Tag Archives: cemetery

Michael and Farrah in the Santa Clarita Valley

For many, it was the “day the 70s died.”
The sobering announcement on June 25, 2009 of Farrah Fawcett’s death from cancer, followed by the truly shocking news a few hours later that Michael Jackson had died from a drug overdose, saddened an entire generation who had grown up alongside the careers of these legendary performers.

It’s interesting to note that both Jackson and Fawcett had several ties to the Santa Clarita Valley.

Jackson came to Vasquez Rocks in 1991 to film part of the music video for the song Black Or White, a musical plea for racial equality. This video from his multi-platinum Dangerous album uses locations from around the world and contains one of the earliest examples of “morphing” in film.

In the Vasquez Rocks segment, Jackson dances with Native Americans atop a platform while riders on horseback encircle them. It was an appropriate location as literally hundreds of Westerns have been shot here going back to the earliest days of film.

The Black of White single was the biggest seller of 1991, and the video, which was released simultaneously around the world, was one of the most watched ever.

Incidentally, the video’s director, John Landis, was the director of the ill-fated 1983 Twilight Zone: The Movie segment that claimed the lives of actor Vic Morrow and two small children during filming behind the Magic Mountain theme park in nearby Valencia.

A few miles southwest of Vasquez Rocks at 15564 Sierra Highway is the Halfway House Cafe. It was here that Fawcett’s December 1995 Playboy spread was said to have been shot. This issue was the magazine’s biggest seller of the 90s.

Halfway House is frequently seen on film and television and is the site of Cindy Crawford’s famous 1991 Pepsi commercial where she drives up in a Lamborghini wearing blue jean cutoffs and a white tank top. (BTW, Halfway House is also seen in Landis’ Twilight Zone: The Movie.)

At the time of Fawcett’s death, her 24-year-old son Redmond O’Neal was incarcerated in a Santa Clarita area jail on drug charges. He was given a three-hour release to attend her funeral.

This past Saturday, Jackson’s jacket from the Thriller video went on auction and brought in $1.8 million. According to reports, the jacket’s sale will benefit another local Santa Clarita Valley institution – our friend Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Preserve – where two of Jackson’s tigers from Neverland Ranch are now housed.

The Debut of “G-Dub-T-Dub”

While the opening months of World War II raged in Europe, in America it was the War Between the States that had everyone talking. On this date in 1939, Gone With the Wind had its world premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, which young Jimmy Carter later remembered as the “biggest event to happen in the South in [my] lifetime.”

The celebrations surrounding the premiere of the film stretched over three days and were attended by most of the film’s stars, including Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, who were treated by Atlanta’s celebrity-starved hordes as visiting royalty. The celebration included motorcades, elegant balls, and trips around the city. Normal life in Atlanta shut down as Governor E.D. Rivers declared a three-day holiday, asking Atlanta’s citizens to dress in costumes from the antebellum era.

Since GWTW takes place in the Civil War, it was only fitting that the stars met with some of the last surviving Confederate Civil War veterans and took a tour of the Cyclorama – the 360-degree depiction of the Battle of Atlanta. Clark Gable joked with the museum curators that the battle scene needed a soldier who looked like Rhett Butler. When I was at the Cyclorama earlier this year during a visit to Atlanta, the tour guide made sure to point out the Clark Gable mannequin that was added after his comment.

Friday, December 15 was the night of the premiere at Atlanta’s majestic Loew’s Grand Theatre, whose marquee was remodeled for the occasion to look like the Tara plantation. 300,000 people lined the freezing streets to cheer the film’s stars, as well as local celebrity Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the book the film was based on.

The celebration had everything you would expect from a party in the Deep South. Everything, that is, but African-Americans. No blacks were allowed to attend the events, including the film’s stars Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen who were barred from the premiere at the all-white theater. Clark Gable hated the way his co-stars were treated and threatened to boycott the event, but was talked in to attending by his friend McDaniel. (Incidentally, a young Martin Luther King Jr. did make it to the ball, but not as a guest. He was a member of the “negro boys choir” that performed for the all-white attendees.)

There was an earlier premiere of the film, though not an official one. On September 9, producer David Selznick and three others dropped in on the Fox Theatre in Riverside, California with the unfinished reels of the film and asked the theater’s manager if he would host an impromptu test screening. He agreed, and after the scheduled evening’s program concluded, the audience was invited to stay for the screening, but no one was told what they were about to see. When the crowd saw the title for the film and realized they were getting a sneak peek at the much-anticipated Gone With the Wind, the roar was described as “thunderous.” Selznick would later describe the response as the “greatest moment of his life.”

The Loew’s Theatre was razed many years ago and its former site is now occupied by the Georgia-Pacific headquarters building. After a major renovation, the Fox Theatre reopened this year as a performance hall.

Hattie McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that year for the role of “Mammy,” becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar. After she died in 1952 from breast cancer at the age of 57, she suffered a final indignity because of her race when she was denied her last request to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, which didn’t accept blacks. In 1999, after Tyler Cassity purchased the grounds, now known as Hollywood Forever Cemetery, he offered to have McDaniel’s body reburied at the cemetery, but her family chose not to disturb her remains. Instead, the cemetery erected a marker next to the lake to honor Ms. McDaniel, and to right an old wrong.

Hattie McDaniel's cenotaph at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Seven Score and Seven Years Ago

Today is the 147th anniversary of the delivery of the “Gettysburg Address,” which was presented at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, four-and-a-half months after the conclusion of the titanic battle which took place around the town. The address starts out in the following manner:

“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature.”

Not familiar with this version of the speech, eh? That’s because the featured speaker that day was not Abraham Lincoln, but a politician named Edward Everett who was famous for his oration skills. His 13,000-word speech (a short novel is about 50,000 words) lasted for over two hours. When he concluded, Lincoln rose and delivered his two-minute “address,” which redefined the war aims of the North by elevating the goal of freedom for all Americans to the same level as the preservation of the Union; not an easy task in only ten sentences and 272 words:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not write this speech at the last minute on the back of an envelope. Who could? It was actually first drafted in the White House and went through several revisions.

Everett’s words are universally forgotten, while Lincoln’s get memorized by American school children and carved into monuments. When you tweak the wording of one line in the speech to say, “The world will little note, nor long remember what Everett said here, but it can never forget what Lincoln did here,” you get a better view of how things turned out.

Which goes to show, brevity is not only the soul of wit, but of oratory as well.

A Tomb With a View

The view of the Pacific from Ronald Colman's grave.

As a true taphophile, one who loves exploring cemeteries, Halloween week seems like a good time to write about one of my favorite burial grounds, the Santa Barbara Cemetery.

This cemetery is great because it’s got all the things that a graveyard should have – interesting residents, above-ground monuments, fine artwork, beautiful well-kept lawns – and in the case of Santa Barbara Cemetery, an unsurpassed view of the Pacific Ocean. Its sixty acres have been described as “the first choice for a last destination.”

Santa Barbara Cemetery lies on the border of Montecito, the high-rent district that serves as home to Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Costner and other luminaries, who live in nearby eight-figure properties. Land developers no doubt rue the choice made in 1867 to put the burial grounds on a spot that would today bring millions to subdividers.

The cemetery has avoided the “Forest Lawn-ization” of American graveyards by allowing above-ground monuments. The chapel also contains frescoes created by world-renowned artist Alfredo Ramos Martinez.

Most of the cemetery’s rich and famous can be found on pricey plots with an ocean view that start at around $83,000. Its here that recently-deceased Fess Parker was interred in a plot alongside his parents. Parker’s grave has the image of a coonskin hat which he made famous playing Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone on television. Baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews rests nearby.

The cemetery, like Santa Barbara itself, is home to several British actors. Distinguished thespian Ronald Coleman rests beneath a dark rectangular monument that has a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Laurence Harvey, who is most famous for his portrayal of Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate, is buried with his daughter Domino, who was the subject of her own recent biopic, which starred Keira Knightley. British character actor Norma Varden’s ashes are in a niche in the columbarium and actress Virginia Cherrill’s tomb can be found inside the chapel. While not technically British, the American-born Cherrill is British by association, having been discovered by Charlie Chaplin, and married to Cary Grant and the Earl of Jersey.

So the next time you’re motoring down the 101 and you want to hang out with Davy Crockett and Britain’s rich and regal, stop in at the Santa Barbara Cemetery. I promise you a view “to die for.”

“Lie Down” Comics


Young comedian Demetri Belardinelli at the grave of his idol, Lenny Bruce.


“So, this blogger walks into a cemetery …”

No, it’s not the start of a joke, but a typical Deadwrite day.

On this particular day, I was accompanied by Demetri Belardinelli, who is the hilarious son of our good friends Charlie and Christina. Demetri, who is only 16, has been doing stand-up in Hollywood comedy clubs for the past year. (Yeah, he’s that good.)

We were at Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills to pay our respects to a couple of the graveyard’s “permanent residents” – legendary funnymen Lenny Bruce and Groucho Marx – who paved the way for later comics, and for future stars like Demetri.

Lenny Bruce was the stage name of Leonard Schneider, who was born in 1925 on Long Island and began his stand-up career after a stint in the navy. His routines were considered so raw for the era that he only appeared on network television six times during his entire career. His stand-up shows were revolutionary, yet led to charges of obscenity. In his later years, drug abuse led to his banishment from most comedy clubs, and he died from an overdose in 1966.

Groucho Marx, the acerbic, innuendo-tossing wise-cracker, was known for his fake greasepaint mustache, bouncing eyebrows, stooped gait, and ever-present cigar. He teamed up with his brothers Chico, Harpo, and (sometimes) Zeppo in hilarious films like Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. After the team retired, Groucho, born Julius in 1890, became a successful radio and television game show host for many years. In 1974, he accepted an honorary Academy Award on behalf of all the Marx brothers and Margaret Dumont, who was their comedic foil in seven of their films. He made his final television appearance a year before his death in 1977 on a Bob Hope special.

Demetri at Groucho Marx's grave. Groucho once joked that his grave should read, "Excuse me, I can't stand up."

Speaking of Bob Hope, the famous yuckster is interred nearby on the grounds of the San Fernando Mission.

Hope, one of the best-loved and most successful capitalists to ever come out of Hollywood, was as adept at making a buck as he was at getting a laugh, and died a multi-millionaire. Even after death he still rakes it in at his gravesite behind the mission’s gift shop, where the friendly friars charge $2 for a gander at the great one’s grave.

Scarier Than Ghosts?

Is this the most haunted house in America?

We crossed an item off the bucket list on Saturday when Kimi and I visited the Whaley House in San Diego’s Old Town district. The Whaley House is reputed to be the most haunted house in America by many psychic researchers, and if the stories about the property’s past are true, it’s easy to see why. 

Thomas Whaley was a forty-niner who made a small fortune selling supplies to miners in San Francisco before relocating south to the sleepy settlement of San Diego, where he built this house in 1857. Whaley must not have believed in ghosts because he constructed his home on the bad juju site of the public gallows, where a few years earlier he witnessed convicted row boat thief Yankee Jim Robinson pay the ultimate price for his minor offense. Whaley soon became a believer when footsteps began appearing in empty rooms in the house, and his family members started dying on the premises in mysterious ways. 

The Ninth Step.

The docents who work on the grounds dress in period costume and all seem to have had personal encounters with a host of otherworldly presences, such as footsteps, slamming doors and smells of perfume and cigar smoke coming from empty rooms; an invisible baby crying in the nursery; and even a disembodied dog who will occasionally hump a tourist’s leg. A sour-faced Whaley is said to appear on the second floor, and his long-deceased wife sometimes shows up at a back window to inspect her gardens below. One particularly haunted spot is said to be the ninth stair leading to the second floor, which was the same spot where Yankee Jim once dangled. Guests at the house have reported choking at the spot, and some have even found rope marks around their necks after climbing the stairs. 

We felt nothing unusual during our visit, but many a skeptic has become an immediate convert during a tour, including Regis Philbin, who reportedly once encountered a ghost at the house. 

Mrs. Whaley checking on her gardens? Nope, just a tourist.

The Whaley House was still worth the $6 admission cost, but there is another place two blocks away that comes with a large creepiness-factor, free of charge. 

Yankee Jim's grave in El Campo Santo Cemetery.

Nearly 500 bodies, including the unfortunate Yankee Jim, were buried in El Campo Santo Cemetery from 1849 to 1880. Sometime around 1899, the city government decided that a horse-drawn trolley was a greater need for the citizens of San Diego than the preservation of burial sites, and a line was cut through the cemetery without anyone bothering to relocate the bodies first. Eventually the street was paved, and today when tourists drive over San Diego Avenue or walk down the sidewalk next to the street, they are crossing over at least twenty graves that are now marked with small brass plaques that read “grave site.”  

Which just goes to show you that dead people are often less scary than the living ones in city government. 

A grave in the middle of San Diego Avenue.

The Silent Voices of Valhalla

Valhalla’s voice of “Elmer Fudd,” Arthur Q. Bryan.

Jiminy Cricket, Betty Ruble, and Elmer Fudd all died and went to Valhalla. … No, it’s not the start of a animated Scandinavian mythology joke, but what actually became of the voice stars Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket), Bea Benaderet (Betty Ruble), and Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd), who all became permanent residents of Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood upon death.

Cliff Edwards, nicknamed “Ukelele Ike” – incorrect spelling and all – was a Jazz musician who single-handedly popularized the ukulele in the 1920s. He had several hit songs, but none so enduring as When You Wish Upon a Star, which he sang as Jiminy Cricket in the Walt Disney animated classic Pinocchio. A year later he had another hit as the chief crow in Disney’s Dumbo with When I see an Elephant Fly. Edwards died penniless in 1971 and Disney paid for his grave marker.

Bea Benaderet is best known today for starring as Kate Bradley, the owner of the Shady Rest Hotel in the 1960s television comedy Petticoat Junction. Previously, she nearly landed the roles of Ethel Mertz in I Love Lucy, and Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies. (She was considered too buxom for the latter character, but did appear on the show as Cousin Pearl, Jethro Bodine’s mother.) Two decades before her television work made her famous, Benaderet starred at Warner Bros.’ cartoon unit “Termite Terrace” as the voice of a different Granny, this time in the Tweety Bird cartoons. During her time on Petticoat Junction she did double-duty as the voice of Betty Rubble for the Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Flintstones alongside her old WB co-star Mel Blanc, who supplied the voice of Betty’s husband Barney. She died from lung cancer in 1968 and on the day of her funeral her husband died suddenly, and the two are now interred in the same crypt.

Arthur Q. Bryan (the “Q” stands for Quirk, no lie.) was the original voice of Elmer Fudd, the poster child for speech thewapy. Bryan died of a heart attack in 1959 at the age of 60 after a 20-year career in cartoons. He rarely got screen credit, and as a result, many people believe Mel Blanc created the voice of Elmer Fudd (along with Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Sylvester, Foghorn Leghorn, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig – to name a few). Blanc (among others) did become the voice of Fudd after Bryan’s passing.

In case you’re wondering, you won’t find Mel Blanc at Valhalla, but at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. His is the grave that says, “That’s All, Folks!”

Legendary voice-artist Mel Blanc’s gravesite at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Ford Sterling: The Forgotten Kop

Ford Sterling, behind the desk as “Chief Teeheezal,” captains the madcap “Keystone Kops.” Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is seen at the far right.

It must have been thrilling having one of the most recognizable faces on Earth, with millions of fans laughing at your films every week in nickelodeons around the world. It must have been something altogether different watching your career fizzle and dying penniless, forgotten by a world which once adored you.

This was the sad fate of Ford Sterling.

Sterling, born George Ford Stich in Wisconsin in 1883, began his show business career when he literally ran away from home to join the circus. His experience as a clown translated well to early slapstick silent film comedies, which he began making in 1911.

Sterling made 270 screen appearances during a film career that lasted for twenty-five years, bridging both the silent and talkie eras. His greatest success came in the role of “Chief Teeheezal,” the leader of Mack Sennett’s madcap “Keystone Kops,” who were extremely popular in the 1910s.

Sterling’s popularity was unsurpassed until he was replaced as the main Keystone star in 1914 by a young Englishman named Charlie Chaplin. His career flourished at other studios for many years, and the nattily-dressed Sterling maintained his reputation as Hollywood’s best-dressed man by spending fortunes on new clothes during European shopping sprees.

By the late 1930s, poor health had sapped his vitality and remaining resources, and he died penniless from a heart attack at the age of 55 in 1939. His ashes were placed in a cardboard box and interred in an unmarked crypt in a mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Ford Sterling's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6612 Hollywood Boulevard.

For the past 70 years Sterling’s legacy has been largely forgotten, but recent developments may change all that.

An unknown Keystone Kop film starring Sterling was recently discovered by a film preservationist at a Michigan antique sale. The film is generating lots of interest among film historians because of its co-star, Charlie Chaplin – the comic who replaced Sterling as big-man-on-the-Keystone-campus.

The 10-minute film, entitled A Thief Catcher, was thought to exist, because Chaplin had written in his autobiography that he once appeared as a Keystone Kop, but no one knew the title, and most historians believed it to be forever lost.

The film was reintroduced to the world at the Slapsticon Festival in Virginia earlier this month. It is hoped that the film will be released to wide distribution soon, giving legions of slapstick comedy fans a peek at a forgotten Chaplin short, and a fresh look at Ford Sterling.

And who knows? Maybe after 70 years, all those fans will get together and purchase a decent burial place for this early pioneer in silent film comedy. Who’s with me?

(If you would like to learn more about early Hollywood, check out my new book entitled Early Warner Bros. Studios)