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Article in "The Frankfort Times" ~ Will Geer Would be 100 Today!
|THE HOMETOWN LEGEND
Whenever I pass by the gazebo courtyard on Main Street, there is a face on the mural that always seems to capture my eye. It's warm and inviting, a bit mischievous and curious. Why, he almost seems to be asking, with his charming smile, if I'd like to go for a walk. How I wish we could.
Seeing Will Geer on our town mural fills me with pride. Of course, he is best known to us all as Grandpa Walton. He was born right here in Frankfort, Indiana on March 9th, 1902 ~ 100 years ago today, William Aughe Ghere. He later simplified the spelling to Will Geer. Will's father, Roy, was from a long line of Clinton County farmers, and his mother, Katherine was a teacher. She would read to him as a child in their home on North Clay Street, and they would play-act together. As a boy, Will would act out one-man plays along the Prairie Creek. He often pretended that he was a silent movie actress, the damsel-in-distress, tied to one of Frankfort's many railroad tracks. He would wait for the train to come and roll away at the last possible moment.
Will's teacher would often take his class to see James Whitcomb Riley, who would recite his poems for them. He spent many summer afternoons hiking, fishing, or simply taking walks with his Grandpa, who had been to California during the gold rush and returned to build Frankfort's first Opera House. Will's Grandfather loved to say hello to all the trees and call them by their Latin names. This sparked Will's interest in botany.
Geer attended and performed in plays at Frankfort High School. After graduation, the tall, lanky Geer went to the University of Chicago. During his study of botany, he also joined a theatrical touring company. He completed his schooling and furthered his education at Columbia University, receiving his Masters Degree in botany; however, Will Geer loved the stage! He made his very first professional billing stage appearance at the Indianapolis Murat Theatre. Geer developed quite a career in show business, acting on riverboats, in tent shows, and Broadway. He performed numerous Shakespeare characters, as well as, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.
Will Geer married Herta Ware in 1938. She, too, was an actress. Together, they had three children. Geer moved his family to Hollywood and appeared in many film productions. He chose many of his films for their political content, except the 1950's film, To Please A Lady. Geer decided to do it, in part, knowing a portion of the film would be taped at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This opportunity allowed him to visit family and friends and go fishing along the White River.
In 1951, Will Geer was blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee for refusing to testify about the political views of other actors in the cinema industry. When no one would hire him, he formed the Theatricum Botanicum, a repertory theatre carved out of the Topanga Canyon hillside. It began as a place for blacklisted actors to hold weekend performances, and remains today, as a place for Shakespeare plays, folk singing, and acting lessons.
Geer was one of the first blacklisted actors to return to the big screen in 1962. Ten years later, in 1972, he was cast in The Waltons as Zebulon Walton, Grandpa. Will Geer came into all of our homes with his joyous smile and laughter, and filled the role of Grandpa with energy, life, and love. He was everyone's traditional grandfather: story telling, church going, and family historian. Geer won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in 1974. Earl Hamner, the creator of The Waltons once said that Will was really portraying himself, "He was vigorous, outspoken, and a joyful man".
Will Geer returned to Frankfort, Indiana during the bicentennial summer of 1976, for a "Will Geer Days" celebration in his honor. During this time, he performed at the Red Barn Theatre and reminisced with old friends at Wesley Manor. Will Geer passed away on April 22, 1978. His family was there with him, singing "This land is your land".
It was often said that Geer would always put a bit of his Indiana days in his characters. Will Geer once recalled, "My Indiana boyhood was right out of The Waltons". I can only imagine, when Mr. Geer was acting on Waltons Mountain, he was thinking of his boyhood days in Frankfort, Indiana and his walks with his own grandfather through our woods. Will Geer loved his hometown and his hometown always loved him. He is a legend. We are honored to have such a grand man belong to us!
I know just what Grandma Walton would have said to Grandpa, today, on his 100th Birthday~ he would've stolen a kiss, and she would have lovingly called him, "You Old Fool". Then, they would have danced outside until darkness fell.