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Highlight on a Topanga Local: Tom Mitchell

Highlight on a Topanga Local: Tom Mitchell 

Tom Mitchell, videographer, photographer and musician and a Topanga Canyon fixture. Photo by and courtesy of Denis M. Hannigan

Topanga Canyon resident Tom Mitchell is a filmmaker, photographer, and the creator of the documentary film In the Beginning: The History of the Topanga Community Center co produced by Anastasia Fit, which documents the history of the Topanga Community Center that began in the 1950s. He explains that it was built brick by brick. 

“Every brick was a dollar,” Tom says. “People took out second mortgages on their homes to buy bricks, to buy wood. When the roof went up there was an epic party.”

At 75, Tom is still exploring the intersection of community and art. He still rigs cameras and stays up for 18 hour editing sessions. 

“When you get locked into the chair, time becomes irrelevant,” he says. He doesn’t wear a watch, nor look at the time when he’s editing.

Finding humor in disaster is part of Tom’s modus operandi. “In the struggle to survive you have to laugh,” he says. “You have to find something to lighten the load.”

In 1980, Topanga Canyon Boulevard washed out for six months. “Everywhere was three feet of mud,” Tom recalls. “It was the best time in the world. “That brought the community together. People had to park their cars three miles away at the top of Topanga and walk home with their groceries with their mud boots. From Jalan Jalan all the way down to the ocean was gone. From the Theatricum down was gone. You kick into survival mode and do anything to help your neighbor.”

Tom reflects on the future of the community center for years to come. “These days everybody’s working, who’s got time to do anything?” he asks. “What happens in the center is there’s a group that works really hard together, then they move on… where’s the next group? I have a feeling they are there, they’re just so busy, they wonder how to fit it all in. The world is nothing but stories on top of stories. There’s a story in everything and they should be told. Are we crazy for doing this? Hell yeah. Topanga is the last vestiges of the original hippy philosophy — peace, love, and get back to the garden, don’t succumb to the negativity, reach above that.”

So how do we pass the baton?

“It does it by itself. They will show up,” Tom says. “Give them the opportunity to show their kids the right way and they show up. Work together. Party together. Talk together. I tell people, “silent” and “listen” are the same letters, you just organize them differently. People don’t listen enough.”

You can catch the aforementioned video on the Topanga Community Center website Other work by Tom Mitchell can be found on his channel @tomcmitchell

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