Cemetery Of The Stars
Hollywood Forever Cemetery – Hollywood
Visited: September 2020
We last strolled through the grounds of Hollywood Forever Cemetery in 2014, a cemetery that I had been “dying” to see at the time, so recently Tracy and I returned, along with friends Jeff and Cecilia, to see what was new. We took the very informative walking tour that dishes out the inside stories about a veritable Who’s Who of the Dearly Departed.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery (originally named Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery) was established on 100 acres of land in 1899, making it one of the oldest cemeteries in the area. In the late 1930s, a convicted felon named Jules Roth bought a 51% stake in the property. A millionaire, Roth let the cemetery fall into disrepair as he filled his own coffers over the next five decades.
It got so bad that in 1974, after the cremation of Mama Cass Elliot of Mamas and Papas fame, the crematory was in such terrible shape that bricks began falling around her body. When the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck, causing even more damage, the cemetery was nearly bankrupt and pretty much a mess. Roth finally died in 1998, and the now 48-acre cemetery was bought by Tyler and Brent Cassity. They have invested millions of dollars in repairs and improvements and renamed it Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The cemetery has also been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Cassity brothers added tours, movie nights and concerts to get people like us to visit. In 2019 they hosted its 20th Annual Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) which hosted 50,000 people! From the website: “Dia de los Muertos is one of Mexico’s traditional holidays reuniting and honoring beloved ancestors, family and friends. It is an ancient and enduring ritual when the living commune with the dead – a mystical night when the veil is lifted between their two realms and they may share a day together.” (photo courtesy of Hollywood Forever Cemetery) Tracy and I had been planning on attending this year, but it has been canceled due to the pandemic.
On a very hot September morning, the four of us joined the 10 a.m. tour led by Karie Bible (now that’s an appropriate name for a cemetery tour guide — bonus true fact, she was born on Halloween!), who was dressed, as she been for our prior tour, in a retro black dress. She would hook up with a “friend” for part of the tour (more on him later). After a quick history lesson (with the HOLLYWOOD sign providing the perfect backdrop), we were on our way to hear numerous Bible stories of the dead.
The following will be a compilation of the two tours we have taken.
We stopped at the grave of Carl Switzer, who is much better known as Alfalfa from the old Our Gang comedies. By the 1950s, Switzer had fallen on hard times. In 1959, he was shot to death in an argument over a $50 debt owed Switzer by a man who had found his lost hunting dog (lost after running after a bear). The shooter was eventually acquitted, but controversy remains to this very day.
Buried next to Alfalfa is his father, George Switzer, who is best known as the inventor of the Switzer Method … a breast enlargement system. You can’t make this stuff up. There’s even a picture of the device on his headstone.
We then stopped at a large, 20-foot replica of the Pioneer Atlas missile that went into orbit in 1958. It was the tomb of Carl Morgan Bigsby, who had been a bigwig in the graphic arts industry. He also had a sense of humor. Under the section of the monument reserved for his wife, Constance, reads the simple statement: ”Too bad . . . we had fun.” However, as it turns out, she is not buried there, so she actually might have had more fun after he died.
Hot off the presses! Former Los Angeles Times publisher and one of the developers of the Hollywood Sign, Harry Chandler, and his wife are buried here.
During summers in non-Covid times, the Fairbanks Lawn is the setting for weekly movies shown on the side of the adjacent mausoleum. From the Hollywood Forever website: “On December 12, 1939, Douglas Fairbanks suffered a fatal heart attack, at home, in his sleep, at age 56. Hollywood, and all the world, paid tribute to the man who contributed so much to the industry, both in terms of his artistry, his generosity, and his vision. He was laid to rest at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery), in a marble tomb and monument that, by its completion in 1941, cost a whopping $50,000 (at the time, the most expensive monument in Southern California). The dedication of the “Fairbanks Garden,” complete with reflecting pond and brass profile relief of the star surrounded by olive branches, was held on what would have been the 58th birthday of Douglas Fairbanks, May 23, 1941.”
Fairbanks’ son, Douglas Jr. who passed away in 2000 is buried with his father.
Next we saw the large statue of Johnny Ramone (The Ramones). From the Hollywood Forever Cemetery website: “Johnny Ramone passed away on Wednesday, September 16, 2004, at his home in Los Angeles. He was 55 and had suffered from prostate cancer. Several of Johnny Ramone’s friends — including Eddie Vedder, Rob Zombie, and Nicolas Cage — gathered at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Friday, January 14, 2005, to unveil a four-feet tall bronze statue of the guitarist, who according to Cage’s eulogy, “willed the Ramones to happen.” Zombie, wearing a Ramones T-shirt, explained how the statue came to be. “Every Christmas trying to find Johnny a gift was impossible,” he recalled. “So I thought what I would do is have my friend Wayne (Toth) sculpt an award that just said ‘legend,’ and I would present it to him at Christmastime.” Zombie then recalled how, as a joke, he suggested to Ramone that he make a giant version of the award. “Now this joke is sitting over there. It weighs 50,000 pounds, and it’s made of bronze.” Ramone still doesn’t reside here. His wife has his ashes, and when she passes away they will live the rest of eternity together with a great view of the nearby lake.
Very close to Ramone is the grave of another rock icon Chris Cornell, lead vocalist for the rock bands Soundgarden and Audioslave, and who provided the memorable You Know My Name heard during the opening of the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale.
Near the peaceful lake area, we spotted the memorial to Hattie McDaniel, the Gone With The Wind actress, who was the first African American to win an Academy Award. It seems that former owner Roth was not only a scoundrel, but he was a racist, too. Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery refused to allow McDaniel to be buried there because of its segregation policy that would not accept the bodies of black people for burial. Instead, she was buried in a cemetery nearby. When the new owners took over and found out about the story, they offered to have Ms. McDaniel re-interred at his cemetery. Her family did not wish to disturb her remains and declined the offer. Instead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery built a large cenotaph (aka “empty tomb”) on the lawn overlooking the lake.
Before venturing into the Hollywood Forever Cemetery Cathedral Mausoleum, we paused at a statue of one of the most famous pooches in movie history … Toto from The Wizard Of Oz. In 2011 during a ceremony complete with a rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, the Toto Memorial was unveiled.
Sadly, Toto could not be buried here for two reasons: you can’t bury pets in a people cemetery in California (so very wrong), and the Ventura Freeway that was built in 1958 paved over Toto’s burial site. Perhaps the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me” should be printed above that spot.
A new resident at the mausoleum since our last visit is Judy Garland’s frequent co-star, Mickey Rooney, who passed away in 2014.
The Cathedral Mausoleum took a year to finish construction, and was dedicated in October 1918. The five units contain more than 6,000 crypts, the largest structure of its kind in the world.
Entering, we ran into the Twelve Apostles Statues.
There are beautiful stained glass windows throughout The Cathedral Mausoleum.
We took a few moments to admire them.
One of the most famous residents here is silent film star and heartthrob, Rudolfo (Rudolph) Valentino. Every August 23rd, fans of Valentino gather to pay their respects to the actor in the mausoleum’s massive foyer. Bible told us the very interesting backstory of why Valentino is buried at this particular location. He passed away in New York (peritonitis) while filming, and after his body was transported by train to Los Angeles it was discovered that Valentino was broke and could not afford a burial. HIs friend and screenwriter of many of his films June Mathis, happened to have two crypts paid for at the cemetery and offered to have Valentino buried there until other arrangements could be made. Sadly, she passed away the following year and is interred next to Valentino.
The last time we visited here, a much younger Tom and Tracy paid our respects to “The Sheik.”
Other stars interred here include Peter Finch, who I assumed was “mad as hell” and didn’t want to take it anymore.
There is also a niche containing David White, better known as Darrin Stevens’ boss on the TV show Bewitched. Sadly, White’s life was filled with sorrow. His first wife died from complications during pregnancy in 1958. Thirty years later, his son was killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 105 over Lockerbie, Scotland. There are mementos of his time with his son at the cemetery.
In another wing, we found Peter Lorre, one of my favorite actors from the golden era. There were pictures in his niche, but I could not find those Letters of Transit.
They’re probably still at Rick’s inside the piano.
Back outside, we first saw the tombstone for Valerie “Rhoda” Harper. It was hard to believe it had already been a year since her passing.
Karen then took us past the final resting place of two actors. Larry Drake starred in L.A. Law, but I had never heard of Herb Jeffries, Hollywood’s “First Black Singing Cowboy.” Jeffries “made movie history in the 1930s as The Bronze Buckaroo” in films like Harlem Rides The Range. He has been dubbed “The African American answer to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.” Jeffries also sang with Duke Ellington’s orchestra and other big bands.. He died at 100 years old. I’ll have to find one of his movies.
We looked out over the lake to a smaller mausoleum than what we had been in earlier. Still, as a final resting place, these are pretty nice digs. It belongs to William Andrews Clark, Jr. (1877-1934), who was the son of U.S. Senator and billionaire William Andrews Clark. The younger Clark founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1919. He is buried there with his son and two wives (I’d love to hear those aprés-death dinner conversations).
Next, we made a quick stop at a tomb for two guys who aren’t even dead yet. They had this beautiful tomb built, and then hosted a party for all their friends (cool idea…a funeral before you die). It was good to see they are still alive six years after our first visit.
There was a large tomb for Marion Davies, the actress better known as the mistress of William Randolph Hearst. However, she was also an accomplished actress, producer, screenwriter and philanthropist.
We visited the grave of Tyrone Power and the cenotaph of Jayne Mansfield …
… and the final resting place of actress Janet Gaynor, who we were surprised to learn was no relation to Mitzi Gaynor.
Then we came upon the grave of Virginia Rappe, who’s unfortunate death after having sex with famous silent film star Fatty Arbuckle. It happened during a party to celebrate his new $3 million contract with Paramount Pictures, and was one of the most sensationalized stories of the early 20th Century. Rappe died the next day, and Arbuckle was charged with rape and murder. He was eventually acquitted (I guess it was a bum Rappe) after a third trial, but the funnyman died in 1933, his career in ruins.
On our first visit in 2014, I wanted to have my picture taken with one of my all-time favorite actors. Would you believe…Don Adams, none other than Maxwell Smart of Get Smart, is buried here? After chatting with him (“and loving it”) on my tennis shoe phone (as you can see, shoe phones and which end to speak out of them have changed since the 1960s), off we went.
We soon stood in front of the large monument for Cecil B. DeMille. Jeff muttered, “I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille,” proving there are no shortage of Blazing Saddles quotes for any occasion.
Mai Tai Tom Fun Fact: Carl Switzer (Alfalfa) died the same day as DeMille, and Switzer became only a footnote in the news.
However, De Mille’s monument paled in comparison to the monument for Griffith Jenkins Griffith, the man who donated the land where Griffith Park and Griffith Observatory are now located. Here’s a story that the observatory will never tell you (We know, we’ve been there).
From the website: “In August 1903, the Griffiths went to the Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica. His wife of 16 years, Christina Griffith, hoped a month in the Presidential Suite overlooking the Palisades would help her husband unwind. But the Colonel’s strange behavior intensified. Waitresses said he switched his food and drank with his wife’s. You never know if someone’s trying to poison you, he would reason. They chalked it up to a strange sense of humor. But the last day of the Griffiths’ vacation was about as unfunny as things get. Christina Griffith was addressing a few last postcards and beginning to gather her things. Her husband entered the room with a prayer book in one hand and a revolver in the other. Unfortunately, he handed her the prayer book.”
It went on to say: “She was on her knees when the Colonel aimed and fired. Christina Griffith jerked her head at the last minute. That saved her life. She hurled herself out a window, landed on an awning below, and crawled to safety through another window. One author who attended Col. Griffith’s trial called Christina Griffith “the society wife who wouldn’t die.” The shooting left Christina Griffith disfigured and blinded in one eye. His trial was spectacular and ghastly. The defense succeeded. Griffith J. Griffith was sentenced to two years in prison, with the stipulation that he be treated for his alcoholic insanity.” That’s a defense I’ve never heard of before! From the cemetery, you can catch a glimpse of the Griffith Observatory in the background with his memorial in the foreground… “a tomb with a view!”
There were still more graves to visit, like actor Darren McGavin. Our guide said she’d love to have a leg lamp one day at the grave site, and we told her we’d let her borrow our leg lamp at Christmastime for photos.
Now, that would be a Christmas Story to remember.
While we saw many final resting places for famous people, other memorials made us ponder. I saw this one for Laurie Beckland, and it made me Google her name after returning home. It turns out Beckland was a renowned L.A. Times reporter and author.
Now, a little more about tour guide Karen Bible’s friend who accompanied us for part of our second tour. It seems the cemetery has lots of feral cats, and one has become Bible’s best buddy. At one point in the tour Bible yelled out, “Come here Close Up.” Seconds later a black cat bounded into our tour and stayed with us for the better part of a half hour.
Along the way Bible would feed him, and Close Up would jump from tomb to tomb. She said he especially likes DeMille’s resting place, which is why he is named “Close Up.” From Sunset Boulevard, ”All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
It seems he was also quite interested in Plan 9 From Outer Space.
That movie co-starred Maila Nurmi, best known as the campy 1950s character Vampira, who also happens to now reside here.
As if on cue, a raft of black ducks walked by, acting a little Daffy.
We rounded out the tour by seeing the final resting places of Mr. Blackwell (wonder what they dressed him in) …
… and “the man of 1,000 voices,” Mel Blanc, who displayed his sense of humor on his tombstone.
Bible shared the poignant cartoon that came out after Blanc’s death.
We checked out the marker for the Golden Girls’ Estelle Getty, which meant that after visiting nearly 100 California attractions, I had succeeded in reaching one of my goals from my first post (at the Getty Villa) back in 2009. I had written that I wanted to see the “Getty Trifecta”…the Getty Villa, the Getty Center and the grave of Estelle Getty. Mission accomplished!!!
Also new since our 2014 tour is the Judy Garland Pavilion, a tribute to the late singer and actress (photo on left from internet).
It seems that when Judy Garland passed away in 1969 in London her husband (whom she had just recently married) had her buried in New York’s Ferncliff Cemetery. According to publicist Victoria Varela, it was Judy’s children’s wish to bring their mother “home to Hollywood.” In 2017, her body was exhumed, and laid to rest at the mausoleum bearing her name.
After the tour, we also checked out the final resting place for mobster Bugsy Siegel, our second Siegel sighting in the past few months (check out our review of the Formosa Cafe).
In the nearby Jewish section of the cemetery, I made a quick stop.
The Beth Olam Mausoleum is also located here. Bible offers a “Jewish Heritage” Tour, as well. I guess she could call herself the Hebrew Bible for that tour.
Our final famous person to see was located at a mausoleum adjacent to Judy Garland. We stopped by the niche for Dick Dale, the “King of the Surf Guitar.”
I’m sure had he been able to speak, he would have been happy to have visitors, because, as we all know, “Misirlou loves company.” It was probably good he wasn’t alive to hear that one.
As we were leaving, we stopped to admire the ornate Thai temples …
… and statutes marking the graves in one section of the cemetery.
The dome of this chapel, which looks like it could be under restoration, has peacocks painted on it. We were told the peacock is a symbol of immortality, and they are allowed to roam freely during the week, but are locked up on the weekend and at night for their safety (we think from cars and predators, and hopefully not zombies).
Bible’s tour is well worth the money (she has four different tours … check the tour website for details, including times and dates). She has a degree in film history and provides plenty of context, fascinating Hollywood lore and movie history that you won’t find anywhere else. (We would like to take her “Hidden Hollywood” or her new “Night Walk” tour.)
If you’re visiting Los Angeles and want to hang out with the stars for a few hours, Hollywood Forever Cemetery fits the bill perfectly. Death has never been so interesting … and so fun! As we drove out, I had the funny feeling that someone was still watching me,
Hollywood Forever Cemetery
6000 Santa Monica Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90038
Hours: Check website for current hours
Website (Tours): www.cemeterytour.com