Vivien Straus' new one-woman show is called "After I'm Dead You'll Have to Feed Everyone." (Photo/
Vivien Straus' new one-woman show is called "After I'm Dead You'll Have to Feed Everyone." (Photo/

‘After I’m Dead’: One-woman show honors ‘larger-than-life’ matriarch of Straus dairy family

Right before her mother, Ellen, died in 2002, Vivien Straus had a revelation about her life’s purpose: “I’m supposed to combine farming and comedy.”

When Straus shared this plan with her mother, she won her approval. “This is my second attempt at that,” Straus said, referring to her new one-woman show, “After I’m Dead, You’ll Have to Feed Everyone.”

She’ll be performing the show over several weekends at the Straus Home Ranch in Marshall in West Marin. Her first one-woman show, “E-i-E-i-Oy!: In Bed with the Farmer’s Daughter,” was staged eight years ago.

Straus has always known she wanted to share the story of the larger-than-life woman who was her mother, especially since she wasn’t special only to Straus. Her activism impacted many others outside the Straus family.

In 1980, when she realized that developers were threatening to build homes and a resort on the West Marin coastline, she and a few others who were determined that the land remain agricultural banded together to found the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.

According to her obituary in the New York Times, there are 1,000 such land trusts throughout the country, many based on the pioneering model of MALT.

“When someone dies, you have to sit with it,” Straus said. “Over the years, I had written a lot of scenes, as ridiculous things happened when my mother was dying. But I didn’t know how to string them together or what I was wanting to say. I needed to find a point of view.”

The Covid shutdown gave her the gift of time to put more work into the show.

One question Straus endeavored to answer in “After I’m Dead” is what motivated her mother to become an activist.

“I find that people often need to have had a little pain in their lives to have that passion to do something about things,” Straus said.

Ellen Straus was born in Amsterdam in 1927. Her family fled the Netherlands before the 1940 Nazi invasion, finding refuge in the U.S. Straus attended Bard College but gave up her dream of studying medicine to marry William Straus, a German Jewish immigrant. The couple established the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi.

Vivien Straus with her mother.
Vivien Straus with her mother.

In founding MALT, her daughter said, “She realized she had been kicked out of one place she loved, and she wasn’t going to sit there and let it happen again,” Straus said of her mother. “She loved the farming life. It was everything she ever dreamed about, and she wasn’t going to be forced to move again.”

Straus said her parents did not talk a lot about their prewar lives or narrow escapes. While they never explicitly said so, Straus believes their silence was rooted in guilt.

“I think they both felt guilty that they got out and weren’t in the camps,” she said. “What I found out later was that everyone except her immediate family was killed. While she didn’t talk about it, it made her determined, and when she saw antisemitism or racism, that really pushed her to become who she was.”

Straus said her parents experienced antisemitism throughout their lives; it didn’t end when they left Europe. When her mother first arrived in the U.S., she was considered interesting because of her Dutch accent, but that changed once her fellow students, and even some teachers, learned she was Jewish.

There was an unspoken feeling that her family, as the only Jews in West Marin at the time, didn’t belong, Straus said, not only because they were Jewish, but also because her parents were educated.

In addition to founding MALT, her mother was active in a myriad of causes, rarely saying no when asked to join a board, Straus recalled. She was also highly opinionated and extremely well-read. Her interests were varied: She was one of the first in the area to grow shiitake mushrooms, and she had a dream of bringing peace to the Middle East. “She definitely wasn’t boring,” Straus said.

The show touches on how Ellen Straus’ family got their visas to come to America, the fate of her extended family in Amsterdam, the antisemitism she faced and the racism she witnessed in the U.S., and her death from cancer.

It’s also about the bond mother and daughter shared.

“You meet a lot of people in your life, and I know I can say that what I had with her was unique,” Vivien Straus said. “I just absolutely adored her. We had the best relationship. Not everyone gets to have a great relationship with their mother. I was lucky.”

Straus, now 65, began acting in elementary school and moved to Los Angeles years ago to pursue an acting career, landing bit parts in a few major Hollywood movies, including 1996’s “Peggie Sue Got Married,” which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. She has three siblings, and while her older brother Albert runs the Straus Family Creamery, Straus has stayed active in the industry, creating The California Cheese Trail website and map. She and her younger brother Michael manage the Straus Home Ranch, their former family home, as a venue for weddings and retreats. The show is being staged there. Food trucks will be on-site at some evening performances. Ticket holders can picnic on the grounds before matinees.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Ellen Straus’ death, but it was the shutdown more than that anniversary that made her daughter realize it was time to finish the work that had been stewing for so long, with her concluding, “I kind of needed to s#$% or get off the pot.”

“After I’m Dead You’ll Have to Feed Everyone”

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, Oct. 21-Nov. 13. Tickets and details at

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."