Hello, again, dear BLA Subscribers:
As many of my friends and readers of my book may be aware, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity about six years ago to use my hobby to help a family halfway around the globe to make a connection to a patriarch who had been lost to them through circumstances beyond anybody's control. This past week, I got to finally meet some members of that Australian family as they made their first visit to the States.
First some background. This is how the story appears in my book and on my web site.
The young woman who emailed me six years ago from Australia was the great-granddaughter of this once famous black vaudevillian named Jolly John Larkin, who died in Los Angeles in 1936 following a career that included appearing in over 50 films for both Paramount and MGM, touring the world in stage productions, writing songs and living the good life of a successful performer. It was during the touring the world part that he became involved with a white costume designer in Australia named Rae (short for Rachel) Anderson, with whom he fathered two daughters, Olga in 1921 and Joan three years later. Laws being what they were in those days (down under as well as here), their possible marriage or even co-habitation was highly illegal and John eventually moved back to the States. Joan was fostered out and lived a very difficult life in Sydney, while her older sister remained with their biological mother, Rae. Joan did not know Olga or their mother and neither girl ever knew Jolly John.
Cut to 2005. Using information that only became available to her after the age of 72 per local laws, Joan learned the names of her biological parents and the search was on to find anything they could about Jolly John Larkin and Rae Anderson. By 2005, her daughter, Rebecca Phillips-Vasilescu, the mother of the girl who wrote me, came into possession of a copy of a scrap book that had belonged to Jolly John, detailing his career and his travels. He had used many forms of his name, including Larkins with an s, and even Smith, so finding more information on him proved to be quite difficult. Rebecca's daughter, Julia, also known as Jules, found my web site and wrote in the fervent hope that I might be able to help locate the grave of this man. Here is a portion of that first email.
My first reaction was that this would be impossible. My second thought was, if this man died in Los Angeles in 1936, he was most likely buried in one of two cemeteries, Evergreen or Angelus-Rosedale, the only two places in LA in 1936 where a black performer would have been buried. I put the request out to my friends in the Hollywood Underground, a kind of online grave-hunters club, and lo and behold, one member, Jim Lacey of Ohio, a collector of old death certificates of old character actors, knew the name and had the death certificate in his vast collection. My hunch had been correct: Mr Larkin was at Evergreen. I found and photographed the grave, which was in remarkably good condition and included a photograph of Mr Larkin on the headstone, posted it on my web site and sent it to the family in Sydney. They were elated. Especially Joan, his daughter, now 81, who had longed for some sense of who she was and where she came from. Ever since that day, we have all stayed in touch via email and Facebook, and planned for the time we all might get to actually meet in person.
That day finally came this past week, as Rebecca and her husband, Michael, made their first trip to the States in order to attend a convention in Las Vegas for the company they both represent, SendOutCards.com. Following the Vegas portion of their trip, they made stops in San Francisco and Napa before finally arriving here in Los Angeles last weekend. I met up with them on Sunday afternoon, after they had first attended a Gospel Church Service that morning at the First AME Church. There, they met some wonderful people who were very happy to welcome them to the church. In telling the story of Jolly John and the fact that they were soon to visit his grave at Evergreen, it was mentioned to them that this is also where their founder, Biddy Mason, is buried. Mason, a former slave turned philanthropist, is also profiled in my book and on my web site.
I picked Rebecca and Michael up at 1pm at their West Hollywood Hotel, and it was like a reunion of old family members. We all hugged like loving family members who had not seen each other in ages. We hopped into my car and were off to Evergreen, heading east on Santa Monica Blvd toward the Hollywood Freeway. Rebecca wanted to buy some flowers to take to the grave so we stopped along the way at another cemetery, Hollywood Forever, to buy some in their flower shop.
Arriving at the grave site was an emotional experience, as Rebecca for the first time was in the presence of her grandfather. Much crying and hugging ensued among all of us. She rubbed the photograph of Mr Larkin and spoke to him. She set the flowers down at the front of the head stone. She wrote a note to him on the back of her business card and tied it to a flower vase holder on the side of the stone, and placed a small stuffed Koala Bear there. The note was left in the hopes that perhaps some other family member, unknown to any of us at this time, might still visit the grave and discover these cousins from across the pond. There is still much to learn about this man and any living relatives he might still have in this area. At the grave, Rebecca told me exactly what it had meant to Joan to have this connection so late in her life to this man who was her father. She had often said that she wanted to know who she was before she left this earth. With help from some special friends, I was able to help give her this closure. It was a very emotional moment for us all. Joan is now 87, a bit frail, but I did have the chance to talk to her on the phone during this visit.
From John's grave, we visited the grave of Biddy Mason, and then we were off to the former home of Mr Larkin. The address, of course, had been on that death certificate, and the house still stands in South Central LA, just off Central Ave in what was at that time the historic hub of the Jazz District, mere blocks from the venerable Dunbar Hotel. It was not hard to imagine Jolly John walking out of his front door and strolling the vibrant club scene outside his house, probably mixing it up with folks like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. While driving through the area, we called Jim Lacey in Ohio and had a lengthy conversation with him. It brought us all full circle. After a late lunch on Melrose Ave, I dropped them off back at their hotel and made plans to spend the next day with them.
We spent many days together during the week. We toured Hollywood and Beverly Hills. We took the excellent Dearly Departed Tour, founded by my good buddy Scott Michaels and conducted this day by his excellent guide Richard Sebastian. We hit Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in Hollywood. We visited the Griffith Observatory.
One thing I promised to do with them was take them by the houses that were used as filming locations on our mutually favorite show, Modern Family, and miracle of miracles, we found them actually filming the show when we pulled up to "Phil & Claire's House" in Cheviot Hills. Michael and Rebecca hopped out of the car, walked down the driveway and were able to watch as Ty Burrell as Phil and Nolan Gould as his son Luke filmed a scene by the basketball hoop in back.
We made a second visit to Evergreen on Wednesday afternoon where we were met by our friend Jayne Osborne to ask at the office for any additional information they might have regarding who might have paid for John's grave or marker, and if any family members were listed in the files. No real luck there, other than to learn that his body had been handled at Angelus Funeral Home. Another lead to follow up.
Rebecca and Michael are now back home in Sydney. It was a week none of us will ever forget, and I know I have made friends I will have for a lifetime. They could not have been more sweet or fun or gracious. The world works in mysterious ways, and I have had a front row seat to that this week, and for the past six years. I know there is more to this story that has yet to unfold. I can't wait to see where it takes us next.
(Published: Sun Feb 03 2019; Hits: 0)
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