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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!
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Suicide is Painless, It Brings on Many Changes

The hugely popular television series MASH, had it’s initial run from 1972 to 1983, spanning the first eleven years or so of my life.

The series became a backdrop or soundtrack to my life. While my family did not watch the show religiously, I knew the theme song (“Suicide is Painless”), the iconography, and characters of the show. Today, it seems like somewhere, around the world, one of the 256 episodes of MASH is being aired somewhere as a rerun.

The dramatic/comic series follows the doctors, nurses, soldiers, and patients of the MASH (Mobile Army Service Hospital) Unit number 4077 during the Korean War. Often in conflict are the civilian doctors (Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John, and later B. J. Hunicutt) with the enlisted officers of the unit. The popular series ran for 11 years while the Korean War lasted for just three.

On my winter break, I planned to head to the southland to do some field sketching of one of the most iconic locations using during the MASH movie and the television series. This was the former 20th Century Fox backlot used from many films (Planet of the Apes) and television series (MASH) which is now Malibu Creek State Park.

Of course I started my planning with a map. In this case, a map of the Malibu Coast covering Topanga, Malibu, Zuma Beach. and Malibu Creek State Park.

I often like to do some sketches before I leave on a trip to put my mind’s eye into the location. The featured sketch is based on a screen shot of the pilot episode of MASH, the television series showing the iconic opening as Radar looks on as two helicopter fly towards the helipad with wounded soldiers. The second sketch is of the famous MASH signpost. This was based on a photo of a replica of the sign. The original signpost is in the Smithsonian in Washington DC. I used a little artist license as I changed two of the locations to reflect the real location of the set: Malibu and Topanga (where I would be staying).