In the late 1940s, Will Geer was an actor with a pretty bright future. He was landing roles in big westerns like “Winchester '73” and lived in Santa Monica with his wife and three children.
Soon though, it became much harder to be a liberal actor in Hollywood. At the height of the McCarthy era, the House Un-American Activities Committee shifted its focus to the entertainment industry and Geer was one of many called in for questioning.
“My father took the fifth amendment," says Ellen Geer, his oldest daughter. "He was not in any way going to victimize any of his friends. He refused to testify and he wouldn’t say whether he was a communist or not. Papa never joined anything.”
After refusing to testify, Geer was blacklisted and suddenly had no work. With dwindling funds, he had to make some big changes. He sold his house and bought a small plot of land for cheap in Topanga Canyon. With few other options, Geer fell back on his degree in horticulture.
“He was gardening like crazy, trying to feed the family,” Ellen says. “We lived off the land here. He was a survivalist.”
But Geer didn’t abandon his love of acting. He began organizing small plays on his Topanga property and dubbed his informal theater the Theatricum Botanicum. Before long, other blacklisted actors and musicians flocked to participate.
The Geer children grew up in the Theatricum, surrounded by famous actors and musicians. It became an accidental artists colony. Their childhood memories are of being bounced on Woody Guthrie’s knee and rehearsing plays with the likes of Burgess Meredith.
As the paranoia of the McCarthy era slowly faded, Geer started acting in Hollywood again, and soon he snagged the biggest role of his life — as the grandpa on the hit TV show, “The Waltons.”
(Will Geer (top left) as the perpetually overalls-clad grandpa in "The Waltons.")
The huge success of “The Waltons” meant money, and Geer eventually found a way to put it back into the Theatricum. In 1973, he reopened it as a weekend workshop and offered free performances to the public. The audience grew so quickly that it soon became a successful community theater, sometimes staging three plays a day. They hosted big folk concerts too, with acts like Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.
“Papa died in ‘78," Ellen says. "We just all looked around, tried to figure out what to do. We didn’t have money. To make a decision to keep something like this going — it’s not a decision you make, it’s something that happens to you. So we decided to make it a non-profit and to serve the community.”
Today, Ellen is the artistic director of the award-winning theater — and it’s just as much a family business as ever. Her children have all grown up acting in Theatricum plays. You can even see some of her grandchildren on stage at the theater this summer.
(Ellen Geer's granddaughter, Willow, left, and half sister, Melora Marshall, on stage. Courtesy of Will Geer's Theatricum Botranicum.)
“We’re theater folks," Ellen says. "We’re theater trash and we love it. And even if we have to go off and make money in other ways, this is what we do. I’m hoping we can leave this place as a bit of a legend for papa, passing on a bit of what he gave to us.”
Visit the Theatricum Botanicum's website for more information and to view a current schedule of performances.