On Saturday, March 12, at 1:00 P.M., Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon will be holding their annual Pete Seeger tribute, in their woodsy open-air theater. Each year, performers gather together onstage at the Botanicum in honor of the late folksinger, who wrote such iconic classics as “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (a hit for The Byrds), “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?,” and “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song).”
The Botanicum was founded by the late Will Geer (best known as the grandfather on “The Waltons”), and became an artistic haven for blacklisted artists during the McCarthy era. Geer himself was blacklisted by Hollywood after refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Unable to find work in Hollywood, the actor made his living selling fruits and vegetables cultivated on the grounds of the Botanicum. In 1973, after the success of “The Waltons,” the Geer family came together to establish the Botanicum as a non-profit. It continues to host acting workshops, performances of Shakespeare plays, and music concerts.
Nestled down a hill off busy Topanga Canyon Blvd., the Botanicum is a restful, rustic retreat from the noise of the modern world. Colorful signs featuring Shakespeare quotes adorn the entrance, beckoning visitors (passing the Botanicum is part of my week-day work commute, and I’m always tempted to pull over and take a walk inside its quiet grounds). It’s easy to picture Will Geer strolling the property, working in the garden or reciting Shakespeare on the stage (made from planks of the Santa Monica pier after it collapsed in 1983).
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Ellen Geer, Will Geer’s daughter and Artistic Director of the Botanicum. In addition to being an accomplished actress and director, she is also a musician and singer; she and her husband, Peter Alsop, participate in the annual Seeger tributes.
Hi Ellen – my name is Carolyn Soyars; I write for a blog called The Los Angeles Beat. Thank you for the opportunity to interview you.
Hello, nice to meet you.
How did the annual Pete Seeger tributes at the Botanicum begin? Please tell me a little bit about the history of the shows.
Pete Seeger and Toshi were long-time friends of the Geer family. When I was a kid, Pete taught me my first lesson on the banjo. He, like my father was blacklisted. Our theatre and concert performances in Topanga started in the early 50’s. It was a haven for blacklisted artists.
When Pete died, we needed to sing of him, continue his legacy of joining people together and singing which he did all over the world and for important causes and needs of the people. . . Audiences loved it so, we want to continue the beauty of audience and artists sharing the thoughts that songs can inspire to lift the human spirit. We have done this with Woody Guthrie, who lived on the property years ago. It is so important to pass their music on to the next generation.
Did Pete himself ever perform at the Botanicum?
Yes, Pete has performed here, once with Arlo Guthrie, and later with Peter Alsop at fundraisers for our theatre. We miss Seeger terribly and want to carry on his work, of getting people together to sing about their life and needs. Folksongs.
Tell me about the performers participating this year.
The Geer Family Singers Peter Alsop, Ellen Geer, Melora Marshall Willow Geer, Earnestine Phillips, Mat Polin, Gerald Rivers & friends Ross Altman, Courtney Campbell (kids singer, sings for military families all over the world), Matt Cartsonis Dave Crossland, Eric Schwartz (well-known national singer-songwriter), Topanga Cabaret Singers (Antonia Bath’s group of mostly homeschooled Topanga kids – choir) Dan Ubick (local singer songwriter & musician), Brian Chapman (musicians, studio engineer), Maggie Wheeler (actress and originator of Golden Bridge Choir with Emile Hassan Dyer, Golden Bridge Choir Members & other surprise guests!
I attended the Pete Seeger tribute last year, and it was my first time at the Botanicum. It’s such a beautiful and serene space, to say the least. Did you grow up there, and if so, what was it like during that time?
After the blacklist, early 50’s, my mother found Topanga to bring our family to a safe place where we could get through this terrible period in our country’s history that took people’s work from them. My father wouldn’t name names at HUAC session. Topanga was a haven of beauty. Pop, a horticulturist as well as an actor, created the Geer Gardens where we sold plants to survive. It was barefeet and living off the land. My parents created a theatre for blacklisted actors and folksingers so they could continue their work as artists.
What was your father’s original vision for the Botanicum? In what ways do you think that vision continues today? In what ways, if any, does it differ from his original plan?
It is and has always been a place for actors, musicians and educators to pass on their gifts to audiences, teachers and students. It hasn’t changed since its inception over 40 years ago!
Tell me about some of the programs the Botanicum offers, and how people can get involved.
Please check www.theatricum.com for our extensive theatre and educational experiences.
What do you see as the future for the Botanicum?
To remain a place that people can come and experience plays, classes and concerts in a beautiful setting under the California Live Oaks.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We look forward to people coming to our grounds and experiencing our talents, in a special space and our numerous classes….
Re-Pete Celebration 2016: The Songs and Spirit of Pete Seeger
Saturday, March 12, 1:00 P.M.
1419 N. Topanga Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290
(midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway)
(310) 455-3723, or theatricum.com
Tickets: General Admission $25
Seniors and students: $15
Ages 6-17: $10
Children 5 and under: Free