Tag Archives: graveyards

The Shy Stooge

(I was only 15 when Elvis Presley died in 1977, and I remember everyone going on about what a tragedy it was for The King to have passed so young at age 42. At that time 42 seemed like a lot of years to be alive, and I didn’t see anything particularly tragic about someone so “old” dying.

Man have times changed!

I’ll turn 50 on the 4th of July this year, which means that I’ve outlasted Elvis by a solid eight years so far, and from where I stand, 50 ain’t old! Not one bit.

It also means that I’ve been circling with the earth for a couple of years longer than Jerome “Curly” Howard got on this side of the ground. Curly died sixty years ago this week, as a “youngster” of only 48.)

When the cameras weren’t rolling, Jerome “Curly Howard" Horwitz was very different from the hyper-manic slapstick “stooge” that he played on screen in nearly 100 shorts with Larry Fine and his brother Moe.

Curly, who died 60 years ago this coming Friday, was known as Jerry to his friends and Babe to his family. He was the youngest of the five Horwitz brothers, which included future Stooges Moe and Shemp.

A shy, unassuming boy, young Jerry did poorly in school, but excelled as a basketball player (!), ballroom dancer, and singer. He walked with a slight limp that resulted from an accidental gunshot wound he sustained as a child. (He would later develop his famous “Curly Shuffle” in part to hide his affliction.)

Jerry joined the Stooges in 1932 after his brother Shemp left the act to pursue a solo career. Comedian Ted Healy led the team at the time, and initially rejected him because he didn’t like his full-head of auburn hair. Jerry, needing the job, reappeared a few minutes later with a shaved head and was immediately hired and given the ironic nickname “Curly.”

Curly became the most popular Stooge out of the gate when the team began making shorts for Columbia two years later. A self-trained comic, Curly created most of his most famous routines on the spot. Often times, directors would give him the barest of plot outlines and simply turn on the camera and watch him create.

The Stooges kept up a grueling filming schedule for many years with Columbia head Harry Cohn demanding eight shorts a year from the team. When not filming, the Stooges toured non-stop, giving live performances. Curly, who felt more comfortable with dogs than people, would often spend his downtime on tour finding homes for strays.

When not on stage, Curly would morph back into the introverted Jerry, who was insecure around women because of his shaved head, and could only open up to strangers when intoxicated. This became an increasingly constant condition.

His health, both physically and mentally, declined drastically during the 1940s, as he suffered through a string of bad marriages and hypertension brought on by obesity. After he had a stroke in 1946 (Perhaps brought on by too many head slaps administered by brother Moe?), Shemp rejoined the team and Curly was sent to live out the remainder of his life in hospitals. He eventually died from a major stroke in a sanitarium in San Gabriel on January 18, 1952. He was only 48.

Curly was interred in East L.A.’s Home of Peace Cemetery where he would later be joined by brother Shemp, who died three years later. The cemetery houses the mortal remains of many Hollywood luminaries, including studio moguls Louis B. Mayer and the Warner brothers.

But by far, the most visited grave on the grounds belongs to a shy kid named Jerry, who – lucky for us – hid his introversion behind a persona with a shaved head, a high-pitched staccato Brooklyn accent, and a host of memorable catch-phrases and physical gags.

The grave is a bit tough to find, but you’ll know it when you see it. It’s the one with “Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk” written out in front in pennies.

(And in Deadwrite’s Dailies news: We passed 100,000 all-time hits just after New Year’s. Thanks everyone for stopping by.)

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.

Missing Mr. Mitchell

We’re rushing up on the 4th of July again, which means more to me than just a day off. On a high note, the fourth is my birthday, but at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, it also marks the second anniversary of the passing of our buddy, the legendary organist and choir director Bob Mitchell, who died at the age of 96 in 2009.

The term "legendary" is kicked around carelessly in Hollywood, but that’s the only way to describe Bob. He first tickled the ivories at the age of four way back in 1916, and by the time he was 12(!) he was proficient enough at the organ to accompany silent films in theaters. This gig lasted until the talkies hit the scene four years later. He then became a choir director – a position he held in one fashion or another for the next 80 years!

Along the way he founded the "Robert Mitchell Choir Boys" troupe, which appeared in 100 films, and was the subject of an Academy Award-nominated short.

After a stint in World War II, he returned to Los Angeles and worked for many years as a staff organist for classic radio shows.  In his later years, he returned to his roots to accompany silent films all around the Los Angeles area. This is how Bob came into our lives.

I had been a fan of Bob’s for years, but I had never met him until he agreed to accompany Buster Keaton’s The General for us at our film series in Newhall in 2007. Bob’s star power brought the folks out in droves, and for the rest of his life he played for us in front of packed houses. He would be driven to Newhall by his good friends Dr. Gene Toon and Dee Perkins. Sometimes it would take several minutes for him to go from the car to the organ, but once there, he would transform into a young man.

He would play for the next hour or more, with no sheet music, composing as he watched the screen. Occasionally, he would even sing along to the music, or comment about one of the stars on screen that he had worked with personally over the years. Everyone ate it up.

We got to spend some time together away from the shows. I had a special experience at the end of one year when I drove Bob back to his assisted living home in Hollywood. He was a very caring and religious man, and asked me to stay while he lead Hanukkah prayers for the two of us. Now, neither of us were Jewish, but there we were wearing yarmulkes and lighting candles because Bob wanted to honor all of his friends of the Jewish faith.

Bob had a special love for Kimi and would light up whenever she entered the room (just like me). Kimi gave him a birthday cake at one of our shows while he set at the organ, and Bob hugged her like she was a favorite granddaughter.

It’s ironic to say that the death of a 96-year-old was unexpected, but for me it was. Bob, despite a few health problems, was never in a hurry to leave this life. I asked him if he was interested in playing a show for us on his 100th birthday in 2012, and he said, "Let’s book it!"

But it was not to be. We were on our way to visit him at the hospital last year when we got word that he had passed away.

A year ago at this time, the Los Angeles Conservancy presented the 1924 silent film Peter Pan as part of their "Last Remaining Seats" series at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. The show was hosted by Leonard Maltin and the near-capacity crowd was treated to a wonderful evening of entertainment. The night was dedicated to Bob who had played for the conservancy for over 20 years.

Before the show, a documentary that we made was played in a continuous loop in a side room. It was of the night in 2008 when we took Bob to Dodger Stadium to play the organ for the 7th inning stretch. See, another item on Bob’s resume was being the very first organist at Dodger Stadium when it opened in 1962.

Do you see why the term legendary fits?

Fit for a Pharaoh

Hollywood Forever Cemetery is sprinkled liberally with the graves of some of the most famous entertainers in history, like Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Cecil B. DeMille.

But by far, the cemetery’s most imposing gravesite doesn’t belong to someone whose name you would recognize. This massive afterlife estate, which graces the center of a man-made lake, is a classical limestone-columned structure large enough to make one of ancient Egypt’s god-kings drool.

The mausoleum houses the remains of William Andrews Clark, Jr.


W.A. Clark’s father – W.A. Clark, Sr. – made a fortune to rival the Rockefeller’s from mining copper in the 1800s, which he used to purchase respectability by becoming a U.S. Senator.

I had heard that he left it all to Junior, who went through it donating lavishly to several charities and building a mausoleum fit for a pharaoh. His first wife died giving birth to his only son, who died in a plane crash in 1932. He married again, but his second wife died young as well. End of the family story, right?

Not even close.

Had I not been a frequent visitor to Hollywood Forever over the years, I would have never heard of the Clark family, or of its progenitor. So imagine my surprise when I saw William A. Clark, Sr.’s name in the paper yesterday.

It turns out that the Clark fortune wasn’t eaten up by inheritance taxes or completely done in by mausoleum construction costs after all.

As I learned yesterday, Clark Sr. had a daughter by his second wife named Huguette, who died earlier this week at the age of 104!

Huguette also got half-a-billion of the old man’s money. Not only was she one of the richest women in the country, but also one of the most reclusive. After collecting a string of mansions on both coasts, she left most of them vacant, hiding away from the world for the past half-century in a 42-room apartment on 5th Avenue.

Which goes to show you …  in America, old people still die, but old fortunes are eternal.

I haven’t heard where Huguette will be buried, but there’s certainly plenty of room in her half-brother’s spread in Hollywood Forever.

(BTW, if anyone would like a tour of Hollywood Forever, I’ll be there tomorrow at 2 pm with my film class. Post me a comment if you’d like to tag along.)

The “Grim” Fairy Tale

Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio at the start of their nine-month marriage in 1954.

It looked good on paper – or to be more precise, they looked good in the papers – “they” being Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, who were married in San Francisco in a civil ceremony on this date in 1954.

The media dubbed the union as a “fairy tale” marriage, pairing America’s favorite sports hero with its leading female sex symbol.

But just as cruelty lurks in the subtext of all classic fairy tales, the DiMaggio-Monroe pairing turned out to be short-lived and fraught with pain.

This was a couple who should have entered marriage counseling before they were wed, or at the very least, been given Myers-Briggs tests to let them in on what friends of both knew from the start: that the marriage was doomed.

DiMaggio, the recently-retired immortal center fielder for the New York Yankees, was accustomed to hearing the roar of the crowd and resented finding he was no longer the center of attention when he entered a room with his stunning starlet wife on his arm.

Monroe, the uber-extrovert who craved the attention of all, was twelve years younger than Joltin’ Joe, and was at the height of her career.

DiMaggio wanted Monroe to leave Hollywood behind and be his stay-at-home wife; something his new bride refused to consider. An intensely jealous man, DiMaggio bristled every time he saw Monroe play to an audience using the full arsenal of her sensuality.

The straw that broke the marriage’s back landed on September 15th of that same year when DiMaggio was on-hand (along with hundreds of other spectators) to witness his wife’s white dress billow above her shoulders in the famous subway grate scene from The Seven Year Itch.

There had already been whispers of spousal abuse, and DiMaggio was said to have swatted his wife like an inside fastball after the filming. They were divorced less than two months later.

But their relationship wasn’t over. Around the time of The Misfits, Monroe’s final completed film, she suffered a complete breakdown and turned to DiMaggio for solace.

After Monroe’s death in 1962, DiMaggio had fresh roses delivered to her crypt at Westwood Cemetery three times a week for twenty years.

It was assumed that DiMaggio’s body would eventually occupy the vacant crypt at Monroe’s side. This rumor proved unfounded, as he was interred in a Catholic cemetery in the Bay Area after his death in 1999 from lung cancer.

(The crypt is now thought to belong to Hugh Hefner, who made Monroe the first Playboy centerfold in 1953.)

When Death Delights: Dia De Los Muertos, Part 2

For a graveyard, Hollywood Forever Cemetery certainly is a lively place.

The cemetery, which shares a block of real estate in Hollywood with Paramount Pictures, is a place of pilgrimage for Hollywood historians and fans. But it has also become a popular “event” site for people who previously may have never wished to enter a cemetery except in the back of a hearse. Today, the grounds not only host funerals, but also films, bands, and celebrations, like this past weekend’s fantastic Dia de los Muertos festival.

This wasn’t always the case. Not long ago, Hollywood Forever (then known as Hollywood Memorial) had been left for dead. The mausoleum was padlocked with standing water on the floor, headstones were lost in jungles of uncut weeds, and Douglas Fairbanks’ tomb was submerged in stagnant water.

The credit for the revitalization goes to Tyler Cassity, the hip young owner of the cemetery, who was the subject of an award-winning documentary in 2000 called The Young and the Dead. When Cassity took over ownership of the cemetery several years ago, it was on the verge of condemnation. He was able to bring it back to “life” by capitalizing on its history and by transforming it into a park for the living as well as the dead.

Dee Dee Ramone's grave got dolled-up for "Dia De Los Muertos."

The cemetery is one of the most historic spots in Los Angeles. It is the eternal home of dozens of Hollywood’s fallen, like Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, Peter Lorre, Nelson Eddy, Fay Wray, Tyrone Power, Marion Davies, Mel Blanc, and the aforementioned Douglas Fairbanks. Recent arrivals include Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, Don Adams, Maila Nurmi (known to the world as “Vampira”), and Darrin McGavin.

On Saturday, I saw hundreds of people filing into the once-dejected mausoleum, many in Day of the Dead attire, to hear a band and to examine colorful artwork that lined the walls. Valentino, who occupies a crypt in southeast corner of the building, once again drew crowds, as he did in life. Most were young people who had probably never heard of the silent screen idol until coming face-to-face with his crypt.

As did Johnny Ramone's.

As a taphophile, I have spent many rewarding hours searching for the final resting places of the world’s famous and infamous and I find cemeteries to be a great place for quiet contemplation. But I can say without reservation that Hollywood Forever is the only cemetery I have ever visited that I am able to describe as fun.

We can thank Tyler Cassidy and his staff for that.

Which goes to show that even a graveyard can be brought back to life if you’re willing to think “outside the coffin.”

When Death Delights: Dia De Los Muertos, Part 1

According to a sign on an altar I saw at Saturday’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration at the famous Hollywood Forever Cemetery, there are actually three deaths: the first comes when our bodies die; the second when we are buried; and the third and final death only happens when there is no one left alive who remembers us.

Dia de los Muertos celebrants do what they can to keep the third death from ever happening for former friends and loved ones.

The holiday is an ancient Mexican tradition that goes back to the Aztec days where the usually rigid line between the living and dead becomes as porous as the U.S.-Mexican border. During the celebration, the deceased are honored with altars featuring pictures and memorabilia from their lives. Their spirits are invited to attend the celebration where their living friends and relatives dress as skeletons to make them feel more comfortable in our world.

The celebration consists of native dancing, brightly painted skeletons and skulls, and dozens of elaborate altars. The altars are sometimes dedicated to a single person, like in the case of the one we saw that was made for  Bela Lugosi, but more often they honor the descendants of an entire family. The family of Guadalupe Gonzalez, who died in September, re-created the front porch of his house as his altar with trinkets like a Raggedy-Ann doll, a football, several family photos, and a sombrero. A skeleton representing Mr. Gonzalez was placed on the porch, where he often took naps during life.

On this altar, a skeleton representing Guadalupe Gonzalez, who died last month, sits on the front porch of his "house."

As we strolled the grounds with hundreds of other attendees, we saw altars dedicated to dead comedians, anti-gay bullying victims, and even to deceased cats. One altar featured a “wedding ceremony of the dead,” while another demanded justice for female victims of murder in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua, Mexico.

A "mostly dead" family.

My personal favorite was a large “Familia Quintero Reunion” altar featuring several living members of the Quintero family in sombreros and skeleton makeup who were symbolically inviting their deceased family members to drop in on the party. It was obvious to everyone looking on that the dead Quinteros were in no danger of suffering the third and final death anytime soon.

While it may sound creepy to some, the Dia de los Muertos festival at Hollywood Forever is one of the most fun celebrations you can have above ground.

(Tomorrow we will take a closer look at Hollywood Forever, along with its legion of famous residents.)

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.”

Pity the Clown

Yesterday I wrote about Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which began the process of freeing the slaves. But as history continues to point out, 145 years of legal freedom doesn’t always translate into equal opportunity for many African-Americans.

This has certainly been the case for most of Hollywood’s history.

I was reminded of this recently when I watched a schlocky “horror” film from 1932 called The Monster Walks, about a killer ape. (Blame insomnia.) There was nothing memorable about the movie except for a curious entry in the credits which listed the person playing the character “Exodus” as someone named “Sleep n’ Eat.”

Just as I feared, Sleep n’ Eat turned out to be an African-American man playing a stereotypically lazy, dim-witted chauffeur who jumps at everything that goes bump in the night.

The man who was relegated to these roles was actually named Willie Best, who was born in 1916 in Sunflower, Mississippi (a town I’m sure was nowhere near as delightful as its name suggests). Best was discovered on stage by a talent scout and came to Hollywood in 1930. He eventually appeared in over 100 films, including High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart. He had great comic timing, but was never able to rise above the role of the ‘comic-relief’ servant. It’s a real shame too, because Bob Hope and Hal Roach, two men who certainly knew comedy, considered him to be one of the greats.

Best appeared on some long-running early television series, but by the latter period of his career, his work was increasingly vilified by civil rights activists who viewed his work as representative of a racist era in Hollywood. It didn’t seem to matter that he was just earning a living at the time, and was better than his material.

Like many of his contemporaries, Best ended up trapped between eras in Hollywood, and was underappreciated by both. As his Wiki-bio points out, “Best was alternately loved as a great clown, then reviled, then pitied, finally virtually forgotten.”

The story of Willie Best makes me wonder how many great Denzel Washington-caliber careers of the past were lost due to prejudice. Which goes to show that when opportunity isn’t equally shared … everyone suffers.

Willie Best's grave in Burbank's Valhalla Cemetery.

Another September ’01 Tragedy

25th U.S. President (and “Sam the Eagle” lookalike) William McKinley.

We are all familiar with the tragic events of September 11, 2001, but almost exactly 100 years earlier, America suffered another national tragedy when 25th U.S. President William McKinley was assassinated. 

McKinley’s administration bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which was the time that America became a leading world power. He was the last president to have fought in the Civil War, having enlisted as a private in 1861. During the conflict he was promoted several times by his commanding officer and future U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes. He left the war with the rank of major and later became a lawyer and served as a U.S. congressman and as governor of Ohio. 

He won the presidency in 1896 on the strength of the Republic Party machine. His administration is most remembered for the Spanish-American War – “a splendid little war” – which netted the country Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippine Islands. Hawaii was also annexed during his tenure. 

McKinley easily won re-election in 1900 and traveled to Buffalo the following year to attend the Pan-American Exposition. The exposition was a goodwill festival that was intended to placate the fears of our Latin American neighbors who had just witnessed two of their lands come forcibly under American control. 

The Pan-American Exposition's Temple of Music, where President McKinley was assassinated in September, 1901.

McKinley was greeting a line of visitors at the exposition’s Temple of Music when anarchist Leon Csolgolz fired two bullets into the president. Csolgolz was angered over McKinley’s imperialistic and pro-corporate policies. He may have been suffering from mental illness, but we will never know, because in a rush to judgment that is unbelievable when contrasted to twenty-first century practices, Csolgolz was tried and convicted within two weeks of McKinley’s death on September 14, and executed a month later. The Temple of Music, which was a temporary structure, was demolished just days later. Today the site of the shooting is marked by a boulder in the middle of a residential street. 

Prison officials feared that Csolgolz’s grave would become a site of veneration for anarchists and hastily buried his body in an unmarked plot after spraying it with sulfuric acid to hasten decomposition. McKinley’s body was interred on a hilltop in his hometown of Canton, Ohio. The domed stone structure was described in Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation (a fascinating and surprisingly hilarious account of visits to the sites of the first three presidential assassinations – JFK’s was too recent to supply levity) as “a gray granite nipple on a fresh breast of grass.” 

McKinley’s assassination made a president of former-VP Theodore Roosevelt, who furthered his predecessor’s policy of Latin American imperialism by building the Panama Canal. McKinley is remembered today only in the name of America’s highest peak. This may change if Alaska has its way, as the state has tried for decades to officially rename Mount McKinley back to its Native American name of Denali. This move has been consistently blocked in congress by representatives from McKinley’s former district in Ohio.