Tag Archives: san fernando mission cemetery

Happy 70th, Ritchie

He was only 17-years-old when his life was snuffed out in a small plane crash 2500 miles from his family and friends. That, in and of itself, is a tragic enough ending for a young life, but what makes this story even more painful is that the young man who died that day was Ritchie Valens, the first Latino rock ‘n’ roll star.

When Valens died alongside rock ‘n’ roll legends Buddy Holly and Chantilly Lace singer J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson on February 3, 1959, much of the Cold War-era adult world failed to take notice (the story was reported on page 66 of the New York Times). But the death of Valens, who would have turned 70 next week, made a lasting impression on a generation of teenagers and musicians, especially those of Latino heritage.

His most successful song, La Bamba, has the distinction of being the first rock ‘n’ roll song to be sung completely in Spanish (even though Ritchie, born Richard Valenzuela, didn’t speak the language). His pioneering efforts influenced the likes of Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, and Carlos Santana, and earned him a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

February 3, 1959, came to be known as “The Day the Music Died,” made famous in the lyrics of the 1971 Don McLean hit American Pie. (Over a decade earlier, rocker Eddie Cochran wrote a song called Three Stars about Valens, Holly, and the Big Bopper. Ironically, Cochran would die a short time later in a car crash in England.)

The date also came to be remembered by many rock ‘n’ roll historians as the moment the raucous angst-driven style of early rock ‘n’ roll went into hibernation, only to be revived just over five years later when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Valens, who was from Pacoima, was brought back to San Fernando for his burial.

Back in 2009, on the 50th anniversary of Valens’ death, my lovely wife Kimi and I got up early and detoured from our usual commute to stop at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery to pay our respects.

I knew the approximate location of his grave and anticipated being able to pinpoint the actual spot simply by approaching the throngs of fans encircling a grave mounded by flowers.

But at this early hour, there were no fans, and few flowers. A kindly groundskeeper pointed us to the grave which was adorned by two small bouquets.

A couple of notes were there as well. One read, “‘The day the music died’ is the day I wish had never come – We love you.”

We spent a few minutes alone at the site wondering if it was a source of pride or pain for Ritchie’s mother Concha, who is now at rest beside him, to hear his songs during the nearly 30 years she lived after his death.

(The fans and flowers arrived after our visit. When I stopped back the next day, the grave was mostly covered and a groundskeeper told me that a steady stream of fans had shown up at the gravesite throughout the day.)

Kimi had previously downloaded Valens’ three major hits – La Bamba, Donna, and Come On, Let’s Go – onto her iPod. We listened to these songs through our car’s sound system as we made our way to work. She observed that it would probably astound Valens to know that his music was still around, and that it could now be played from a device smaller than a matchbook.

It could be better stated that February 3, 1959, was the day the music-makers died, but not the music. … That’s because the songs of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper Richardson, and Ritchie Valens will live on forever.

“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.