Six Feet Under
There’s been one place that I have been “dying” to visit for a very long time, and recently Tracy and I finally made the short drive to Hollywood to visit some famous people. Unfortunately, for them, they’re all deceased. However, they live on in eternity thanks to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and its very informative walking tour that dishes out inside stories about a veritable Who’s Who of Dead People.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery (originally named Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery) was built on 100 acres of land in 1899, making it one of the oldest cemeteries in the area. Our tour guide told us that 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 invested millions of dollars, renamed it Hollywood Forever Cemetery. They also started tours to get crazy people like us to visit and spend money.
On a sunny Saturday morning, Tracy and I joined the 11 a.m. tour led by Karie Bible (an appropriate name for a cemetery tour guide), who was dressed as The Lady In Black. After a quick history lesson (with the HOLLYWOOD sign providing the perfect backdrop), we were on our way.
Our first stop was 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 him by his former partner in the big-game hunting business.
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 grave.
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.
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.”
Near the beautiful lake area, we saw a 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 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 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 beautiful 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 there was 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, and Toto’s remains are buried somewhere under the Ventura Freeway that was built in 1958.
The most famous resident here is silent film star and heartthrob, Rudolfo (Rudolph) Valentino.
Back outside we looked out onto the lake and a smaller mausoleum. 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 there with his son and two wives (I’d love to hear those Aprés-death dinner conversations).
There was a large tomb for Marion Davies, the actress better known as the mistress of William Randolph Hearst.
Then we came upon the grave of Virginia Rappe, who had sex with famous silent film star Fatty Arbuckle during a party to celebrate his new $3 million contract with Paramount Pictures. Rappe died the next day, and Arbuckle was charged with rape and murder. He was eventually acquitted after a third trial, but the funnyman died in 1933, his career in ruins.
After visiting the grave of Tyrone Power and the cenotaph of Jayne Mansfield…
…we stood in front of the large monument for Cecil B. De Mille.
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 now are located. Here’s a story that the observatory will never tell you.
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… “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 will be a Christmas Story to remember.
We rounded out the day 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 showed his sense of humor on the tombstone…
…and finally Golden Girl Estelle Getty…
…which meant that after visiting nearly 50 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, Getty Museum and the grave of Estelle Getty. Mission accomplished!!!
We thought about hanging out to check out dozens of other stars like Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Janet Gaynor, Nelson Riddle and many more buried here, but it was getting hot, and we didn’t want to stroke out and join them six-feet under.
We did have one more important stop before we left Hollywood Forever Cemetery, however. 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 have changed since the 1960s), off we went.
Bible’s tour is well worth the money (she has three different tours…check the website for times and dates), and 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 fun!
Hollywood Forever Cemetery
6000 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Hours: Check the website for current hours
Website (tours): cemeterytour.com