Sunday, October 30, 2005
The late show
Celebrities still draw the crowds at L.A.-area cemeteries
By GARY A. WARNER
Register Travel Editor
I was looking for Marilyn Monroe, when I nearly walked over Rodney Dangerfield. Literally. I didn't mean it to be an "I don't get no respect" moment, but the path to the most famous crypt in California leads right past the comedian's grave.
"There goes the neighborhood," reads the epitaph on Dangerfield's headstone at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park. With Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder nearby, it really is a neighborhood. Even in death, the Hollywood crowd tends to form cliques.
Los Angeles, Spanish for "The City of Angels," has one of the world's greatest collections of cemeteries and memorial parks in the world. A who's who of what was.
Over the course of two days, I paid my respects to Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Jean Harlow, Rudolph Valentino, Jayne Mansfield, Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Walter Matthau and George C. Scott. Unlike when following the famous maps of stars homes sold on Hollywood Boulevard, I knew that once I found the right address, the celebrity would be at home.
While Los Angeles County has over 50 major burial places, just a half dozen or so attract a steady stream of visitors from around the globe. It can be a tricky trip for the dedicated grave spotter.
Rules and decorum vary wildly. At Hollywood Forever Cemetery, they sell maps to the stars graves and even show classic films in the cemetery on summer nights. But across town at the sprawling Forest Lawn in Glendale, final home to more stars than anywhere in the world, the staff keeps its lips zipped about the permanent locales of silver-screen legends.
I stopped by the visitors center to ask if someone could direct me to Bogart's grave.
"No, we cannot," said the friendly but firm greeter.
SEARCHING FOR MARILYN
Cemetery operators have to walk a fine line, said Donna Steward, family-service counselor at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park.
"We understand the curiosity of the public, but our families come first," said Steward, dressed in fashionable but suitably funereal black. "We don't allow tour groups to come in, no guide yelling 'so and so is buried here; so and so is buried there.' We ask people to show respect."
Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park is a good place to start a trip to the three most significant graveyards in the Los Angeles area. It's a tiny plot down a side alley hemmed in by the skyscrapers of Westwood. Happy noise from a nearby church preschool can be heard beyond the walls.
Despite its small size, the 112-year-old memorial park is packed with famous celebrities, from crooner Dean Martin to rock guitarist Frank Zappa, movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck to "Green Acres" star Eva Gabor. With dueling bio-pics out this autumn, the grave of "In Cold Blood" author Truman Capote is drawing more interest.
But all pale in comparison with the most famous grave of all the memorial parks, the crypt of 1950s film bombshell Marilyn Monroe. For two decades after her death in 1962, one of her ex-husbands, Yankee baseball great Joe DiMaggio, had roses delivered to her crypt. The pilgrims still come bearing tributes. The park holds a memorial service every Aug. 5, the anniversary of Monroe's death.
"We get a very big crowd," Steward said. "Sometimes it used to be a weird crowd, but it has been better in recent years."
IN GRAVE DANGER
If there is one Southern California graveyard that has "gone Hollywood," it is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Rescued from bankruptcy, the former Hollywood Memorial Park reopened in 1998 with a new name and a new mission that included embracing its position as a tourist attraction.
"My favorite has always been Hollywood Forever," said Steve Goldstein, who runs the Beneath Los Angeles Web site, dedicated to grave tourism. "All the history there, the beautiful statuary, and the beautiful grounds. I have many favorite graves there, the best being Douglas Fairbanks. There is nothing else like it in grandeur, although the Al Jolson monument at Hillside (Memorial Park) certainly comes close."
The location is right out of central casting - the Hollywood sign on the nearby hills can be seen between the crypts. There is no southern wall of the Memorial Park - the graves back up right to the workshops and sound stages of Paramount Studios. The cemetery was here first the former owners sold 40 acres stretching south to Melrose Avenue to Paramount and RKO for studio lots.
Hollywood Forever has a split personality. It's still an operating cemetery on the day of my visit the lanes were filled with cars parked for a funeral. But Hollywood Forever celebrates its permanent residents. In the flower shop, an attendant sells maps of the cemetery's main attractions, with top celebrity grave spots marked with stars. During the summer, Hollywood Forever hosts a weekend film series, shown on a screen under (and above) the stars. The 2005 season's last show, "The Shining," was in September.
It's a new role for Hollywood's oldest cemetery, which dates back to 1899. Along with Hollywood alumni, Hollywood Forever is the final resting place of early city power brokers like the Los Angeles Times' Otis and Chandler families. A huge marble slab memorializes 21 Times workers killed in a 1910 anarchist bomb blast at the paper.
Prior to Marilyn, the most famous celebrity grave was undoubtedly the crypt of silent-screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, star of "The Sheik" and other sword-and-sandal epics.
Valentino's death in 1926 caused riotous mourning among his largely female fans. Thousands have filed past the silver-screen shrine since, including the mysterious "lady in black," who made annual visits on the anniversary of the star's death.
The area around Valentino's crypt is still studded with small shrines. One placard explains that one fan has bought up eight crypts around the object of her obsession.
The grandest grave at Hollywood Forever is the tomb of Douglas Fairbanks (junior and senior). A long reflecting pool leads to a tomb whose white marble wall is decorated with the elder Fairbanks' famed pointy-nosed profile.
Across the way from the Fairbanks tomb is a recent addition, too new to be included on the map. Johnny Ramone, "legendary guitarist for the Ramones" as the tombstone is inscribed, arrived in 2004. The New York punk pioneer (whose real name was John Cummings) is shown playing guitar, the black rock block inscribed with salutations from famous friends.
"Forever here today, never gone tomorrow, my eternal friend, I love you," wrote Lisa Marie Presley.
Nearby is a more abstract black rock monument for bandmate Douglas Colvin (aka Dee Dee Ramone), who died in 2002. His epitaph: "OK ... I gotta go now."
Like many memorial parks, Hollywood Forever handles services for many faiths. Beatle George Harrison, a Hindu, was cremated there in 2001. His ashes were later cast upon India's Ganges River.
I wandered over to the Jewish section of the park and found the grave of Mel Blanc, the great voice of classic cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny. Along with the Jewish tradition of placing small rocks atop the tombstone, someone had placed a stuffed Pepe Le Pew, the Blanc-voiced cartoon skunk who tries to romance a cat. Blanc's epitaph is his famous Porky Pig exit line: "That's All, Folks."
My favorite grave at Hollywood Forever isn't a movie star's. It's the 1959 tombstone of Carl Morgan Bigsby, an eccentric who had his tombstone carved as an exact replica of the Atlas rocket, an early American atomic-era ICBM. One side has his epitaph ("Recalled by God") and that of his wife, Constance ("Too bad ... we had fun"). On the other side are statistics about the Atlas rocket.
LAND OF 'THE LOVED ONE'
The Los Angeles area's most famous cemetery is as fan-frosty as Hollywood Forever Cemetery is fan-friendly. The sprawling 300-acre Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale hosts the remains or memorials of dozens of classic Hollywood names: Bogart, Stewart, Harlow, Gable, Flynn.
The park, lampooned as "Whispering Glades" in Evelyn Waugh's novel "The Loved One," is happy to have tourists visit its over-the-top art collection, which includes a stained-glass version of the Last Supper and a reproduction of Michelangelo's "David."
But celebrity grave spotters aren't embraced. No map. No directions. This is a place where you will need to do your homework in advance using grave-finder Web sites. Even with some of this information in hand, I found the task of navigating the sprawling memorial park's acreage daunting. It didn't help that most of the graves are simple stones that lay flush to the ground or tiny placards on crypts in roped-off areas and private alcoves. Jean Harlow's splashy niche in the Great Mausoleum was one of the few graves that befitted a legend.
In the end, I gave up the hunt and just drove around the undulating gardens of stone. Bucolic yet creepy. The afternoon sun glinted off the spray of lawn sprinklers used to keep the turf around the gravestones a deep emerald green. I did stop at Wee Kirk O' The Heather, the knockoff of a Scottish church, where Ronald Reagan and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, were wed in 1940.
I was looking for the garden with Walt Disney's grave, marked by a little mermaid, when a security guard pulled up and politely said the park was closing.
Driving down the twisting lane that led out into the crush of L.A. traffic, I recognized a connection between the two most visited graves along my route. Marilyn and Valentino had followed the old Hollywood maxim.
Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.