Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

For my southlands adventures, I stayed in the artist’s enclave: Topanga Canyon.

The town of Topanga, situated northwest of downtown Los Angles, has been a magnet for artists, musicians, free-thinkers, bohemians, “lefties”, and filmakers for many years. The area still maintains a funky, laid-back vibe. When you are in the canyon, you feel a million miles away from the largest city in California and second largest city in the United States: L.A.

The area has had a long history with musicians. In 1952, folk singer Woody Guthrie moved here. A partial list of musicians that at one time made the canyon their home are: Neil Young, Stephan Stills, Jim Morrison, Randy California, Taj Mahal, Billy Preston, Gram Parsons, Mick Fleetwood, Marin Gaye, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell. It was in at his Topanga Canyon house that Neil Young wrote and recorded his masterpiece, After the Gold Rush in 1969-70.

A reminder of the Topanga’s artistic past is alive at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Will Geer is perhaps best known for his role as Grandpa Zebulon Walton in the successful television series The Waltons (1972-1981).

Before his success in the 1970s, Geer was a successful actor of the stage, screen and radio. Then came the McCarthy Era and Geer refused to testify before the House of Un-American Actives Committee (HUAC). As a result he was blacklisted by the committee and he could no longer find work in Hollywood. Geer was forced to sell his house in Los Angles and bought land in Topanga Canyon where his family relocated.

At this time Geer had a chance to seize upon two of his passions: theatre and botany. He created a band of artists and actors and he was able to employ other of his blacklisted friends and he created the Theatricum Botanicum in 1973. On this property in Topanga, folksinger Woody Guthrie had a small cabin where he lived for many years, it became known as “Woody’s Shack”.

In my sketch of the area, I added Woody’s Shack as an anchor to the left (of course Guthrie was always to the left) of my panoramic spread.

Woody’s Shack. I incorporated the font of the sign into the sketch.

One thing I really wanted to sketch at the Theatricim Botanicaum was the bust of Will Geer, sculpted by local artist Megan Rice. The bust was in the garden created by Geer himself. In the the garden, now called “Will’s Garden”, he planted every plant mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. He clearly loved this place and the flora and fauna in it, that he is buried in the garden itself.

The bust of Will Geer created by local sculptor Megan Rice. This really seems to capture the essence of the man.

The Theatricum Botanicum is still a thriving theater company. Today the company’s artistic director is Will’s daughter, Ellen Geer. The company performs the works of Shakespeare as well as contemporary plays and musical performances ( some have included Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Burl Ives). They also have an educational program promoting youth theater and also supports learning through field trips.

The main stage at the Theatricum Botanicum.
Art seems to infuse ever inch of the Theatricum Botanicum. Exhibit D: the culvert of the creek. This place is alive!

Southern Pacific’s Daylight

One of the world’s most beautiful steam passenger trains ran from San Francisco to Los Angles during the 1930s and 1940s.

This was envisioned as a non-stop train connection from San Francisco in the north to Los Angeles in the south. This first started as the Daylight Limited on its inaugural run on April 28, 1922. The first service was only offered on Friday and Saturday.

The rugged 470 mile route became more popular and Southern Pacific added more trains so that by July of 1923, the route ran seven days a week, all year round.

During the Great Depression, passenger railway service was down but Southern Pacific’s president, Angus McDonald gambled on creating a modern train that would provide luxury, efficiency, and speed to the Daylight coastal route. The entire train, from the engine to the observation car would be streamlined in imitation of what was being applied to airplanes and automobiles at the time.

The first steam engine to engender this new vision was the GS-2 (Golden State). An order of six (Numbered 4410 to 4415) were built in Ohio at the Lima Locomotive Works. They were Northern type engines with a 4-8-4 wheel configuration. This engine provided the extra power and speed needed for the 12 hour coastal route.

The GS-2 was the first of the streamlined passenger engines built for Southern Pacific and also the first to feature the classic Daylight livery of orange, red, and black. This paint scheme was extended to the entire length of the train hauled a twelve car train consist, consisting of one diner car.

The first inaugural run of the upgraded Daylight was on March 21, 1937. A champagne bottle was broken on No. 4413 at San Francisco’s Third and Townsend Station. A similar ceremony took place in Los Angles with engine No. 4411 but with a touch of celebrity as film star Olivia deHavilland broke a bottle of champs on the pilot of the GS-2.

All of the stations I have sketched in San Mateo County had the Daylight blow through their platforms. A southbound train leaving San Francisco stopped only at Palo Alto and then San Jose in the Bay Area leaving San Mateo County in the dust.

After San Jose the Daylight’s next stop was Salinas. Then San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Oxnard, Glendale, and finally terminating at Los Angeles’ Union Station.

No GS-2 locomotives survived the dieseization of America’s railways in the 1950s but an updated version of the locomotive, a GS-4, Number 4449, survives and still is operational. She is one of the most popular and beautiful stream locomotives in the world.

It is then fitting that my next destination was in Santa Clara County to the Daylight’s first stop since departing from San Francisco to a Station the bore same streamlined design as South Pacific’s beautiful engine.

A field sketch of the “Queen of Steam”, GS-4 locomotive number 4449 in Portland, Oregon. This is the only operational engine still in existence that worked the Daylight route.

The nose and duel lights of Southern Pacific No. 4449, one of the most famous steam locomotives in the United States. The streamlined nose looks like something out of Buck Rogers.