ONCE UPON A TIME...
by Ross Altman
Beloved Los Angeles Storyteller Kathleen Zundell passed away Monday morning, May 11, 2009. Kathleen was Storyteller-in- Residence at UCLA-Seeds University Elementary School for many years, as well as at Wildwood School and Children’s Community School in the Valley. She continued teaching and performing even as she battled both Hodgkin’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma with both conventional and alternative methods of healing.
Kathleen helped revive the ancient art of storytelling in Los Angeles when she co-founded (with Peggy Prentice) Community Storytellers in 1981, which continues to meet the second Thursday of every month at the Culver-Palms Methodist Church. Kathleen told “stories of fearless kids, feisty women, family foibles and four-footed creatures.” In 1993, she joined with deaf actor Alan “SPO” Schwartz to create the duo Talking Hands and bring the sounds of silence to schoolchildren throughout the city. The following year Kathleen, Karen Golden, Angela Lloyd, Vicki Juditz and Leslie Perry founded the performing collective With Our Words—WOW—to bring their diverse stories to adult audiences at the Beverly Hills Public Library.
Her unique style of storytelling blended elements of myth, ritual, personal stories and burlesque, all ﬁltered through a post-sixties sensibility and warmth of humanity that embraced both human and animal worlds with equal devotion.
She brought that same devotional character to her personal life, wherein she became the hub of a storytelling community that occasionally met at her home both in Topanga Canyon and later on in Mar Vista. She made each informal gathering memorable for its good food served pot-luck style, followed by a time for both storytellers and singers to share their latest confabulations, and ending with some form of ritual celebration that she would often spend hours preparing. While living in Topanga, she became famous for her early afternoon nature hikes and late night Moon Walks, which were highlighted by her intimate knowledge of local ﬂowers, trees and constellations.
Those fortunate friends who were on her extensive invitation list got to bring in the New Year on New Year’s Day rather than Eve, a holiday which had special meaning for Kathleen, since it was also her birthday.
For Kathleen storytelling was the quintessential human art form, a way of combining music, storytelling, poetry, acting and even dance into a uniﬁed whole, reaching as far back as the Bible and ancient Greece for some tales, with a broad knowledge of Native American creation myths, and her own life, which like all life she regarded as sacred and worth ﬁghting for.
And ﬁght she did, enduring prolonged pain and ongoing discomfort from both chemotherapy and radiation, as well as meditation, exercise, diet and spiritual disciplines that kept her outlook positive and forward-looking in the most physically demanding routines. In addition she endured the psychological torture of being in occasional periods of remission followed by a return of the disease that made death her constant companion.
Fortunately she had other companions, including her life partner, peace activist John Owen, her extraordinary dogs Cash and Lady, along with the domestic angels—her cats.
At the most recent gathering for her New Year’s Day/Birthday party Kathleen read a new story entitled “White Flowers/Black Berries,” which was just published. “White Flowers/Black Berries” recounts her mother’s love of gardening, wilderness and a simple Thoreau-like dedication to the natural world, all tinged with sadness at her mother’s recent death. Her story became as well a kind of eulogy for all things wise and wonderful, which sum up Kathleen Zundell as well as any two words can.
Kathleen was co-founder of Community Storytellers and a member of the National Storytelling Network. Presented with a Service and Leadership Award from National Storytelling Network in 2002 and honored by the Los Angeles Storytelling Festival in 2004 with the Spirit of Storytelling Award, Ms. Zundell remains active in sponsoring creative events involving the oral tradition.
Kathleen performed as part of the duo, "Talking Hands" with Alan "SPO" Schwartz. They performed in front of hundreds of schoolchildren telling stories through speech and sign language.
Kathleen performed for many years in the group, "With Our Words" with from left to right: Karen Golden, Kathleen, Angela Lloyd, Vicki Juditz, and Leslie Perry. They performed for years at the Beverly Hills Public Library's Adult Storytelling series.
Nature Hikes and Storytelling in Topanga Canyon, CA
Email from Joseph Daniel Sobol
Immediately after my wedding to Mitzi during the summer of 1982 I took most of the wedding money and ran off (without my new bride, by the way-a fact which she will quite properly never, ever let me forget) to take two weeks of storytelling and clown skills workshops in upstate New York. I came back to LA flushed with the radical communitarian spirit of the nascent storytelling movement and placed an ad in the LA Weekly. "STORYTELLERS UNITE!" it proclaimed in bold uppercase, in complete innocence of the fact that they already were uniting, under the loving spurs of Peggy Prentice and Kathleen Zundell. It wasn't more than a day or two after the ad came out that I got a call from a sweetly curious Kathleen, wondering who else was out there trying to rally storytellers to the barricades and take back the culture from the unwashed drones of Movieland.
A few days later she and her partner John Bennett showed up at our door. My first impression of Kathleen was, here's a friend of my soul, someone who will add to my spirit as long as I live. Her eyes radiated immediate loving acceptance, deepened by meditation and leavened with laughter. Those were the days, not quite yet forgotten, when the spiritual roots of the storytelling movement were very near to the surface. We quickly and approvingly compared paths, teachers and teachings, shared esoteric notes and tips on guided visualizations. It seems that cultural revivals often begin that way, with a hunger for spiritual growth that only gradually condenses into a drive for career advancement and personal glory. Kathleen belonged to that phase of the movement, body and soul. Though she put in her time in the freeway warrior mode, driving all over the LA basin with a car full of puppets and a headful of crafted programs, and she was certainly grateful to storytelling for making her a living, she never much cared about it making her a star. She was much more focused on creating spaces, events, and atmospheres within which she, her comrades, and the art form could flourish and produce its own fuzzy energies of compassion and community.
We worked together a lot that year in Community Storytellers, and that's where I got my first real taste of storytelling as a way of life. After I moved to North Carolina and later to Chicago and Tennessee, Kathleen was always a fixed star in my own constellation of the storytelling world, one I could navigate by for a pure light of devotion, service, reverence, and merriment. Once we went up Beech Mountain, North Carolina to visit the great Appalachian traditional teller Ray Hicks. We taped the whole evening. I have written a couple of articles about it and expect to get at least a couple more, but alongside of Ray's great Jack tale telling the thing that I cherish most about the tapes is the sound of Kathleen's listening. You can hear her throughout, her laughter piping like an astonished ocarina or her "Ahhs" and "Mmms" flowing back into the storyteller's images and filling the room with delight.
There are two essential attributes of a great storyteller, often neglected in the pursuit of virtuosity and success: a storyteller should love a good story whether they are telling it or listening to it, and a storyteller should love all beings, should love them for their natures and should nurture the story within them and between us. Kathleen had those attributes in abundance. I can hardly imagine the world without her, but I don't have to, really-since I'll always have her voice, her laughter, and her listening in my head and in my heart