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.