She’s Carried On in Spotlight, but Not on Political Stage
There is an enviable serenity about Ellen Geer, a sense that she knows who she is and the value of what she does.
At an age when many actresses realistically fear being cast as somewhat grotesque, she is artistic director of Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon and its most visible star.
Highly regarded as a performer, director and writer, she also works with students at UCLA and elsewhere. And because it is summer--the funky outdoor theater’s season--she stars in and/or directs all four of this year’s plays--Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” a theatrical version of the cult film “Harold and Maude,” Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Yet Geer’s life has been anything but serene. As the child of actor Will Geer and actress Herta Ware, she grew up in a spirited extended family of actors, folk singers and political activists. Best known today as wise, crusty Grandpa on the TV classic “The Waltons,” her father is also remembered for having helped transform Woody Guthrie from a skinny Okie balladeer into the reigning giant of American folk song.
Despite Geer’s parents’ leftist politics, her dad was a success in post-World War II Hollywood, admired for his ease as a Shakespearean actor and always able to get movie roles as the pal of the guy who actually got the girl. He, his wife, Ellen and her older sister, Kate, lived well in Santa Monica, where Will Geer, who had a degree in botany, loved his garden.
In 1951, it all fell apart. Her father was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
“I was 10 when we were in our fancy house and the whole big thing happened,” Geer said. Her father had never pretended to be anything but an activist--for years, he had done in-your-face political theater in coal mines, factories and fields full of migrant workers, often with Woody, Odetta or some other folk singer.
Herta had demonstrable ties to the American Communist Party: Her grandmother, “Mother” Ella Bloor, was one of its founders. But Will Geer had never joined the party.
Nonetheless, when he appeared before the committee, making an unforgettable entrance in a bright purple shirt, he exercised his constitutional right not to answer questions by invoking the 5th Amendment. He was promptly blacklisted.
It is hard to imagine today the impact of the blacklist--the sense of helpless terror it evoked. For Will Geer, being added to the growing list of industry personnel denied work because of their leftist leanings meant being shunned by employers and former friends.
The Geers spent a winter in Wellesley, Mass., in an apartment without furniture or heat. Ellen Geer puts the best spin on those years, saying: “It was scarring, but it also gave us a strength.”
Geer’s mother proposed that the family take what money they had and buy property in Topanga, then a genuine stretch of country without city water or electricity.
The Geers grew their own food and sold fruits, vegetables and herbs to make money. The family and their friends entertained each other at hootenannies. Will Geer also established a theater for himself and other blacklisted artists on the five-acre property. The performances were free. The Geers made a few bucks by selling hot dogs at the shows.
Woody Guthrie Lived on Topanga Property
In 1952 Woody Guthrie moved into a shack next to the Geers’ house on the Topanga property. Woody’s Shack, as it is called, still stands. Already showing signs of Huntington’s chorea, the devastating neurological disorder that would slowly kill him, Guthrie passed his time making clay pots, heating his favorite chili on a barbecue and running around naked.
“He was a beatnik, a hippie, before all those were invented,” Ellen Geer said.
Her father never became embittered as a result of the blacklist, Geer said, and eventually reconciled with friends like Burl Ives, who turned on their fellow leftists during the period.
But his long exile took its toll on his marriage. He and Herta were divorced, although they continued to perform together and remained close.
Herta, Ellen, Kate and other family members were with him when he died in 1978 at 76. Moments before, they had all been singing Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
Geer inherited her father’s role as the driving force of the Theatricum, where she has been artistic director since 1979. Under her administration, the site’s first real theater was built by local volunteers in 1984.
On a summer day, the theater is full of youngsters wearing capes and happily whacking at each other with wooden swords. Under the oaks, rehearsals are underway for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Geer has also done the odd horror movie and played Joan of Arc. In her family, being able to work was understood to be a precious thing, but not more precious than principles.
“I was brought up that you take the first thing that comes along,” she said. “The only thing I ever turned down was a beer commercial and a cigarette commercial.”