Herta Ware

Actress wife of the blacklisted Will Geer
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The Independent Online

During America's squalid witch-hunt epoch, the wives of the blacklisted suffered as greatly as their spouses. After the actor Will Geer was blacklisted and he and his wife Herta Ware lost their home, they opened a small theatre that gave employment to blacklisted actors and writers. Until the end of her long life, Ware was closely associated with the theatre she helped create.

Herta Ware's mother was a musician and her father was an actor. Her maternal grandmother was the socialist farm-labour organiser Ella Reeve "Mother" Bloor. Influenced by all three, Herta became a singer-actress with a passion for the labour movement. In 1934 she married Will Geer, and they acted together on the New York stage in the socially conscious plays Let Freedom Ring (1935), Bury the Dead (1936), Prelude (1936) and 200 Were Chosen (1936), and separately in many productions before Geer decided to concentrate on a movie career.

Soon after moving to Los Angeles, he found himself in demand as a character actor, appearing in such films as Deep Waters (1948), Intruder in the Dust (1949) and the James Stewart westerns Broken Arrow and Winchester 73 (both 1950). He also found time for stage work, and, to celebrate the 75th birthday of "Mother" Bloor, Geer directed a play which celebrated his grandmother-in-law's achievements as a union activist. For this and other political actions, he was called, in April 1951, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, but refused to co-operate with his interrogators. When the chairman, John S. Wood, angrily dismissed him, declaring that the committee was far from satisfied with his testimony, Geer feigned deep concern for Wood, saying, "Well, we all have to appear in a turkey once in a while." Before you could say "democracy", Geer found himself blacklisted in films, a situation that lasted for 11 years.

After losing their Santa Monica home, the Geers bought a house on several acres of land in the then desolate Topanga Canyon. Here they opened the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, an open-air summer theatre, which eventually became a thriving and respected concern. Although she divorced Geer in the 1950s, Ware stayed on amicable terms with him. After her second marriage also ended in divorce in the early 1970s, she returned to Topanga Canyon, and acted in plays by Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder and Tennessee Williams.

Will Geer was in his sixth year as "Grandpa Zeb" in The Waltons when he died in 1978, with Herta Ware at his bedside. Soon, she too became a familiar television face; her TV appearances included Cagney and Lacey, Knots Landing, ER, Golden Girls, Star Trek: the next generation and Amazing Stories. She acted in such feature films as 2010 (1984), Cocoon (1985) and Slam Dance (1987).

A long tradition at the Botanicum was its annual staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Until a few years ago, Herta Ware (always assisted by her own dog Willie) played the role of Moonshine. The year 2000 saw the release of a CD on which she sang her own songs. That same year, she privately published an autobiography, Fantastic Journey: my life with Will Geer.

Dick Vosburgh

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