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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!