stick to written music. “My chaotic, inconsistent life was good training for improv,” she says. When you watch her play, you’ll marvel at the way the music comes through her—whether she’s banging out blues on the piano or riffing jazz on the sax. No two performances are ever alike.

“When you get into the intention of the music, you connect to your true self,” Bogart says. “I never wanted to be famous or a star. It’s not that I want to play, but that I need to. I don’t know how not to be me, for better or worse.

“I just know I wouldn’t be alive without music.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

He’s a champion wrestler, a medal-winning runner and a concert pianist.

One other thing about Mike Zorick: He’s blind.

Zorick, 70, has been an Indio resident since 1980, and has overcome obstacles that would surely have stopped others. Shortly after his premature birth, in Hartford, Conn., a medical technique used at that time led to an overdose of oxygen and left him blind.

Zorick’s parents, wanting him to escape discrimination, sacrificed and saved to afford him the best possible opportunities to overcome his disability.

“People would look at my eyes and see nothing else,” he recalls.

He was educated at Oak Hill School for the Blind through high school. In the fifth-grade, Mike began wrestling.

“I was kind of forced into it by the recreation coach,” Zorick says. “He said, ‘If you don’t wrestle, you can’t come to PE anymore.’ I ended up beating an undefeated champ and won the tournament!”

Zorick remembers his parents teaching him that, in spite of being small, he should never start a fight—and if he still got into a fight, he should never let the other guy finish it.

“I knew I had to work harder than anyone else,” he says.

Those efforts certainly paid off. Zorick has won numerous competitions around the United States, and his Indio home’s walls are covered with medals and certificates.

“I moved to California after high school and was three-time California state champion in Greco-Roman wrestling,” Zorick proudly beams. He has received numerous awards in several weight categories, as well as for judo and weightlifting.

While still in high school, Zorick also began running.

“My coach said it would build me up for wrestling. I was on the high school track team in 1963,” he says. “I was running a two-mile event and started to really like long-distance running.” Once again, medals followed.

“I ran with a partner for a while,” says Zorick, “but my uncle made me a special device with an extension that could hug the rail, so I could run on my own around the track.”

Zorick says he was a good athlete but not a good student, yet he continued his education, getting an associate’s degree in music and physical education at Los Angeles City College before transferring to UCLA for his bachelor’s degree. He also received a teaching credential in Florida, has taught classes at California State College, Los Angeles, and served as an assistant coach at La Quinta High School.

“I had to sue to get the teaching credential in Florida,” he says. “My biggest challenge has always been that I knew I would be rejected by the sighted world, no matter what I did. I just always do the best I can and let the chips fall where they may.”

Overcoming yet another hurdle for someone without sight, Zorick began playing the piano in fourth-grade.

“I was in a music class for blind kids,” he says, “and I started with Braille music. Now, I just learn one hand at a time. For concerts, I have to memorize about 120 pages of music.”

Zorick focuses on classics by composers like Chopin and Brahms. “I like music with harmony and melody,” he says. “One piece I still need to learn is Brahms’ Rhapsody No. 4.” He has played more than 20 solo piano concerts at venues including Foursquare Church and the Family YMCA of the Desert.

Zorick’s lifetime partner is Nancy Noble, a former movie actress and artist originally from Chicago, who has devoted herself to supporting Mike and his varied endeavors. One needs to be around them for only a few minutes before their genuine love and support for each other becomes apparent.

“I made a list of 10 things that I knew I needed in a partner,” Zorick laughs. The list included being a team player; an honest person with good morals and a love of truth; willing to not live with animals or children; a good helpmate; a non-drinker and non-smoker; a runner or bike rider; and able to drive.

Zorick and Noble met in Los Angeles when she became a reader for him.

“I thought it would help my acting,” she says. “Mike needed someone to take him running, so I rode a bike he had. We were friends for two years before we decided to commit to each other. My father told me not to marry him, but my mother said she knew we would be together forever and told my dad to get over it.

“With Mike, to meet his conditions, I even got rid of my cat,” she laughs.

Zorick’s life has led to many lessons—of value to those both with and without sight. He has written a book, Making Weightand has a website that includes a 17-minute video of him talking about his life. He and Noble have spoken to thousands of students about his athletics, his music and the challenges of being blind.

“Students ask lots of questions,” says Zorick, “but the one that always comes up is, ‘What is it like to be blind?’ I always answer, ‘It’s normal.’ I can feel what things look like. Even though I can’t see faces, I remember voices, so it’s frustrating if people don’t identify themselves when we meet. And I hate it when waiters ask Nancy what I want, as if I can’t answer for myself.

“Whenever people said I couldn’t do something because I’m blind, my attitude was always, ‘I’ll show you!’ I’ve always taken discouraging people and used them to my advantage. I had to find out for myself whether I could do something.”

What would Zorick want to see first if he could somehow gain his sight?

“Of course, I’d want to see Nancy.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Cathedral City’s Lynne O’Neill has been in the Coachella Valley for only a year and a half—but in that small amount of time, she has already made a large difference.

Born in New York, the middle child in a family with four brothers, O’Neill moved here from New Jersey, where she practiced family law. A graduate of Springfield College in rehabilitative counseling, she also had a stint with an all-girl band, Lilith.

O’Neill, 63, came out as gay two years after the Stonewall riots in 1969.

“I spent the 1970s driving around talking about politics,” she says. “Then I was in an auto accident and broke my back. I knew I would never be a rock star. My dad was a lawyer, and he wanted me to go into law. I was third in my class in my first year and became editor of the law review. I was lucky enough to get a clerkship with the appellate division and spent my time writing appellate briefs.”

An associate of her father got her into family law, working on properties and licenses. “In my 30s, I thought maybe I wanted to try cases,” she says. “When the AIDS epidemic hit, I was no longer interested in who gets the refrigerator when couples split. I shifted my focus to doing pro bono disability advice and guardianship issues. I focused a lot on women with AIDS and issues regarding their children, and what would happen after their death.

“People forget that around that time, there were real concerns about things like housing, burial rights and even getting served in a restaurant. I was involved with legal groups working to help with everything relating to those with AIDS. Professionally and personally, in the mosaic of activism, it’s great to march in the street—but how do you really make a difference?”

What brought O’Neill to the desert?

“It was winter, and I had slipped and was lying in the snow with broken ribs,” she says. “I thought about my friend Joy Silver and the life she was living here. I just thought, ‘What am I doing here?’

“I came here to retire, play canasta and go swimming. But after this last election, with all the hate rhetoric against the Latino community, I remembered why I became a lawyer. I wanted to take my skills and training and translate them into doing something with meaning.”

It was in the post-election malaise that Courageous Resistance: Palm Springs and Other Desert Cities was born. The group initially focused on why it is important for each city in the valley to declare itself as a sanctuary city.

“The whole idea of sanctuary cities is so misunderstood,” says O’Neill. “It’s based on something the late Justice Scalia said: You cannot commandeer local law enforcement to enforce a federal mandate. Background checks regarding immigration status is a federal mandate.

“Government and empowerment work from the ground up, so we began Courageous Resistance to provide a jurisdictional blueprint of what the powers of the federal government are, and how state and local law enforcement should relate to those powers. We started with 17 people, and we now have over 1,700.”

The group mobilizes local activists to meet with politicians, in person, to make a difference in local policy.

“One victory builds upon the next,” says O’Neill. “We need to shake up these local fiefdoms. We need to mentor new activists on how to get things done and what questions to ask of elected officials. We can influence local ordinances that make a difference in real people’s lives.”

O’Neill and the group are initially focusing on immigration issues and the goal of universal health care.

“Our goal is to get people involved and empowered,” says O’Neill, who is now working on her friend Joy Silver’s political campaign for the District 28 state Senate seat.

Her advice to others? “Do something!”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Why is a standup comedian pawing through boxes of old family letters—and being so serious as he does it? Why does his wife say she’s the funny one in the family? And how do two Los Angelenos adjust to living in the desert full time?

Meet Tom and Casi Parks.

Tom Parks, 67, was born in Washington, D.C. The eldest of three kids, he went to grade school in South Carolina and high school in New York before spending time in Texas, and ending up in Los Angeles. He studied journalism at the University of Florida—and before long was hosting Not Necessarily the News on HBO.

“To my mom,” he laughs, “doing comedy about the news was doing the news, so I hadn’t totally wasted my education.”

How did Tom end up with a career in comedy? “My mom loved broad slapstick. She roared when my brother hit me in the head with a ball,” he says.

“My dad had a quiet, reserved sense of humor. Dad had served as a bomber pilot in World War II, flying out of England, but was shot down in 1943, a month short of turning 22. He was in a (prisoner of war) camp for 18 months. When I was 14, Hogan’s Heroes ran on TV, and I was worried for my dad. But he started laughing, with tears in his eyes, and said, ‘I don’t remember it being this funny.’

“My mom also served, and she got one more battle decoration than my dad. They always argued about who was the toughest.

”When I graduated college, I was in Atlanta, and I had no idea what I was going to do. I was managing an apartment community, and I met a girl on the stairs. I asked her out (and was) totally shocked when she said yes. We went to see Harry Chapin at the Great Southeast Music Hall. Between his songs, he would tell stories and talk to the audience. I realized that was what I did at parties with friends, and I made them laugh. Friends encouraged me, and two weeks later, I got up onstage in that same club to impress that girl—but I wouldn’t have done it as a career if I hadn’t gotten laughs that night, from strangers. It was a revelation to me, and I’ve never thought of doing anything else.”

Tom’s career started with small college appearances that he booked himself. “(Colleges would) book anything for $100, and to me, that was huge money,” he said. “Once I did a few colleges, I had credits to my name. From 1976 to 1983, I had 700 college dates and was named Campus Entertainer of the Year and Top Comedian.”

Tom’s career includes a first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1987, hosting Not Necessarily the News on HBO in 1989, movies, television, Comic Relief, cruise-ship appearances, a game-show hosting gig, and writing.

In the mid-’80s, Tom was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. “I knew it was a possibility, since my dad had it as well, but when I passed age 35, I thought I had missed it.” Tom acted in a humorous film about diabetes which raised about $500,000 for the American Diabetes Association.

Tom’s current passion is old family letters, going back to the 1800s, including correspondence between his dad and grandmother while his dad was at war. Tom writes a blog at www.aboxofoldletters.com to share what he’s found.


Casi Finefrock Parks, 55, was born in Oklahoma City. She has a brother and is the youngest of three sisters. Casi comes from an artistic family: Her parents started a theater, and her two sisters are both painters. She was a dance major at the University of Oklahoma.

“I didn’t finish,” she says. “I got married, and when that was over, I came to Los Angeles, since my brother was in L.A. studying acting. My reaction was, ‘It’s California!’ and I never left.”

Casi went back to school for an accounting degree at California State University, Los Angeles. “I once worked for two gals who were with Prince and the Revolution, running errands for them while I finished school. I never met Prince, but,” she laughs, “I learned that having a backstage pass just means you don’t get to see the show.

“I started doing securities accounting during the online boom. I almost went to work with the FBI, but they said I had to carry a gun—an accountant in bank vaults! I’m very opposed to guns, so I backed out.

“I’ve finally decided to retire because I’m ready for a change, especially following Tom’s heart attack last year, although I may still look for consulting projects.

“I’ve always loved it here in the desert. I’m a big architectural buff, so I do the modernism tours, and there’s so much to explore. Plus, I can run to the store without it taking forever.”

Tom and Casi met online.

“I had never done it before,” she says about online dating. “I was career-oriented and almost 40, so I decided to do a two-week free trial. When I met Tom, I knew immediately.”

They lived together for eight years and married in 2009. “He got on his knee on New Year’s Eve and gave me a box of engraved stationery with both our initials on it. Besides,” she laughs, “I think he was tired of trying to find the right word for me. ‘Girlfriend’ didn’t feel right, and ‘partner’ could have meant a business associate.”

Despite Tom’s career, Casi says she’s the funny one in the family. “Tom is hilarious on stage, but quiet and reserved in real life, while I laugh too much! I talk to everyone, where he hangs back. But he’s the one who is organized at home, even though I’m the accountant.”

What are the challenges of retirement and moving to the desert full-time?

“You don’t end up doing the things you thought you’d do,” says Casi. “We’re remodeling the house, so we have to move out while the work is being done, and we have to build a social life and new friends to hang out with.”

As for Tom: “It didn’t feel like a big move, but it is a big difference,” he says. “I loved L.A., but I’m ready for life to be calmer and quieter.”

Adds Casi: “Life’s easier here, but you do have to keep an eye out for eating too much!”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Ron Celona got bitten by the acting bug in the first grade.

“I played a spider in Little Miss Muffet … and refused to take off my costume afterward,” he says. “I walked all the way home from school in my spider costume, and have been on the stage ever since.”

Celona, 59, the founding artistic director of the Coachella Valley Repertory theater company, is a Rancho Mirage resident, along with his husband and partner of 32 years. Celona was born and raised in Philadelphia. He and his older sister lost their mom when Ron was just 7.

“My father was a tenor-sax player,” he recalls, “and although he gave up his career to have a family, he always encouraged me to follow my dreams.”

Celona’s professional career began when he was in the sixth-grade, after he had already performed in many theater projects at school and at his local playground.

“I continued my education after high school in New York,” he says, “at American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I graduated high school in June and moved that same September. After a few years working on East Coast stages, I moved to Los Angeles and continued theater studies at Cal State Los Angeles. While doing theater, I added television and film to my credits.

“But it wasn’t until I moved to the Coachella Valley in 1999 that I began my career as a producer and director. I produced the Joslyn Players in Palm Desert, and that turned into a successful community theater that thrived for nine years.”

How did CV Rep come about? In 2008, the stars were apparently in alignment.

“Frankly,” says Celona, “I was waiting for the right time in the valley’s growth. I modeled it after other companies, like South Coast Rep and Seattle Rep—companies that started out small and grew to be respected institutions in their communities. The board planned strategically so that we could grow slowly and successfully. The big goal was always to own our own theater building. … In the coming year, this dream is coming true, and we will be taking the next step toward creating a nationally recognized and respected theater company, for our communities’ residents and visitors alike.”

I love theater, and have been pleased to see the growth of several local theaters—each presenting a different experience that goes well beyond the old standard retreads. However, I became increasingly interested in CV Rep specifically because of its Youth Outreach Production program. Each year, CV Rep presents a play with a subject that is of particular interest to young people, and makes it available to students through the Coachella Valley—some of whom might otherwise never be exposed to live theater.

“This year, for the first time, we didn’t just bring students into the theater,” says Celona. “We were able to take the show on the road to local schools and reach over 3,000 students.”

This year’s show was Bully, a one-man show written and performed by actor, writer and producer Lee J. Kaplan, who explores his own struggle with bullying. Kaplan discovered his sixth-grade journal among some old boxes, and recalled the verbal, physical and emotional abuse he endured. His play includes him as several characters—his teacher, classmates, bullies, and himself—and examines how bullying can affect someone even well into adulthood.

The audiences are always able to talk with the cast and ask questions after the performances. Often, these questions don’t only explore the message of the play; many audience members share their own experiences.

The show I attended was not for students; it was an evening performance for the public. I was struck by those who shared their own memories and feelings.

Kaplan made it clear that bullying goes way beyond hurting someone’s feelings. It is the activity of repeated aggressive behavior intended to hurt or gain power over another. It is emotional, verbal and social abuse, and those bullied don’t know how to make it stop.

Kaplan’s lessons on how to defeat a bully: Stop caring about him. Tell somebody; don’t be ashamed, and don’t back down. Stop blaming yourself—it’s not your fault.

The one question Kaplan had to pause and think about was why bullying happens to one person and not another, even within the same family. He finally said, “I’ve known some people who seemed so sure of who they were, they seemed to walk straight forward through it all toward their own future. Somehow, bullying never affected them.”

Ron Celona, who clearly knew who he was and how to walk straight forward into his own future, had some influential mentors along the way. He first names the renowned Gordon Davidson, of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles: “His wisdom and advice gave me the confidence in myself that I needed.” Then he acknowledges Sheldon Epps, of the Pasadena Playhouse: “He is always there for me when I have a question or need advice on our growing pains. I’m very grateful for his friendship and support.”

The Coachella Valley should be grateful for Ron Celona’s vision and dedication to our burgeoning theater community—and particularly for his commitment to its students.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

The Coachella Valley is a place where retired celebrities, in some ways, are taken for granted. Among us are retired movie and television stars, business tycoons, writers, NASA scientists and sports professionals—including Shirley Spork, one of the 13 original founding members of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), and a renowned sports-education professional.

Spork, 90, is a long-time resident of Palm Desert. The red-haired girl from a working-class family would go on to, through personal determination, break ground and help make a lasting contribution for women in a sport that had never been friendly to females.

Spork was born and raised in Detroit, the only child of parents who did not play golf. At one point in her early childhood, the family lived next to a golf course.

“There was nothing much to do in the neighborhood,” she says. “I saw the boys caddying, but I wanted to play the game.”

Spork’s first club was a putter she bought for a dollar she had earned by selling, back to golfers, the golf balls that had gone into the water between her home and the course.

“I was about 11 when I was constantly going onto the course, and the ranger kept chasing me off,” recalls Spork. “I sold the used balls to some of the golfers, and they got to know me. Their ticket to play was supposed to get punched after the first nine holes, but sometimes it wasn’t, and they’d give me their ticket so I could play as if I had paid.

“I read about people like Babe (Didrikson) and Patty (Berg) and thought, ‘If they can do that, maybe I can do that,’” Spork says about the female golf pioneers. “I bought that putter because it looked good among the other clubs in the $1 bin. The guys all laughed at me.”

Spork actually built a small green so she could practice: “I cleared a space, dug a hole, stuck a flag in it and played by myself!” She later got some used irons from the friendly golf pro, and her uncle found a golf bag someone had thrown away.

“I wanted to compete in junior golf, and the Detroit Free Press said the PGA was giving free lessons. Whoever showed the most improvement got a $10 gift certificate. I won, and that got me my first distance club, a Louise Suggs driver. I was 12.

“Lots of girls came from families that belonged to country clubs, and they would compete in the city championships. I wanted to join the Women’s Professional Golf Association (an LPGA precursor), which was the only game in town at that time, but I was still in high school. The WPGA only lasted about three years, and then it ran out of money. There were no pro tournaments for women back then.

“Women now compete much as the men do, even if they don’t make as much money, but back then, women made their way as trainers and testers, and a lot of time was spent trying to find companies that would sponsor tournaments.”

Spork has documented her story in a book, From Green to Tee, released earlier this year.

“I call it that, because I actually started on the green, with that putter, but I made it to the tee,” she says.

The book includes stories about Spork’s rise to prominence in the game, and it also sets out the history of women’s golf and the challenges faced by the women who were trailblazers.

Spork graduated from Eastern Michigan University, where she received a teaching degree.

“We had moved back into the city when I was in high school, and the lady upstairs had a daughter in teacher’s college,” she says. “I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be a golf pro. But I went, and I studied physical education.”

She also competed in and won tournaments, and was honored not by her school’s women’s physical education department, but by the men’s.

“When I finished school, I started teaching, because my parents had sacrificed to send me to college, but my heart wasn’t really in it,” Spork says. “My mom said, ‘You should be doing what you want to do, not what we want you to do.’ I spent many years teaching part of the year and golfing whenever I could.”

Spork’s educational background served her well in establishing the LPGA Teaching Division, dedicated to working with young people, and educating golf pros about how to teach effectively.

“People may not realize that just because they play well, that doesn’t mean they can teach others,” Spork says. “When it comes to women golfers, we have to educate about smaller hands, less height, less body strength, club length—things like that. And you have to teach people how to teach; it takes five years to become a Class A teacher.”

From the time when she was young and wheedling her way onto golf courses, Spork has met many golfers who helped her find opportunities to get more time on the links—and to find her way into tournaments and jobs.

“Golfers I met could see that I was going to be a golfer,” she says. “Some of them helped me get privileges at country clubs so I could qualify for city and state tournaments. Sometimes I had to go in the back door. I did whatever I could to be able to play.”

Spork’s career includes tournaments around the world, corporate sponsorships, helping design golf courses, being a golf pro at country clubs, and teaching generations of golfers.

The second annual Shirley Spork Pro-Am Golf Tournament was held at Palm Valley Country Club this past April, with the proceeds supporting The First Tee, a youth-development organization introducing golf and its values to young people through in-school and afterschool programs.

“I was never a great player,” Spork says, with charming modesty. “When I started, there were so few women who stood up for themselves.”

However, Shirley Spork did stand up for herself—and it paid off.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday at CVIndependent.com.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Dana Saks was born in Palm Springs, and raised in Cathedral City, where she graduated high school.

“I’ve always loved the desert,” says Dana, now 37, and always upbeat and vivacious. “There’s something about it. It’s quiet here. My soul is at peace here, in a way that it isn’t anywhere else.”

I first met her at a pro-choice rally when she was 14. She wanted to make a difference, even at that young age.

“Politics and activism were always discussed in my house,” she recalls. “My cousin, Anita Richmond, was very active in local politics, serving on the Rancho Mirage City Council. My mom was pretty liberal in her attitudes, my dad less so, so we used to have lively discussions whenever the family got together.

“I guess I had an innate sense of justice, and I didn’t like it when things were unjust. My first letter to the editor was published when I was 13!”

Dana grew up going to gay-pride parades.

“My mom had friends in New York who were closeted gay, and she couldn’t stand it that they couldn’t be who they wanted to be. After I wrote the letter to the editor, about an anti-gay letter someone else had written, my family asked if I was gay. I was pretty much in denial then, although I always knew I was different. Even in kindergarten, I liked girls.”

Dana’s sister, Victoria, is 4 1/2 years younger.

“We fought like crazy,” she says. “People in the family always said we would never be close. I had always wanted a baby sister, but then she could walk and talk, and started following me around and copying everything I did. My dad finally gave me a room of my own at 11 to separate us. We once had a fight, and somebody was stabbed with a fork. We both claim, even to this day, that it was the other who did it! We’re close now.”

Dana decided to leave the Coachella Valley after high school.

“I thought if I stayed here, I’d be stuck here forever—an 18-year-old mind at work,” she says. “I was accepted to Mills College in Oakland, and I liked the idea that the students were all female. I wanted the experience of a liberal environment.

“I came out as gay after my sister came out. I had the feeling she might also be gay, but I didn’t want to come out first and then have her be accused of copying me again. Plus, in high school, I had seen the way some of my friends’ families had reacted when someone came out, and I didn’t want to chance that my own family might react that way. My mom had already suspected. My dad had a harder time, but only because he was worried for us.”

After more than two years at Mills, Dana decided she wanted a break.

“I had reached the point where I was cutting classes more than I attended, and I was bored to death,” she says. “Everything I was studying was theory-based, and I wanted practice and action. Besides, I was receiving financial aid that could have gone to somebody else. I liked the Bay Area, but I had to figure out how to stay there without being in school.”

After a stint working at Starbucks, Dana’s political activism and her volunteer work on political campaigns made her a valuable addition to work with Medical Students for Choice, a nonprofit that taught abortion surgical techniques to medical students.

“Can you believe they were getting no training, based on the political climate, even though it was necessary that they know what to do if a patient had a miscarriage and needed similar procedures?” she says. “After about five years, I had been promoted to program manager.

“My boss was constantly encouraging me to return to school, and I was finally ready to go back. My first stop was at San Francisco State, where I noticed that the women in class, when they would deign to raise their hand and be called on, would always start by saying, ‘This may sound stupid, but … .’ The men never did that; instead, they would ask questions that were legitimately stupid! It was so different from what I had gotten used to, so I went back to Mills and completed a degree in sociology.”

Dana spent a month in Oaxaca, Mexico, learning Spanish, and then returned north to work with the California Wilderness Coalition. Her next vocational experience came after volunteering at Sankofa Academy, a public school in Oakland: “Sankofa is a Ghanian term for the concept of knowing where you come from so you can know where you’re going.” Dana spent six years there, becoming an after-school program coordinator.

Dana recently decided to return home to the Coachella Valley.

“In the Bay Area, there’s so much happening; it’s harder to find community,” she says. “My grandmother died, and I felt called to come home. I wanted to be closer to my family. My soul is at peace here in a way that it isn’t anywhere else. I intend to spend the rest of my life here. Now I just have to find a job.”

Dana’s latest passion—in addition to her abstract, emotion-filled painting—is the Palm Springs drag community.

“I found Toucans and was blown away by the art of it,” Dana says. “I always found drag to be impressive, but it never resonated with me the way it does here.”

Her advice for local young people: “It’s good to get away and experience somewhere else, but be open to the idea that you don’t really know what you want to do. Goals are nice to have, but you don’t have to plan your life out. Just remember that it’s OK to change your mind.

“I never wanted to be in an office in a suit. I knew you had to have money to survive, but from the experience of my own life, I know money doesn’t mean you’ll have a great life outcome. It may mean the ability to have a different lifestyle, but it doesn’t lead directly to happiness or longevity. I believe it’s possible here to earn a living and have a life.

“I’m not into the spotlight. I like to be behind the scenes. I just want to make a difference.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Photographer Arthur Coleman has lived in the Coachella Valley for more than 50 years, and his stunning work is known throughout the area and the world. He’s also known for helping develop the tantalizing dining section of Palm Springs Life.

“This is the place with the best light in the world,” he says. “I call it ‘sweet light.’”

Born in Seattle, Coleman—he prefers not to disclose his age (“The number is too big now!” he says)—had what he calls “an interesting childhood,” albeit a good one. Coleman’s father ran a hotel, while his mother was “a true housewife.”

“She was involved in Scouts, coaching, everything I did,” he recalls. “She was charismatic and knockdown beautiful—kind of Betty Boop beautiful. My dad worked nights, so (my younger brother and I) got him during the day.

“You know, I’ve had all these people in my life with horrendous childhoods. Not me. If I’ve had problems, they’re my own,” Coleman says. “My mom taught me what it’s like to grow up knowing you come first with someone. My dad always backed me, whatever the situation was. They raised me to know I could do anything I wanted. There were just a few rules: no guns, no motorcycles, no bartending and not a bellman—nothing requiring tips.”

The motorcycle rule was broken when Steve McQueen became Coleman’s next-door neighbor after the family moved to Los Angeles.

“I wanted a motorcycle, and my mom was willing to compromise for a Vespa scooter,” Coleman says. “McQueen came over and told my mom, ‘The Vespa has such little wheels. It’s dangerous. I’ll pick him out a motorcycle.’ She said, ‘Well, I guess it’s OK.’ I think she was blushing. Hey, it was Steve McQueen! She even cooked him some breakfast.

“He taught me how to ride the bike out in the desert, and he was also the one who got me into ‘guy’ stuff, like pumping iron to get some muscles.”

Coleman got started in photography when he was about 8 years old. “My mom was a gambler. She’d go to a country club where once a month, they’d bring in machines, and they could gamble. She won a camera and gave it to me. Also, my dad’s hobby was photography, so it was an easy fit.”

Coleman’s one marriage produced a daughter who is also a photographer.

“I’m pretty much self-taught,” he says. “I’ve worked with world-class photographers, and I’ve picked up things like a sponge.

“I’ve always worked. I started at about 11 or 12 with a little business going door-to-door selling Cub Scout stuff. I sold handmade Christmas gifts, wooden address signs, and even did asphalt on driveways. The city once came to find out who was running this company doing asphalt work, and I showed them my two buckets and three brooms.”

Coleman found himself in Las Vegas in his late teens working for Red Skelton. “My mom had met him once, and I got a job as his assistant entertainment director. It was amazing,” he says. “My dad had hit some hard times earlier on and had to sell an expensive camera, so when I got the job in Las Vegas, I bought him a really good camera. When I graduated from high school, he bought me the same Rolleiflex.”

The work with Skelton wasn’t all fun.

“I was only 18 when I found his ex-wife after she killed herself,” says Coleman. “It was so traumatic. But, hey, I’ve been in the Enquirer four times!”

Yes, Coleman has a wicked sense of humor.

Coleman attended the University of Washington and also took classes at College of the Desert, but says he was bored. “I didn’t know for sure what I wanted to do. I studied architecture and a little law. But my whole thing was to be working,” he says.

By 21, Coleman knew he wanted to start working for himself. “I had been hanging out at CBS, and people asked me to do some photos, so I just started playing around with it.”

Coleman came to the desert from Los Angeles, rented a building and began using the small amount of equipment he had.

“I was dating a gal who worked for the brand-new convention and visitors’ bureau, the first one we had down here,” he says. “I suggested that they could pay for part of my studio and use my darkroom; in return, I started shooting for them, and some of my pictures went international. I’ve been really lucky.”

Coleman is realistic about the profession he loves.

“Still photography is dying,” he says. “Everyone can take pictures on their phones and make their own movies and send them around. I’m working now on time-lapse and using drones. The main thing is that I can do anything—architecture, landscapes, fashion, food, still-life, portraits. I’ve developed techniques for all of them. I’ve even been working on a musical film. I don’t ever want to be pigeonholed.”

Coleman’s home studio in Palm Desert is quite impressive. Tall cabinets contain carefully curated images, and everything is laid out with a distinct space for each piece of equipment, no matter how small.

“Everything has to be in its own place, and I don’t like extension cords or messy wires,” says Coleman. “I’m kind of ADD, but I’ve learned to work with whatever is there when I get there. When I started, I’d stop a project if everything wasn’t just the way I wanted it. I once drove all the way back to L.A., because when I looked at the prints, I realized I had punched a pillow, but hadn’t creased it to get just the right angles. Now, I feel accomplished with making it work, whatever the situation.

“My driving principle is that I finish things: If I start it, I finish it.”

Arthur Coleman can drop names with the best of them, from McQueen and Skelton to Sinatra, but it’s his craft that most delights Coleman.

“What I see is 180 degrees of whatever the view is. When I’m looking at something, I’m seeing the whole thing ‘eye to eye,’ peripherally, not just the middle,” he says.

Coleman, however, has diverse interests beyond photography. He is currently learning about prickly pears and organic tequila. He serves on the board at Sandpiper, a classic Palm Desert development, and is developing low-water xerography. He reads, but not for escape or relaxation: “I read to learn things, for information.”

Coleman is somewhat philosophical after several health scares within the past few years.

“Life itself makes me happy now. I get up, make some coffee, and get ready for the day,” he says. “I just want to be alive, breathing, eating fine food, seeing friends and doing my work. Most of all, I want to be thankful.

“I don’t consider myself highly intelligent. What I do comes from my gut. I love to create. However short the time I may have left is, I want to do my work every day with passion.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

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