The Daily Agenda for Friday, March 9
March 9th, 2012
Will Geer: 1902. He was Grampa Walton on screen, and a social activist off. He had been a member of the Communist Party in 1934, where he met Harry Hay who would go on to found the Mattachine Society in the 1950s. Geer and Hay briefly became lovers while working on union organizing in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But they soon parted ways when Geer married his wife, actress and fellow political activist Herta Ware. Geer went on to work with folk singers Burle Ives and Woodie Guthrie in advocating for migrant farm workers and organized labor. He also found time to do some acting, mostly on the stage, often Shakespeare. Between 1948 and 1951, he was also in more than a dozen movies, but he was soon blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
With the blacklist in force, Geer fell back on his training as a botanist (he had a master’s degree from the University of Chicago) and founded the Theatricum Botanica in Topanga Canyon near Santa Monica, California, with his wife. They would divorce in 1954, but they remained very close friends thereafter. Together, they turned Theatricum Botanica into an artists colony, with an outdoor summer theater and Woody Guthrie living in a small shack.
By the late 1950s, Geer was back on Broadway, and in 1964 he was nominated for a Tony for his role in the musical 110 in the Shade. His career in film resumed in 1963 with a minor part in Advise and Consent, and in 1967 he played the prosecutor in the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. When he died after completing the sixth season of The Waltons in 1978, his remains were cremated and his ashes burried at his beloved Theatricum Botanicum, which continues to host performances and youth acting workshops.
Samuel Barber: 1910. He was apparently a very precocious child. In a very anxious letter at the tender age of nine, he came out to his mother — as a composer:
Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlet [sic]. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure. I’ll ask you one more thing .—Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.—Please—Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).
He wrote his first musical at seven, tried his first opera at 10, became an organist at 12, and began studying piano, voice and composition at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia at 14. That’s where he met his lover, partner and musical collaborator Gian Carlo “Johnny” Menotti, and they would remain together for the next forty years. By Barber’s twenties, his compositions were commissioned or debuted by Vladimir Horowitz, Leontyne Price, Arturo Toscanini, among others. He won the Pulitzer Prize for music for his 1957 opera Vanessa, and for his 1962 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. But his 1966 opera Antony and Cleopatra was a dud, and he spent his remaining years in isolation and depression, while Menotti, a successful composer in his own right, indulged in dalliances with a string of much younger men. Barber died in 1981, Menotti in 2007, and it is Barber’s work that is better remembered.
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And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?