Folk legend Woody Guthrie remembered in Topanga show

Folk balladeer Woody Guthrie befriended the Geer family during the 1930s. Now, the Theatricum Botanicum honors Guthrie in an annual show.

The songwriter/ singer stayed for a time on the Geer family’s Theatricum Botanicum grounds, bonding with patriarch Will Geer. The family continues its annual homage to the balladeer.

By Judy-Anne Goldman/Special to The Malibu Times

This show is his show; this show is our show.

During his wanderings in the 1930s, American folk music legend Woody Guthrie became friends with actor Will Geer. At the end of his life, the Geer family hosted Guthrie as a resident on the theater property, which became the site of the singer’s last concert. On Sunday, Sept. 28, Topanga Canyon’s The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum will pay its yearly tribute to the memory of its friend and talented activist with “The Woody Guthrie Show.”

The outdoor theater began paying homage to Guthrie 30 years ago, said singer/songwriter Peter Alsop who has played the title role for most of those shows.

“We tell the story of Woody’s life and his connection with Topanga and the Geer family,” Alsop said. “It’s a piece of history and his message is relevant to current events. It shows that it’s important for people to speak up about what they believe in.”

Alsop, who performs nationally on a regular basis and has produced and recorded 13 solo recordings and seven videotapes, holds a PhD in educational psychology. He injects an exploration of deep human issues into his spirited songs and stage repartee. Each of his six family music albums has won the “Best Children’s” award from the Parents’ Choice Organization and the Association for Independent Music.

The Woody Guthrie Show began with Will Geer portraying Guthrie. Geer was a victim of the McCarthy-era black listing. During that time, the ousted actor carved out a theater/haven on his Topanga property in the early 1950s, offering refuge for other blacklisted actors and folk singers. He and Guthrie banded together to work for justice and freedom of expression. Their strong friendship lasted more than two decades.

When the smoke cleared from the McCarthy atrocity, Geer returned to work and garnered the nostalgic role of “Grandpa Walton” on the popular television series “The Waltons” in the 1970s. He continued acting on stage, in television and in film until his death in 1978.

Guthrie’s life was plagued by misfortune-family tragedies, poverty and a misunderstood disease spurred the balladeer to move around the country looking for work and offering harmonic commentary on the injustice he observed. Toward the end of his life, Guthrie came to the door of the Geer family. He stayed in a small, wood shack that is maintained as a memorial on the Theatricum grounds. Guthrie died of Huntington’s chorea, a crippling and fatal nerve disorder, in 1963.

Grateful to their friend, the Geer family put together a stage tribute to Guthrie that is performed each year by family and friends. Daughter Ellen Geer, actress, writer and artistic director of the theater, is intent on keeping Guthrie’s message and her father’s dream alive.

“The show goes through Woody’s life. There are a lot of intimate stories,” Ellen Geer said. “The play is interspersed with his songs. Of course, the most famous was ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ At one point people thought it should be the national anthem.”

Since the early 1980s, Ellen Geer has helped the theater grow to its current status as a professional repertory theater. The company boasts a resident acting troop, a children’s concert series and educational programs that offer children exposure to classic and Living History plays.

For the Guthrie show this year, Alsop and Geer will be joined on stage by friends and family including Thad Geer, Wally High, Laura Kass, Melora Marshall, Herta Ware, and Linda Wilcox. The show will begin at 12:30 p.m. Ticket price is $15. More information and reservations can be obtained by calling the theater at 310.455.3723.