Ellen Geer in Lettice and Lovage.
Ellen Geer in Lettice and Lovage.
"It has a life of its own; it always has," says Ellen Geer of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, the outdoor theater in Topanga Canyon begun by her late father. Its bucolic setting in the Santa Monica mountains, physically near to yet in so many ways removed from the fetid sprawl of Los Angeles, belies the distressing conditions of the theater's founding.

When Will Geer was unable to find work due to the blacklisting of the early 1950s, his wife, Herta Ware, found a rural area to which the family could move. There, the Geers would perform with their other blacklisted friends while making ends meet by selling vegetables from their large garden. Though it might seem that life in the country with the likes of Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and Della Reese stopping by to sing would be heavenly, Ellen Geer cannot forget the injustices of the time. Even as a child she was very aware that, when her family was living in town, she was not allowed to play with the neighbor children because she and her siblings were "little reds." (Although the Red Scare eventually blew over, Ellen sees chilling reflections of it in the recent passage of the "defense of marriage" Proposition 22 here in California, and she is especially dismayed at those of her gay friends who didn't even vote on the measure. "After all," she says, "the vote is all we've got. It's what our forefathers gave us.")

It wasn't until after Will Geer had made his money on The Waltons (ironically portraying that icon of Americana, Grandpa Walton) that he gathered his family, by then working in theaters all over the country, and formed The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum as a non-profit corporation. The organization is now in the hands of Ellen Geer, but it's more than an organization; it's a family.

Geer with her daughter, Willow Geer-Alsop,in The Miracle Worker,
Geer with her daughter, Willow Geer-Alsop,
in The Miracle Worker,
I wondered if, perhaps, there was one child in the Geer family who didn't have any interest in theater--one sensible youth who foresaw a responsible future in, say, accounting. Ellen assured me that this was not the case. (In retrospect, she muses, perhaps it wouldn't have been such a bad thing if one of the family had become an accountant.) Ellen's son, Ian Flanders, is responsible for bringing the theater into the new century by designing the website www.theatricum.com, where you can learn more about the programs and training available as well as the upcoming season.

The theater is not the entire focus of Ellen's life. She is a professor at UCLA--something she finds a little hard to believe herself--and she views her work at the university the Botanicum almost as an extension of her gardening duties as a child: "I'm able to offer students a place to set roots and grow once they leave the hothouse of academia. It's sad that so many students go straight from school to waiting tables when they are in their prime." She is gratified to be able to give students the chance to work in a true repertory theater, noting that this tradition is still respected in Europe but not, alas, here in America--and certainly not in Los Angeles, where so much theater is star-driven.

Ellen has also acted in many movies (Patriot Games, Phenomenon) and television shows. Those of you with long (or obsessive) memories will recall her as Sunshine Doré, the potential girlfriend of Bud Cort's bizarre character in the classic cult film Harold and Maude. Although it was clear to her at the time that this was not going to be like most other movies, Ellen doesn't recall the experience as unsettling in the least. She was especially fond of director Hal Ashby's insistence that the entire cast come and watch the dailies, a rare situation in those years. She remembers these viewings as three-tiered affairs: in the front row were Ashby and other pot smokers on mattresses; in the second row, on stools, Ellen and a smattering of "straight" people (or, as she calls them, "the milk-and-ginger-ale crowd"); and in the back row, on higher stools, the boozers. The only thing Ellen regrets is that, since she never actually worked with Ruth Gordon, she didn't get to know her beyond the superficial pleasantries exchanged when an adult knows your parents.

The stage version of Harold and Maude is on the roster of shows for this coming season at the Botanicum and, although it has not yet been cast, Ellen admits that the director very much wants her for the role of Maude. When asked if she has done any groundwork, she said: "My mom is 82 and I've been watching her a lot. Because she really is Maude." As if on cue Herta Ware then wandered by our outdoor interview site, accompanied by a large dog. She didn't linger to chat, but did in fact radiate that spirit which her daughter describes as "a jolliness about the understanding of life."

Recently, Ware deeded the canyon property to the Botanicum itself in a ceremony her daughter recalls as "just beautiful. We culled some of her own pieces that she did with Pop, some of the old folk plays. Her daughters sang to her, people came out and gave their gifts--poetry, thoughts, stories--and Mama just sat on the stage like a queen."