CVIndependent

Fri04032020

Last updateMon, 23 Mar 2020 12pm

Most of us live our lives within the boundaries and expectations set for us by our families and society. Some of us are lucky enough to discover our calling—like a bolt out of the blue.

I had a friend who was something of a ne’er-do-well in his youth, but late one night while standing on the deck of a ship, he had what he could only describe as a revelation: His calling was to preach the gospel. He pursued that career for the rest of his life.

I met Coachella Valley resident Kate Zenna at a Palm Springs Women in Film and Television event. She is smart, articulate, personable and enthusiastic—and like my aforementioned friend, she found her calling via what she describes as an epiphany.

Zenna was born in Montreal and lived for a time in Newfoundland before she and her younger brother (“I make him tell people he’s my big brother!”) were raised in Toronto.

“I went to Queen’s University,” she says, “and I was always running late. At the last minute that I had to declare a major, I ran into the building next to where I was standing and ended up majoring in geography—the same degree my mom had. My parents used to say, ‘She’s going to be the one,’ meaning I was expected to go far. I thought I might become an environmental lawyer.

“I was only a semester short of graduating college when I literally had a vision. I felt as if I were in a trance: I saw an older version of me on a stage. Somebody was telling me and showing me that I was to be an actor. I had always been kind of shy and awkward, never wanting to be the center of attention. Suddenly, I was going to quit school and do this thing that I had never even considered. My parents freaked out!”

Zenna’s mom urged her to complete her bachelor’s degree. “She said, ‘It’s important to have those letters after your name, in case you need something to fall back on,’ and luckily, I listened to her.”

Zenna auditioned for a part with a local community theater—and got the job. “I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t that hard.’ I moved to Vancouver to study acting at their film school after I graduated. I had to rediscover who I was. It had all been as much of a shock to me as to my parents.”

Meanwhile, Zenna’s acting career flourished. “I was getting lots of roles. And my first paying film job, in Toronto, got me a supporting role nomination for the Canadian Screen Awards.”

A major change in Zenna’s life came when her mother became ill. “There are always situations where somebody has to step up,” says Zenna. “I’ve always been that person. I got really involved when my mom got sick. It flipped a switch in me about taking charge.

“After my mom died, I spent the next three years feeling like a shaken-up snow globe. Finally, I came to Los Angeles, and in 2004, I got my green card and got swooped up working steadily in television and film.”

Zenna has been in major studio movies as well as cable productions, and has worked on all the major television networks. “But even getting lots of jobs, I had to make a living. I know my value as a human being goes beyond just waiting for the phone to ring.

“I learned cooking from my father, and I made really good vegan meals for myself, so I decided to start my own food business. I’m willing ask for help and to accept help, and I knew I needed financing and a mentor. I went online to a website that puts people together and met this amazing CPA from Texas, David Wolfe. He came to L.A.; I gave him some of my food; and his reaction was, ‘I could eat this every day!’ He decided he would mentor me. Meanwhile, I realized that he did promotional videos, and I thought I could ‘mentor’ him to be better on camera.”

Today, Kate Zenna and David Wolfe are partners in ZennaWolfe, a company that uses working actors to train executives how to be themselves on camera. They also co-authored a book, The Responsible Artist: A Financial Guide for Conscientious Creative Souls Who Keep the Dream Alive and Have a Great Life Along the Way, to bring sensible financial awareness to people in artistic fields who too often leave decision-making to others—with potentially disastrous results.

“The book is financial, spiritual and emotional help for everybody, but particularly for artists,” says Zenna. “I’m very protective toward the younger actors who don’t realize what can happen, because the industry won’t take care of you.”

Zenna moved to the Coachella Valley last year.

“As much as I adore about Los Angeles, it got to the point where I realized I wasn’t living the kind of life I wanted. The traffic was paralyzing, and it was the reason I rarely saw friends or took advantage of the incredible cultural events. Since moving to the desert, my social life has not only been revived—but is thriving. And the one thing I noticed most when I moved here is that the people seem so happy! It’s like a small town, and everyone shares the knowledge that we are simply so darn lucky to have found our way here.

“My days are full of fun and include work, writing, creating, connecting with friends or meeting new friends, enjoying the personalities of my dogs—and, of course, cooking healthy and delicious food.

”I’ve always been supremely curious about people and why they’re the way they are. At 13, I wrote an essay about what was at the core of human essence. There are so many layers, including our genetic DNA, family influences, personal experiences and even geography. People need to get out of their own way, but they don’t know what they don’t know.”

Perhaps, like Zenna, they will be lucky enough to have an epiphany.

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

Let me bring you into the world of Sharon Katz, a South African by birth, a music therapist by profession—and, in the words of musician Pete Seeger, “one of the people who is saving the world.”

She was born in Port Elizabeth (now called Nelson Mandela Bay) under apartheid—the rigid racial/social ideology system that required citizens to live by race designations (black, colored/mixed race, Indian, white) in segregated areas of the country, with restrictions about who could go where and when.

“We lived in a conspiracy of silence,” she says. “South Africa was a prison for everybody.”

As a young woman traveling with her family, Katz saw how others barely survived in their segregated communities, and she became obsessed with finding a way to support change. “How can this be my country?” she asked herself. “Seeing all of that changed me forever.”

In her teens, she would sneak out to the “blacks only” townships by hiding under blankets in the back seat of a friend’s car in order to get past identification checkpoints.

After getting her education as a music therapist, Katz began her mission to bridge the country’s artificially imposed racial barriers through music. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison, but before the promised national elections were held, Katz came up with a revolutionary idea: She would form an integrated children’s choir to bring together young people from across South Africa, to show that they were all the same when their voices were blended.

“I saw music as a way to transform the system,” says Katz. She traveled throughout the country teaching the same songs and dance routines to students in their individual segregated schools.

In 1992, Katz brought 500 children to Durban, where, for the first time, they were grouped by voice, regardless of race, and practiced together for their first concert. One of the student participants said, “Being in the group made me believe I could do anything with my life.”

Expecting a small audience response, Katz was overwhelmed when the hall was overflowing—and those attending somehow overcame traditions about integrating as an audience.

“There were so many people,” says Katz, “that they not only sat together, but people actually had to sit on other people’s laps. It was truly something to see.”

Enter Marilyn Cohen, executive producer of When Voices Meet, the film that documents Katz’s work. Cohen helped raise money to procure a train that became known as the Peace Train, which toured throughout South Africa in 1993 with the children’s choir, dancers and musicians. The government and protesters did not make it easy, but these remarkable women prevailed.

“It was music that brought the disparate groups together,” says Katz, “and the harmony of their voices became emblematic of the New South Africa.”

At each stop along the route, they performed their concert and encouraged people of all races, cultures, ages and political affiliations to put down their guns and hostilities, and to prepare for the country’s transition to a peaceful democracy. Mandela was elected president several months later.

Actress and filmmaker Shari Belafonte is on the advisory board of Palm Springs Women in Film and Television (PSWIFT). She saw the documentary at a film festival in Washington, D.C., and was so impressed—not just by the film, but by its subject matter and its “star”—that she encouraged PSWIFT to find a way to bring the film to Palm Springs.

I attended the PSWIFT-sponsored screening in the evening, shortly after 120 students from Palm Springs High School had seen it. The film, first released in 2015, is powerful and uplifting, and has won awards throughout the world. Its staff, crew and supporters represent an integrated coalition of cultures.

The local audience was spellbound, with many in tears. Both Katz and Cohen attended. Afterward, Katz brought her guitar on stage, answered questions and led us all in song.

Cohen spoke about their upcoming project, “The Peace Train 2016 Tour Across America: Diverse Voices Singing in Harmony,” which will begin on July 4 in Ferguson, Mo., where local youth, arts educators and police are working together to coordinate the kickoff events. It will then make its way to St. Louis, Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and end with performances in Washington, D.C., on July 17 at the Washington Monument, and July 18 at the South African Embassy.

“We received impassioned calls from throughout the U.S.,” says Cohen. “The film has inspired people to re-examine the issues currently dividing Americans and to do something constructive about improving human relations and social justice.”

Many of the Palm Springs High School students hope to get on the train, and opportunities exist for chaperones and parents to accompany them. Katz and Cohen are traveling around the U.S. to show the film and garner support for the project. The cost per person is $1,800, which includes choral training before the tour, train fare, meals, hotels and performances. Tax-deductible support can be offered through the project’s website, www.GetOnThePeaceTrain.org. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for some of our local students if corporate sponsors came forward to help?

Cohen is reverent in describing Katz: “There are angels who walk among us. There are those who choose the selfless path for the good of those less fortunate, especially children, and who dedicate their time on this earth to doing that work.”

Katz is most eloquent when speaking about her fellow South Africans.

“It’s an incredible spirit, a spirit of optimism and love and openness to something new,” she said. “If we could infuse the whole world with the spirit of the South African people, we would be living in a wonderful place now.”

Every once in a while, I meet someone who revives my faith in the idealistic notion that one person can make a difference that changes the world. I now humbly add two names to that short list: Sharon Katz and Marilyn Cohen.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. 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’m always fascinated by people who find ways to change their lives and pursue their dreams.

Leanna Bonamici, 58, of Palm Springs, is a great example of such a person.

After a career in insurance and real estate, Leanna became a wine consultant, buyer and educator, teaching classes on how to have “wine-pairing dinners.”

“It was a very engaging subject,” she says. “I loved it. People would say, ‘I have to impress my boss.’ I always told them that the best bottle of wine in the world is the one that’s your favorite!

“But after 10 years, I wanted to do more. I was interested in how to reach the masses of people who aren’t really into wine.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, Leanna had wanted to be a producer—organizing projects and seeing them come to fruition. “I wanted to be behind the scenes. For years, I carried around the UCLA extension catalog, and I finally took classes in production. I’ve always loved that side of things. Anybody can have a great idea, but how do you monetize it?”

Leanna wrote to various show business experts, asking them questions about getting into the production side. “I especially contacted women in the industry. They were very congenial and helpful,” she says.

While working for an independent producer, Leanna attended a production-related event in San Diego, put on by the San Diego Film Commission and the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. “There were world leaders in the industry, and I knew after that what I wanted to do. I got a day job with a fundraising organization, putting on events to raise money from people in the entertainment industry. Putting on events is production—you have to know where every fire is and how to put it out.”

Leanna came to the Coachella Valley in 1998 when her mom died, and her dad got sick. She committed to being his full-time caretaker. Her first “job” here was volunteering for the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

“While my dad was healing,” says Leanna, “he came up with a plan to pay off the national debt! So when he read about possible bankruptcy in Desert Hot Springs, he devised a plan to help the city. In the process of speaking about it at a council meeting, someone stood up and said, ‘I’ve got a local TV show, and I’ll put you on the air.’ So I thought, ‘I can work with them and produce a wine show.’”

When Leanna learned that a post-office building in DHS was becoming available, “I was asked if I could turn the building into a studio for local producers to use.” She made a deal to buy the building. “For the next 10 months, our entire family transformed the building into a production facility for rent by others, including post-production capability. Then I began developing projects of my own.”

Leanna produced a documentary about the mineral waters of DHS, and a television series about restaurants, Two Forks Up, both of which aired locally. She also produced a feature film which, she says smiling, “is still awaiting distribution.”

Leanna’s most visible current project is Shorts Showcase, featuring short films from around the world, which runs on PBS stations throughout Southern California. “I was thinking about this project for a long time,” she says. “I especially love the documentaries. They’re real stories and history.”

Leanna is now partnering with Palm Desert resident Carole Krechman on the CV Studios Entertainment Network. “We’re building a network for premium content—no gore, violence, or porn. We just want good product,” Leanna says.

One new show is Cooking It Up With Karly, featuring 11-year-old Karly Smith, a talented youngster who demonstrates healthy food alternatives for young people and their families. Another is the 30-minute weekly series The Real Desert, featuring desert resident/historian Steve Brown.

Leanna was a founder of the Palm Springs Women in Film and Television chapter in 2001. “We bring together women and men connected to the entertainment industry, as well as raise money for scholarships that support interested young people.”

Leanna’s hope for the CV Studios Entertainment Network includes support for the development initiative articulated by the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership that focuses on creative arts and design as one of its core sectors for economic development.

Leanna is also supportive of the performing arts pathway being offered by Rancho Mirage High School. “I love the idea of having that here,” she says, “but there are not enough jobs. We need to back up those students by building good production facilities locally.”

If money were no object, what would Leanna be doing? “I love what we’re building with network and production capabilities. However, if I had total freedom, I would still be producing, but I’d do the wine documentaries I’ve always wanted to do. I want to tell those stories, reaching the broadest audience possible—and I’d be doing it for the fun of it as well!”

As for pursuing one’s dreams, I finally graduated college at 59, then got a law degree, and just completed a master’s degree in Education. Like Leanna, I believe it’s never too late to change your life.

What are you waiting for?

Published in Know Your Neighbors