Visitors to Los Angeles are often disappointed if they come home from their trip without a single celebrity-spotting story in which to regale their less-worldly small town friends. Imagine the disgrace of traveling all the way from Chippewa Falls and back, only to remain shamefully silent when your next-door neighbors ask if you rubbed elbows with anyone famous. Now you can travel to the City of Angels in confidence, explorer from the east. There are places in L.A. where you can’t swing a dead cat without running across dozens of Tinseltown’s famous and infamous. Hollywood Forever Cemetery is one such place.
Hollywood Forever was originally named Hollywood Memorial Park and was opened to the dying public in 1899 by two Issacs (Lankershim and Van Nuys) and slowly became the place to spend eternity for the cream of the motion picture crop. In the 1980s and ’90s, mismanagement and skullduggery on the part of owner Jules Roth had turned the place into a horror. The property was in a sorry state when it went on the block in 1998. Some families actually paid to have their loved ones removed from crypts and graves. Tyler Cassity took over the facility and invested “millions” (according to the press release) in improvements and renovations. Cassity minces no words in the epitaph published in the official cemetery guide: “…Roth nearly single handedly ruined this glorious property. Decades of mistreatment, pilfering endowment care funds, and making more money from disinternments than internments: the sadly dishonest reign of Roth came to an end in 1998—coincidentally that very same year, Tyler Cassity saved, and renamed, Hollywood Forever Cemetery.”
Here you can hobnob with such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks, Peter Lorre, and everyone’s favorite Jewish mob boss, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Siegel’s crypt marker sits just above eye level and is shaped like an open book, the Star of David above his name, and an inscription, which reads, “In loving memory from the family.” One can’t help but wonder if this written sendoff was from Bugsy’s family, or Bugsy’s family. (wink wink)
Fans of the old “Little Rascals” and “Our Gang” comedies will be happy to know that Darla Hood and Alfalfa are eternally united at least in burial plot real estate, if not in each others’ hearts. Darla is entombed in the “Eternal Life” mausoleum, while her erstwhile silver screen sweetheart, was laid to rest on the lawn a few hundred feet away.
Alfalfa’s headstone bears the name Carl “Alfalfa” Schweitzer, and has an engraved image of a dog that many believe to be “Petey.” Others maintain that it was Schweitzer’s own pet pooch, and not the prominent motion picture pup. Carl was shot dead in what was deeded a “justified homicide” on January 21, 1959, at age 32. The shooting was the result of a heated argument between Schweitzer and a friend over a lost hunting dog and fifty dollars. Some have speculated that the image of the dog on his grave is that dog. We prefer the Petey story.
Death by misfortune is well represented in the simple plaque that marks the resting place of Virginia Rappe, who died under mysterious circumstances after a legendary party in the San Francisco hotel suite of silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He was found innocent of her murder (supposedly, she died via the novel use of a Coke bottle), but the resulting publicity blackballed him out of the industry. Nearby is the slightly more elaborate monument for Jayne Mansfield (who is actually buried in Pennsylvania), star and famous devotee of Anton LaVey and his Church of Satan, who died in an auto wreck that spared her three children but also killed her dog and driver. Rumors still swirl about a curse put on Mansfield by the goateed LaVey.
David White, who played Larry Tate on television’s Bewitched is buried here too. At least we hope he is dead, and he is not the everlasting victim of Endora’s dark witchcraft. Look for yourself, but you can’t convince us that the life-size bronze bust of the actor is not so eerily life-like that White may have indeed stumbled across Samantha’s secret, and in order to keep his silence, the comedic coven placed this ungodly curse upon Darren Stevens’ wishy-washy boss. It only sounds farfetched if you haven’t seen it… Believe us, it’s freaky. The bust was actually a prop from a 1969 Bewitched episode that was modeled after White at age 53.
Fan of the punk rock genre? None did it harder or better than The Ramones. Both bassist, Dee Dee, (Douglas Clovin) and guitarist Johnny (John Cummings) are buried here. Dee Dee is in the more conventional grave of the two. The Ramones presidential seal logo is emblazoned atop his tombstone along with the tongue in cheek phrase, “OK…I gotta go now.” The nearby ground is littered with candles, bic lighters and guitar pics, but Dee Dee’s memorial is positively conventional in comparison to Johhny’s.
Johnny, who set aside a nest egg for his own memorial when he found out that he was dying of prostate cancer, is represented in a decidedly un-punkish tribute. He rises from a granite block in pure bronze, trapped at mid-thigh and clutching a guitar from which he is surely coaxing the first chords of “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.” Inscribed around the polished stone are tributes from friends such as Vincent Gallo and John Frusciante (the latter, the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers).
Leaning back in the quintessential rock-god/axe-man pose, the statue of Johnny Ramone is far and away the most visually jarring image in the park. (Assuming of course that the bronze head of David White is only just a sculpture, and not the actual entrapped living immortal soul of the man). Directly in front of the serene duck pond, framed by the swaying palm trees, Johnny’s grave almost assaults your sense of decorum in this otherwise somber field of memorials, but that was most likely by Johnny’s design.
Not had your fill of the rich and the famous and the dead? How about the man of 1,000 voices? Mel Blanc, the man who breathed life into such classic cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Barney Rubble is buried beneath this hallowed bedrock. His headstone simply says “That’s All Folks.”
If all of this wasn’t enough, and we think it ought to be, there are also the occasional outdoor screenings of well-known movies projected on the wall of the mausoleums. Sometimes the movies fit the spooky graveyard atmosphere, i.e., The Exorcist, but other times they’re simply Hollywood standards, like Some Like it Hot. It makes for a great date. For the past three years, the L.A. film-lovers group Cinespia has been projecting classic films on the wall of the Cathedral Mausoleum in the southeast corner of the park. Up to 3,000 viewers arrive early for slide shows and spinning DJs, carting chairs, blankets, and picnic meals. Recent offerings have included Lolita and To Have and Have Not. Oftentimes stars represented in the films are actually interred in the cemetery or mausoleum itself. A few families have complained about disrespect for their lost loved ones, but Cassity maintains there is nothing in his terms that forbids the practice, and it helps to raise money for upkeep of the grounds. “Donations” for admission are $10.00.
So the next time you return from a visit to the west coast, hold your head up high. You’ve got enough celebrity stories in you to become a star in you own right at the next block party or ice cream social.