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In 2000, Pay It Forward, a movie starring Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey and Hayley Joel Osment, made an indelible impression on me.

I believe every occurrence in every moment of our lives is open for us to learn something from it—if we can just figure out what that lesson is, whether we like it or not. We can then pay it forward in how we live our lives.

So it’s the start of the new year, and we’re doing what we do every year—comparing lists of bests and worsts, wins and losses of the previous year. One list I’m always both ready and reluctant to see: celebrity deaths.

The older I get, the more I notice that lots and lots of people I used to “know” are gone: movie stars, local heroes, famous leaders and friends. But instead of lamenting losses, I’ve decided to celebrate lessons learned and pay them forward.

Jonathan Winters died this year at the age of 87. He was the reason my late husband, John Aylesworth, came to Los Angeles from New York, to produce one of Winters’ television series. Although I never met him, “Jonny” had an enormous impact on my life. He was the first comedian I had ever seen who played out his childlike stream of consciousness. We all have it; we just don’t often “see” it, and hardly anyone can express it in real time. (OK, Robin Williams can, but he didn’t die this year.)

Sometimes, when I’m noticing every little thing that distracts me from what I’ve set out to do—those flowers need more water; I should spot-clean that rug; better put those shoes away; have to mail those letters; where are my keys—I think of the way Winters made each of those tiny observations funny: by sharing them, using characters to mock them, taking our obsession with them to its absurdity, and making us laugh at ourselves through him.

I try to catch myself and verbalize—even if I’m alone—the games my mind is playing. I laugh out loud. Thanks for that, Jonny.

Agua Caliente Chairman Richard Milanovich died in 2012, but to me, it feels so recent. He was very smart about how the tribe made local political contributions—generally to support likely winners, so that tribal interests would be heard. Milanovich and I met when we participated in several events on the same stage; we always were glad to see each other. He was a warm and charming man.

When I announced I would run against Sonny Bono in the 1996 election for Congress, everyone assumed it was unlikely that I would even make a decent showing against such a well-funded and high-name-recognition politician/celebrity. The chance that someone like politically sophisticated Milanovich would support me seemed impossible—but he was an early, quiet supporter, without being asked, with great warmth and encouragement. I’ll never forget that. I learned that it’s not enough to hedge your bets; it’s also important to do it with sincerity and class. Richard Milanovich was a class act.

Local philanthropist, socialite and TV-station owner, Jackie Lee Houston, known for her pile of blonde hair and her amazing presence, died in 2011, but that, too, seems like yesterday. I didn’t “know” Jackie Lee, but I did meet or see her a couple of times—and each time was significant for a different reason.

My first meeting with Jackie Lee was at a birthday party for singer Jack Jones. The crowd was glittery; the atmosphere was festive; the private home was lovely. A chair—situated somewhat to the side of the crowd, strategically and beautifully placed near a small table with a slender lamp on it—looked like an ancient throne of some kind, festooned with ribbons. I noticed it when I arrived, and it had remained empty.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a subtle shift in the air, and Jackie Lee was magically seated in “the chair.”

I am nothing if not brash—to the point of occasional not-socially-correct behavior—and I figured since we were at the same party, it would be neighborly to say hello. So I approached “Mrs. Houston,” introduced myself with a couple of lame local references, and commented that I had been wondering for whom the throne had been placed.

She laughed heartily and remarked that she knew she had forgotten something—“my crown.” For the remaining moments of our ensuing conversation, I was completely at ease. Now that’s a skill to pay forward to everyone you encounter!

My other lesson from Jackie Lee Houston was about her husband. I’ve never officially met Jim Houston, but at several events at which I was in their company, I saw the kind, loving, compassionate and totally supportive role he played on her behalf. That is the appropriate way to show true loving concern for someone you care about. I remembered that example when my husband was ill.

Eleanor Parker was an actress when movies like The Man With the Golden Arm were being made. She died in 2013 here in Palm Springs.

The 1955 film was highly controversial at the time, and was denied the Motion Picture Association of America seal because it dealt directly with drug addiction. It also starred Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. (When I was in my teens, there was nobody I wanted to be more than Kim Novak!)

Parker’s performance in that movie has never left me. Her insecurity and the irrational fear of losing her relationship with her drug-addicted husband led her to a manipulating dependence that was debilitating and totally destructive. I never forgot the lesson Parker’s character taught me: Co-dependence goes in both directions. I’ve remembered that with the alcoholics and druggies and vampires I’ve encountered over the years. Thank you, Eleanor!

Finally, we lost actress Julie Harris in 2013. She was brilliant, and I remember seeing her in The Member of the Wedding back in 1952. I identified with her spirit and her frustration at what it means to have to grow up.

In 1955, Julie Harris again stunned me in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, directed by Elia Kazan, playing opposite James Dean. Any man who has not seen that movie should do so. If ever a script expressed the frustration of brotherly competition, and how one figures out what it means to be a man, this is the one.

I most remember Harris’ plaintive tone of voice, her fragility combined with enormous strength and determination, her yearning to bring healing to a distressed family, and her compassion and love for a man struggling to find himself.

The lesson from Julie Harris in East of Eden? Love is the only thing that matters, and it has to begin with knowing how to love yourself.

Pay it forward. Happy New Year!

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.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Twenty years ago, I covered my first Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The PSIFF was a much more modest event back then, and that year, the star of the festival was Sophia Loren. I remember it well—since she kissed me before a sea of cameras! She did it after I publicly asked her to send a message of peace to my country, the war-torn Yugoslavia.

Then and there, I fell in love with Sophia—and the festival, too.

In 2002, I was invited to a special event celebrating the 90th birthday of Loren’s husband, famed producer Carlo Ponti, with their son, Carlo Ponti Jr., conducting a symphony; their second son, director Edoardo Ponti, was also in attendance. I believe Spencer’s Restaurant owner Harold Matzner underwrote the event.

Matzner’s a Jersey fellow and a longtime PSIFF chairman. Following the event, I went to see him at his office, and we came up with an idea for the next PSIFF: Matzner was going to pay to bring an entire symphonic orchestra, with conductor Ponti Jr., to the fest! The orchestra was going to perform “Lara’s Theme,” from Dr. Zhivago, a movie produced by Ponti Sr. The idea was that Sophia Loren would give a lifetime achievement award to her hubby, and Edoardo Ponti would show his new movie at the fest.

It didn’t happen, because Ponti Sr. fell ill.

It takes a lot to run a film festival, including loads of money, and the PSIFF has long depended on the hefty help of its wealthy supporters. The Palm Springs International Film Society’s grand dame, the late Jackie Lee Houston, hosted so many events for the fest that it’s hard to count them all. The city of Palm Springs has pitched in, too; hey, the mayor, Steve Pougnet, has even been employed by the festival to assist in bringing in the dough!

Aside from money, the growing film fest needed star power—and, again, a lot of it. The fest’s most connected publicist, Ronni Chasen, steadily delivered the stars to the fest for a decade. Shockingly, Chasen was shot to death in 2010. According to the reports, Chasen was shot four times by a convicted felon while she drove her Mercedes on Sunset in Los Angeles. Later, the man who allegedly shot her killed himself during a standoff with the police. (There are many conspiracy theories about her tragic end, of course.) The festival offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of the perpetrator. The PSIFF is run by a nonprofit organization, so Chairman Matzner, once again, footed the bill.

But, as they say, the show must go on. Nowadays, the PSIFF—going into its 25th year—appears to be a well-oiled machine, with exclusive sponsors and record attendance. Still, by film-festival standards, the Palm Springs fest is fairly young; after all, the Venice Film Festival just celebrated its 70th year.

Though the PSIFF often has some Best Foreign Language Film Oscar buzz attached to its image, when it comes to popularity, the PSIFF lags behind the Tribeca fest, founded by Robert De Niro, as well as Robert Redford’s Sundance fest. The fact is, the star-power of the movie icons serves their festivals well. Here, the PSIFF was founded by the late Sonny Bono, in order to bring movie glamor back to Palm Springs. I’ve covered film fests in destination cities such as Rio and Bangkok, and little Palm Springs can’t match them in terms of glamor and image.

The tradition and reputation of a film fest matters. The legacy of a film fest matters. But what matters most are the films: Despite the tycoons and the big stars, a film festival is really about the movies being presented—and the PSIFF always offers a top-notch selection of films. And those films are what attendees will remember the most.

That’s a wrap!

The Palm Springs International Film Festival takes place Jan. 3-13, 2014. Most films are $11 or $12. For more information, including pass information and a complete schedule, visit www.psfilmfest.org.

Published in Previews and Features

If you've ever been confused about which channel you're watching here in the Coachella Valley, you're not alone: It's been a year since the merger between the former KPSP Channel 2 and KESQ Channel 3, which left some people scratching their heads.

CBS affiliate KPSP, otherwise known as "Local 2," was the only locally owned station in the valley. Philanthropist Jackie Lee Houston and her husband, Jim, started the station several years ago and used it to raise awareness of community-based efforts.

When Jackie Lee passed away, Jim decided to sell the station to the company which owns ABC affiliate KESQ, otherwise known as "News Channel 3." Channel 2 immediately moved operations into Channel 3's building, and now both stations broadcast their news from the same studio in Palm Desert. They also now use the same call letters.

If you think that is confusing, it doesn't end there.

News Channel 3 continues to air their evening newscasts at 5 and 6, while Local 2 broadcasts theirs at 5:30, and 6:30. But wait, there's more. The company that owns News Channel 3 also owns KDFX, otherwise known as "Fox 11." At 10 every night, they air a newscast called "CBS Local 2 News at 10 on Fox 11." This newscast is replayed on Channel 2 and airs as "CBS Local 2 Night Side."

This gives the anchors at Local 2 the opportunity to go home early where they can snuggle in bed and dream of greener pastures, presumably without the ubiquitous blue backdrop.

But wait, there's even more. Every morning, News Channel 3 airs a morning show from 5 to 7. Then from 7 to 9, it's replayed on Channel 11, where it's called "News Channel 3 in the Morning on Fox 11."

If you tune in on the weekend, both stations have different anchors, but use the same weatherman and sportscaster. And no matter which day you tune in, you'll always find both stations using the same reporters.

Some have complained that the merger has led to a lack of diversity, while Local 2 management contends that it gives them more resources to cover the news. Both viewpoints are actually correct: The merger does give Local 2 more resources with which to cover the news, while at the same time becoming a clone of News Channel 3.

The issue is not the quality of the newscasts. Both stations do a surprisingly good job for a smaller market. It's the duplication. If you were to watch both stations' newscasts back-to-back, you would essentially be watching the same program, but with different anchors.

There is one bright spot, though: Every weeknight at 6:45, you can watch "Eye on the Desert." The 15-minute program, anchored by Local 2's weatherman, is the most informative arts and entertainment show in the Coachella Valley.

By the way, there is another TV player in town: The NBC affiliate, KMIR 6: The call letters were named after the historic El Mirador Hotel, where the station was originally located.

The two principal anchors on Local 2 and News Channel 3 are rumored to be golf buddies, which makes me wonder what they talk about on the golf course. Could they have inside information about their parent company's plans to take over more stations? Could CNN be next? What about "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer on News Channel 3." Or perhaps "Anderson Cooper 360 on Local 2 News at 10 on Fox 11."

But why stop there? They might as well go worldwide. Don't be surprised if you find yourself watching "BBC World Service on News Channel 3 in the Morning."

What would Walter Cronkite think? Or more importantly, what would Ted Baxter think? The future of serious journalism in the Coachella Valley is at stake.

The least they could do is use a different-colored backdrop for each station so you can remember which channel you're watching. For instance, KESQ can keep the blue; Local 2 can use green; and Fox 11 can be red.

Or better yet, they can have a strobe light shining different colors and play disco music. I'd rather watch the anchors get up and dance than watch the same newscast on the same set all day long. After all, it's all about diversity. We'll be right back.

Published in Humor