A Brief History of Topanga
Topanga is the name given to the area by the Tongva tribe, and may mean “a place above.” It was the western border of their territory, abutting the Chumash tribe that occupied the coast from Malibu northwards. Bedrock mortars can be found carved into rock outcroppings in many locations
Topanga was first settled in 1839. Among the first settlers were the Trujillo and Cheney families.
In the 1920s, Topanga Canyon became a weekend getaway for Hollywood stars with several cottages built for that purpose. The rolling hills and ample vegetation served to provide both privacy and attractive surroundings for the rich and famous.
During the 1960s, Topanga Canyon became a magnet to many new artists. In 1965 Wallace Berman settled in the area. For a time, Neil Young lived in Topanga, first living with producer David Briggs then later buying his own house. He would record most of his “After the Gold Rush” album in his basement studio in 1970. Charles Manson had previously been living in Topanga, where he had briefly befriended both Neil Young and Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys. Members of Manson’s “family” began their campaign of murder on July 31, 1969 with the murder of Topanga resident Gary Hinman, a music teacher who had opened his home to anyone needing shelter.
The Topanga Corral was a nightclub that featured an eclectic mix of performers, including then Topanga locals Canned Heat, Spirit, Little Feat, Spanky and Our Gang, Taj Mahal, Emmylou Harris, Etta James, Neil Young, and Crazy Horse and many others. It is rumored that Jim Morrison was inspired to write “Roadhouse Blues” about the drive up Topanga Canyon Blvd to The Corral. Later in the 1970s, after being destroyed by fire and rebuilt, the club featured many up and coming bands from the L.A. punk scene. In 1986, the Corral again burned to the ground and was not rebuilt. Today, many musicians, artists and actors continue to make Topanga their home.
Due to its location in the Santa Monica Mountains, Topanga is a favorite spot for hikers, as well as bicycle, and motorcycle riders/racers. Many movie/TV car/bike chases were filmed on the winding road with the picturesque cliffs in the background.
Topanga State Park is one of the largest urban preserves in the world, boasting beautiful cliffs overhanging the canyon and the Pacific ocean. The thick vegetation, steep terrain and frequent (and dry) Santa Ana winds combine to make Topanga an extreme fire danger.
Topanga is known as a bohemian enclave attracting artists, musicians, and others. Numerous music festivals have been organized in the canyon, including the Topanga Days Festival and Topanga Earth Day.
In the 1950s blacklisted actor Will Geer had to sell his large Santa Monica home and move his family to small plot in the canyon where they could grow their own produce. Geer’s friend Woody Guthrie had a small shack on the property. They unintentionally founded what became an artists’ colony. Since its founding in 1973, the Geer family has continued to operate the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. It has grown into an Equity theater, and occupies a natural outdoor amphitheater. It features Shakespearean plays, modern classics, and original productions, as well as musical concerts. Performers have included Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Della Reese, and Burl Ives.
A famous venue in the canyon was the Elysium Institute, also known as Elysium Fields, a nudist club for 30 years. After surviving extended battles with county officials the 9-acre property was sold in 2002 by its founder’s heirs.
Every Memorial Day weekend on the grounds of the Topanga Community House, Topanga has an annual fair and parade, called Topanga Days. Recently dubbed the Biggest Bohemian Bash in Southern California, Topanga Days Country Fair now features three stages of diverse nonstop music, belly dancing, fun and games for all ages, over 80 unique craft vendors and a variety of mouthwatering food from Cajun to hot tamales to comfort-loving sausages. Local and national acts perform and a parade is held on Memorial Day. The parade is said to have inspired the more famous Doo-Dah Parade in Pasadena.
Each year in June, Topanga artists host the Topanga Canyon Artists’ Studio Tour, opening their studios to invite the public to peek into their private, creative world. The tour is sponsored by Topanga Canyon Gallery, an artists-owned venue to promote local fine art. Known for its generations of artists and magical canyon vistas on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the studio tour is a unique experience for both lovers of art and nature. Since 2005, the Studio Tour has also been known informally as the “Topanga Art Safari” to differentiate it from typical urban art walks & tours. As art lovers on the tour travel to the various art venues, they enjoy mountain greenery and grand vistas, not graffiti and sidewalk grunge. Winding lanes replace crowded freeways, and “urban scrawl” gives way to open parkland. The Tour, now in its 5th year, draws larger crowds each June and is regarded as the Big Kahuna of art events in the area.
Some popular destinations in Topanga include a small handful restaurants such as the upscale Inn of the Seventh Ray, Rocco’s Pizza and Pat’s Grill. The local music scene centers on weekend performances at Abuelita’s Mexican Restaurant near the center of town on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Two strip malls, one old and the other new make up the local center of commerce.
In the music field, Woody Guthrie was one of the first musicians who found a home there. As nearby Los Angeles grew into a major music capital, Topanga became a preferred residence for many performers, including Neil Young, Devendra Banhart, Billy Preston, Joni Mitchell, Steven Stills, Bernie Leadon of the Eagles, Jim Morrison and John Densmore of the Doors, Mick Fleetwood, Spanky McFarland, Lowell George, JC Crowley,Toni Basil (”Hey, Micky!”), Julia Fordham, Richie Hayward and Fred Tackett of Little Feat, Amy Smart, Taj Mahal, Pee Wee Crayton, Big Joe Turner, Alice Cooper, Van Morrison, Leif Eason and Mark Andes, Jay Ferguson and John Locke of Spirit (band), Matt Andes of Jo Jo Gunne, Kirby Cohee of Free Beer - Tonight Only, Justin Chancellor of Tool and the house music production artist & DJ, Rithma. American blues musician Alan Wilson, vocalist of blues band Canned Heat. Children’s musician residents include Hap Palmer and Peter Alsop. So many orchestral musicians live in the canyon that the Topanga Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1982.
Actors who have lived in Topanga include Emile Hirsch, Will Geer, Dean Stockwell, Lisa Bonet, Teri Garr, Wendie Malick, Eric Mabius, Keith Carradine, Robin Williams & Valerie Velardi, and Dennis Hopper. Russ Tamblyn raised his daughter Amber Tamblyn, and Lynn Redgrave and husband John Clark raised their children there. Others include Jennifer Holden from the Elvis Presley movie Jailhouse Rock. Also, Billy Gray (”Bud” of Father Knows Best) still lives there.
Biotech pioneer Gisela Hoschek and German-American author Gero Hoschek lived there before they moved to San Diego county. Another famous German-American, Uschi Obermaier, former top-model, actress and icon of the polit-hippie movement in Europe, still lives there. Noted Archaeologist Dr. Clement Meighan, UCLA Professor of Archaeology/Anthropology, resided in Topanga over 30 years. In addition, well-known writer and L.A. Times columnist Al Martinez lives there with his wife, and often comments on the nature of life in Topanga.
Topanga is an unincorporated area in western Los Angeles County, California, USA. It is located in the Santa Monica Mountains and occupies Topanga Canyon. Topanga is 12,748 acres (52 km²) in size, and is bounded on three sides by State Park or conservancy lands, and on the south by the Pacific Ocean and a small strip of Malibu, which is the main community to the west. On the east is Pacific Palisades. Topanga has a population of 5,441 as of 2000. The ZIP code is 90290 and the area code is primarily 310, with 818 only at the north end of the canyon. It is in the 3rd County Supervisorial district.