Herta Ware, 88; Actress Helped Establish Theatricum Botanicum

Times Staff Writer

Herta Ware, an actress who helped to found the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, where she appeared in plays until a few years ago, died Monday at her home in Topanga. She was 88 and died of natural causes, her daughter, Melora Marshall, said.

The former wife of actor Will Geer, Ware remained on friendly terms with him and wrote a memoir, “Fantastic Journey, My Life With Will Geer,” which she self-published in 2000. She was with Geer when he died in 1978.

The couple opened their original performance space in Topanga Canyon in the 1950s after Geer was blacklisted for taking the 5th Amendment rather than testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.

They invited actor and folk-singer friends, including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, to perform at weekend productions, selling tickets and opening the informal events to the public. In 1973 the Theatricum Botanicum was officially opened as a summer theater.


Ware “was a matriarch of the Topanga community,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said after her death. “The legacy she leaves will live on.”

Yaroslavsky said that from its early days, the outdoor theater that Ware and Geer created was a haven for blacklisted writers and actors.

Ware began her acting career in the 1930s in New York City, where she appeared in several Broadway plays, including “Let Freedom Ring” in 1935. Geer also appeared in that play as well as several others in which she performed.

Many years later, when the Topanga performance space grew into a full-fledged summer theater, Ware had roles in productions of Tennessee Williams’ and Thornton Wilder’s plays, as well as those of Shakespeare.


Ware began to act in movies and television in her 60s. She appeared in “Cocoon,” the 1985 film about senior citizens who are mysteriously reinvigorated, and in “2010,” a 1984 sequel to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

She made guest appearances on popular television shows such as “Amazing Stories,” “Golden Girls,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “ER.”

“As an actress she was very free,” Marshall said this week. “She was spontaneous and childlike. She never lost that innocence.”

Born in Wilmington, Del., Ware was the granddaughter of Ella Reeve Bloor, a union activist who joined the Socialist Party in America in the early 1900s. Her father was an actor and her mother was a musician.


Ware married Geer, a successful stage actor, in 1934.

The couple traveled with Guthrie to sing at labor rallies in California.

About 1940, the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Geer pursued a movie career and the couple had three children.

After Geer was blacklisted and could find no work in Hollywood, the family lost their home in Santa Monica. They bought a house on several acres in Topanga, then a remote wilderness. The tickets they sold at Theatricum Botanicum helped support their family.


Ware and Geer divorced in the 1950s and she married actor David Marshall. After her second marriage ended in divorce, she moved back to Topanga in the early 1970s, Marshall said.

Since Geer’s death, the Theatricum Botanicum has continued to grow and now includes two outdoor theaters as well as educational programs for children and adults.

In addition to Marshall, Ware is survived by her children with Geer: Kate, Thad and Ellen, who is artistic director of the Theatricum Botanicum. She also is survived by a brother, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A public memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Sept. 10 at the Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Contributions in her name can be made to Herta’s Young Actor Fund, Theatricum Botanicum, P.O. Box 1222, Topanga, CA 90290.