Tag Archives: hollywood forever cemetery

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 Sweet Prince of Pickfair

(Because I am completely immersed in another writing project, Kimi has graciously volunteered to author another day’s post. Thank you, my sweet princess!)

"… An eternal boy … His was a happy life. His rewards were great, his joys many. Now he pillows his head upon his arms, sighs deeply, and sleeps."

(Eulogy delivered by Charlie Chaplin for his best friend, Douglas Fairbanks.)

The impressive crypt of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, is a worthy testament to the glamorous life led by the original “King of Hollywood."

For those who can remember back that far, mention of the name Douglas Fairbanks conjures up images of romantic silent swashbucklers and Hollywood glamour on a grand scale.

Fairbanks’ accomplishments in Hollywood as an actor, director, producer, and screenwriter were legendary, as were his performances in Robin Hood, The Thief of Baghdad, and The Mark of Zorro.

For a time in film’s early era, Douglas Fairbanks was Hollywood.

Born Douglas Elton Ulman in Denver on this date in 1883, Fairbanks’ happy childhood ended at age five, when his alcoholic father abandoned the family. (Watching his father’s descent into alcoholism would inspire Fairbanks to abstain from drinking for most of his life.)

Like many actors of his time, Fairbanks began his career in summer stock as a teenager, and was an instant sensation. He was discovered in Denver by British actor Frederick Warde and offered a spot in his popular acting troupe.

Fairbanks made his Broadway debut in 1902. While in New York, he met and married his first wife, Anna Beth Sully, who gave birth to their son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., later a major star in his own right.

Fairbanks, Sr.’s career took flight when the family moved to Hollywood in 1915, where he signed a contract at Triangle Pictures with legendary director D.W. Griffith. Within 18 months, he landed a job at Paramount Pictures and was catapulted to stardom, becoming the most popular actor in Hollywood.

His long-time romantic association and marriage to actress Mary Pickford – “America’s Sweetheart” – is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

They met at a party in 1916 and immediately began their love affair. Just one year later, the couple joined Doug’s close friend and associate Charlie Chaplin selling WWI war bonds.

The trio would later team up with D.W. Griffith to form United Artists in 1919, the same year Fairbanks’ divorce from Sully became  final. Fairbanks and Pickford were married the following year, and moved into their well-known Beverly Hills mansion, “Pickfair." They came to be regarded as Hollywood royalty, and Pickfair was the place to see and be seen.

The decade of the 20s was a very good one for Fairbanks, and he was able to solidify his "royalty" status by hosting the very first Academy Awards ceremony.

The 30s witnessed the end of Fairbanks’ career and marriage to Pickford.

Fairbanks died quietly at the home he shared with his third wife, Lady Sylvia Ashley, in Santa Monica in 1939. His last words were, “I’ve never felt better.”

His grave used to say, "Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to rest." But with the internment of his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., inside the same tomb in 2000, the wording was changed to read, "Goodnight sweet princes."

(If you would like to see Fairbanks’ grave, we’ll be taking our “Newhallywood on Location” class to Hollywood Forever Cemetery for a tour this Saturday. Check the “My Class” tab for details.)

Death By Sound: The Tragic Tale of Karl Dane

Hollywood, like crocodiles, sometimes eats its own. Take, for example, the tragic story of actor and comic Karl Dane.

Dane, who was born Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb in Copenhagen in 1886, boarded a steamer headed for Ellis Island 30 years later with $25 in his pocket.

Despite limited English, Dane soon landed a part playing a German chancellor in a film made in New York called My Four Years in Germany. The anti-German propaganda film was the first major hit for fledgling producers Warner Bros. and led to more parts for Dane on the East Coast.

He later moved west, settling in Van Nuys in 1921, where he married and started a new career as a farmer. Two years later his wife and newborn baby daughter died in childbirth, and Dane returned to films.

In 1924, Dane appeared in the silent blockbuster The Big Parade, which starred John Gilbert and Renee Adoree. The success of the film led to more work for the Danish immigrant alongside Rudolph Valentino in Son of the Sheik.

While most of his previous silent film roles were as “heavies,” Dane was teamed up with Scotsman George K. Arthur in 1927 as part of the comic duo Dane & Arthur. The series of comedy shorts they created proved popular, and MGM rewarded Dane with a long-term contract.

And then came sound.

With the arrival of “talkies,” Dane’s heavily-accented voice didn’t translate well to audiences, and he was soon cut by MGM.

The Dane & Arthur team disbanded after a lengthy vaudeville tour, with Dane later trying his hand at a variety of jobs before returning to the stage in an unsuccessful bid to make it as a solo performer.

By the end of 1933, Dane found himself in the humiliating position of running a hot dog stand outside of the MGM gates; the studio where he had been a star a short time earlier. Former friends at the studio, perhaps to save him embarrassment, avoided his establishment, which failed a short time later.

During this week in April 1934, Dane was robbed of his last $18. Afterwards, he went back to his Hollywood apartment and killed himself with a revolver where he was later found by a friend.

For a time his body lay unclaimed until Danish actor Jean Hersholt convinced MGM to pay for Dane’s burial at what is today Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the same burial ground where his old co-star Rudolph Valentino was interred a few years earlier.

Film’s Forgotten Four-footers

(Today’s post is by Deadwrite’s Dailies guest writer, Steve Goldstein.)

Back in July, 2007, I had the unique experience of being the featured guest on California’s Gold with Huell Howser. It turned out that Huell was a fan of my Beneath Los Angeles website and wanted to do a show about animal actors. Dead animal actors.

Huell asked me to lead him on a tour of the graves of these deceased four-footers, especially the ones who aren’t in cemeteries, since many were buried in backyards and studio lots that are now paved over and lost to history.

I met Huell and his cameraman, Cameron Tucker (yes, Cameron the cameraman) at 8:30 in the morning in Hollywood. Huell, who has been on the air for about 25 years, used to have a cameraman named Louie who he would frequently speak to on camera, saying things like “Louie, get a shot of this,” or “Louie, zoom in on that.” Throughout the day passersby wanted to know if Cameron was the famous Louie, which annoyed the cameraman. At one point he said to me, “Louie has been gone five years now. You’d think people would have figured that out by now.”

Huell began the show at Hollywood Forever Cemetery talking about how people come from near and far to visit celebrity graves. He then explained the twist of how we would be finding the graves of animal stars that day. After that he introduced me, and led into the segment with his catchphrase, “Our adventure begins … right now!”

Huell likes to shoot the show in sequence, even if it means crisscrossing the city many times.

Our first stop was the bank parking lot in Glendale where the Western studio town of Mixville once stood back in 1914. It was here that cowboy star Tom Mix made many of his early films with his trusted horse, Old Blue. When Old Blue died, he was buried on the studio lot. Years later the entire set was leveled and a shopping center was put up in its place. A branch of East-West Bank stands at the south end of the former property and today the bank’s parking lot rests right over the grave of the horse.   

Then it was on to Studio City to find the grave of Terry, the dog who played Toto in 1939’s family classic The Wizard of Oz. The site of Terry’s grave was formerly the ranch of his trainer, Carl Spitz. This property is also now a parking lot and apartment complex resting adjacent to the Ventura Freeway. Every day, thousands of commuters drive over the grave of Toto, who is buried under the freeway.

Our next stop was Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, near Burbank. Forest Lawn is historically cagey with celebrity seekers, and not surprisingly, they wouldn’t allow us to film there. Instead, we stood across the street and talked about Frank Inn, the animal actor trainer who is buried in the cemetery along with the ashes of three of his most famous actors, Benji, Arnold the Pig, and Tramp, the dog from My Three Sons.

We ended our day at the LA Pet Memorial Park in Calabasas, where we could see the actual graves of some celebrity animals. Unlike Forest Lawn, this place was very cooperative (as was Hollywood Forever), and very happy to have Huell Howser on the premises. Here, we filmed the graves of Kabar Valentino (faithful pet Doberman of Rudolph), Topper (Hopalong Cassidy’s horse), Petey (the Our Gang dog), and Tawney, the lion who roars at the start of all MGM Films.

The show we filmed that day is called Pet Cemetery and is replayed three or four times a year, so set your TiVo’s and DVR’s! 

Huell, by the way, was a hoot during the entire day. He truly loves doing what he does.

Steve Goldstein is the author of LA’s Graveside Companion: Where the V.I.P.s R.I.P. Schiffer Books, 2009.

Three’s Company

Do celebrities really die in threes?

To some, it’s a universal law. To others, it’s just sloppy thinking applied to a statistical likelihood with all the famous people walking around these days.

Each camp draws different conclusions to the same evidence, like in late June, 2009, with the wave of celebrity deaths that took place around the passing of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.

Another such grouping happened five years ago this week with the triple-deaths of the three-D’s – Darren McGavin, Dennis Weaver, and Don Knotts – within 24 hours.

Darren McGavin, the first to be born and the last to die, spent much of his youth in the Pacific Northwest either homeless or living in orphanages. He began his Hollywood career as a painter on the Columbia lot where he secured a bit role in a film before moving to New York to hone the craft of acting.

He eventually starred in seven television series, most notably in Kolchak: The Night Stalker in the early 70s, playing a modern-day vampire hunter. His most famous film role came in 1983’s A Christmas Story, where he played the grumpy father with the kitschy leg lamp.

McGavin died on February 25, 2006, a day after Knotts and Weaver. He was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery in an appropriate spot for a former vampire hunter, as his plot overlooks that of Maila Nurmi, television’s original Vampira.

Dennis Weaver was raised in Missouri where he wanted to be an actor from an early age. He committed to the profession after failing to make the 1948 U.S. Olympic decathlon team. His acting career was secured when he landed the role of Chester, Matt Dillon’s deputy, in the long-running Western series Gunsmoke in 1955.

Weaver was often seen on television throughout the rest of his career, including starring roles in Gentle Ben in 1967 and McCloud in 1970. He also starred in the Steven Spielberg thriller Duel in 1971.

Weaver and his wife Gerry had one of the most successful marriages in Hollywood history, lasting from 1945 until his death. He was an advocate for the environment and a major supporter of several progressive causes. He died from lung cancer on February 24, 2006.

Don Knotts, like Weaver, was born in the summer of 1924.

Knotts came from West Virginia and began his stage career as a ventriloquist. In 1958, he appeared alongside Andy Griffith in the film No Time For Sergeants, which began a lifelong friendship and professional relationship between the two men.

Knotts later got regular work on television on Three’s Company and other shows, and in several classic screen comedies like The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Pleasantville, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (“Atta boy, Luther!”). 

But to the millions of fans who still regularly transport themselves to the town of Mayberry in the country of TV Land, Knotts will forever be Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. Barney, with his Napoleon complex and single bullet, was just about the funniest character to ever appear on a television set.

It was fitting that both Knotts and Weaver died on the same day, since they both became famous playing deputies. As one blogger wrote back in 2006, “it looks like a bad week to be an ex-law enforcement sidekick.”

It was a bad week for us all.

I never met any of these men, so I can’t vouch for their real-life personalities, but thanks to the wonderful characters they played, it’s impossible for me to bring any of them to mind without breaking into a smile.


1/21 and Done

Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer

If you happen to be famous, you may want to stay in bed today.

Who knows? Maybe it was the stress of having just made it through the holidays and knowing that there were less than 350 shopping days until the next Christmas that did these folks in. Whatever the case, the 21st day of January has historically proven fatal to a large number of entertainers.

This dark trend began in 1895 when David Burbank died on this date. While not much of an entertainer himself, dentist and rancher Burbank owned the land that now houses the lots for Warner Bros., Walt Disney, and NBC.

The first film star to pass on this date was beautiful silent actress Alma Rubens (b. 1897) who died from complications from drug addiction in 1931. Canadian-born actress Marie Prevost (b. 1898) met a similar fate six years later due to alcoholism.

On this date in 1938, French magician and cinematic pioneer Georges Melies passed away in Paris. Twelve years later, British dystopian author George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903) died from tuberculosis.

In 1959, two Hollywood notables passed on the same day – one old, one young. The elder victim was epic film director Cecil B. DeMille (b. 1881) whose death overshadowed the news that day that thirty-one-year old ex-Our Gang member Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer had been shot during an argument over a hunting dog. The two were buried a few hundred feet apart in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Western actor Al “Fuzzy” St. John, who got his start in silent comedies with his uncle Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, died on this date in 1963. Actress Ann Sheridan (b. 1915) died four years later from cancer.

Death took a holiday until 1984 when the scythe again swung twice claiming the lives of actor and Olympian Johnny Weissmuller  and Soul singer Jackie Wilson.

Cecil B. DeMille

Actress Susan Strasberg died on this date in 1999, followed three years later by actress and singer Peggy Lee.

Other notables who passed on this date include baseball hall of famer Charlie Gehringer in 1993, Chicago television personality and original Ronald McDonald portrayer Ray Rayner in 2004, and Chi-Lites vocalist Robert “Squirrel” Lester in 2010.

January 21 was also the death date for two actors on the world stage. It was on this date in 1924 that communist leader Vladimir Lenin died in Russia. This happened exactly 131 years after King Louis XVI lost his head in 1793.

The Dark’s First Mistress

Before Elvira, even before Morticia … there was Vampira.

Vampira, the original ghoulish horror movie hostess in television history, was a familiar personality to Los Angeles late-night television viewers in the mid-1950s. But it was for a one-day acting job, in which she appeared in what she believed would be a quickly forgotten schlock-horror film, that Vampira is remembered today.

Vampira was the gothic alter-ego of curvaceous actress, model, and chorus girl Maila Nurmi. Nurmi was born in Finland is 1922 and claimed kinship with the great long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi. She moved to the United States when she was two, and grew up in Ohio and Oregon.

After briefly appearing on Broadway, she migrated to Hollywood, where she worked as a dancer and as a model for acclaimed artists Alberto Vargas and Man Ray.

Nurmi first appeared as Vampira in a wasp-waisted tight black dress and white pasty makeup for a masquerade ball in Hollywood in 1953; a look that was inspired by Charles Addams’ comics. She caught the attention of a television producer that night who spent months tracking down the mysterious beauty to star as hostess for a horror-film show he was launching.

Nurmi began each episode of The Vampira Show by gliding through a fog-strewn funereal set towards the camera, greeting the audience with a scream that would shame a banshee. She introduced the films with a barrage of mockery and graveyard puns that earned her a small, but fiercely loyal (and mostly male) following. Her shtick was successful enough to earn her an Emmy nomination in 1954 for ‘Most Outstanding Female Personality.”

The Vampira Show ended in 1955 and Nurmi survived being held hostage by a homocidal home invader that same year. She was critically burned in an apartment fire the following year. She recovered and supported herself by making personal appearances and acting in whatever roles she could find.

One of these roles called for her to re-create her Vampira persona for a film that was originally entitled Grave Robbers From Outer Space. By the time the film was released in 1959, the title had changed to Plan Nine From Outer Space from director Ed Wood – a film that gained a worldwide cult-following after it was voted “the worst film ever made.”

Nurmi acted sporadically over the next few decades, and eked out a living by selling antiques and installing linoleum floors. In 1981, she was working to revive the Vampira character for a new television show in Los Angeles but parted ways with the producers when they cast comedienne Cassandra Peterson in the title role with the name “Elvira.” Nurmi later unsuccessfully sued Peterson for cribbing her likeness.

Nurmi was once married to Dean Riesner, who appeared as a child in the Charlie Chaplin film The Pilgrim (which we will be screening at ChaplinFest in February), and was later the screenwriter of Dirty Harry and Play Misty For Me.

As pointed out in Warren Beath’s great book The Death of James Dean, Nurmi and Dean were once close friends, but had a falling out shortly before Dean’s death.

Nurmi passed away on this date in 2008 at the age of 85. Fans pitched in to buy a marker for her grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which ironically, is situated next to the grave of Darren McGavin (1922-2006) who is best known for his role in television’s The Night Stalker, in which he played a reporter who followed the activities of a modern-day vampire.

Kimi at the grave of Maila Nurmi. Darren McGavin's' tomb is behind her at the left of the photo.

The First Movie Star

Florence Lawrence, "The Biograph Girl," in 1905.

On this day in 1938, Florence Lawrence, the actress credited as the world’s first movie star, died by her own hand in a West Hollywood apartment.

Florence Annie Bridgwood was born in Canada in 1886. Her mother was a vaudevillian actress who used the name Lotta Lawrence on stage. Young Florence took on her mother’s professional surname after the death of her father when she was four.

Florence joined her mother on stage at an early age and the two eventually migrated to New York City when she was 20. It was there in 1906 that Lawrence got her first film role for Thomas Edison, being paid five-dollars a day for a two week shoot.

Florence, who rode horses as a girl, was able to garner steady work due to her beauty and equestrian skills. In 1908 she was offered a sizable raise (to $25 a week) to join Biograph Studios to work with director D.W. Griffith. She appeared in most of the 60 films that Griffith made for Biograph that year.

Lawrence became popular with fans, but no one knew her name as the studios feared (rightly, as it turned out) that if actors had their names listed in the credits, they would be able to demand greater salaries. During her time with Griffith, Lawrence was listed simply as “The Biograph Girl.”

By this time, Lawrence was married to actor Harry Solter. When the pair tried to move to Essanay Studios for higher pay, they were both fired from Biograph.

Carl Laemmle, the head of the IMP Film Company (and future founder of Universal Studios) hired Lawrence for a film. To promote the movie, Laemmle “disproved” a rumor (which he had created) that “The Biograph Girl” had been killed in a street car accident. He introduced Lawrence to the public by name in advertisements and public appearances. Soon the name Florence Lawrence was known to all at a time when no actors were known by name to the public. This single act created the “studio system” and proved producers fears correct when other actors then demanded their own names on the marquee, with higher salaries.

Lawrence left Laemmle in 1910 to form a separate studio called the Victor Film Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She made five hundred dollars a week as the company’s leading lady with Solter acting as director. The couple sold the studio in 1913 and “retired” to a 50-acre estate in New Jersey.

The retirement didn’t last long. In 1914, Lawrence was again in front of the cameras in a film for Universal called Pawns of Destiny when she was seriously burned in a studio fire. It took months for her to recover from her injuries which seriously depleted her finances as Universal refused to cover her medical bills. She never regained her star status.

Lawrence divorced Soltis a short time later and tried to regain her footing in films before suffering a relapse brought on by her injuries in 1916 that left her paralyzed for many months. Her health returned sufficiently for her to appear in bit parts, but her remaining fortunes were wiped out in the stock market crash of 1929.

Completely forgotten by the industry she helped create, the 52-year-old killed herself on this date in 1938 by swallowing ant paste.

Her humiliation continued after death when she was interred in an unmarked plot in what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In 1991, actor Roddy McDowall honored the forgotten star when he paid for a memorial. It reads, “The Biograph Girl/The First Movie Star.”

An interesting bit of trivia: Flo-Lo, who was once married to an automobile salesman, is also credited with inventing the first turn signal for cars, which she called an “auto signaling arm.” She never patented the device, which made fortunes for others.

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.

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.”