Forever Hollywood

PrintPrintEmailEmailParamount Pictures stands at its back door. Film crews shoot B movies on its sixty-two-acre grounds. And the thousands of tourists stop at the office, pick up maps, and go searching for its resident celebrities.

Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery is the permanent home to more movie stars than any other cemetery. Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Marion Davies, and Rudolph Valentino are spending eternity there; so are Tyrone Power, Peter lorre, Peter Finch, John Huston, and Mel Blanc. It's where a new generation of Ladies in Black continues a tradition that began with Valentino’s death on August 23, 1926. Every year on that date, women dress in black, carry red roses, read poetry, and leave notes and mementos at Valentino’s crypt. The cemetery is also the final resting place of eighty thousand less celebrated citizens of Hollywood: bankers, carpenters, legislators, printers, poets, maids, housewives, children, and even a few members of the Russian nobility who escaped the Bolshevik Revolution. It was established in 1899, only a dozen years after Hollywood itself and more than a decade before the start of the movie industry. It rose and fell and now is rising again.

At the turn of the century, Hollywood was a small residential community, its dirt streets surrounded by ranches, citrus orchards, and wheat fields. When Isaac Van Nuys, a farmer and businessman, founded the Hollywood Cemetery Association and bought a hundred acres between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue in 1899, the neighbors protested strenuously: A burial ground would ruin their community’s appearance and lower property values.


To gain support, the association promised a parklike cemetery, one of the first on the West Coast, well maintained, with open green spaces, few roads, classical architecture, and a perpetual-care endowment to assure its future. Yet Hollywood Cemetery continued to have enemies.


Before the Civil War, graveyards had been nonprofit, owned and maintained by churches, local governments, or families. Early in the twentieth century, as commercial cemeteries became more widespread, people reacted against the idea of making money on the dead. One Hollywood real estate agent, perhaps disliking the competition, complained that cemeteries “can charge what they please, and by having some acreage in the city, it is easy [for them] to reap fortunes.” That was in 1923. By then the battle against Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery had been going on for nearly a quarter of a century. That year, in a showdown at City Hall, critics armed with petitions attacked the cemetery as a “hindrance to the civic progress and welfare of the community.” But the City Council ruled in favor of the association.


With the movie industry’s explosive growth in the 1920s, fans began driving past stars’ homes or stopping to visit their graves, turning the cemetery into a major attraction. It “looked like an artist’s dream,” one reporter wrote. Huge granite mausoleums stood amid rare and exotic plants and Italianate sculptures. The Greek Revival tomb of the industrialist William Clark, Jr., finished in 1921 for five hundred thousand dollars, rests on its own island in a lake and is reached by a forty-foot granite bridge. The building’s interior, now closed to the public, is of Carrara marble; mosaics of biblical scenes cover the walls, and silver and gold stars in a midnight blue sky circle the domed ceiling.


In 1931 the Southland Masonic Lodge moved into one of a group of Renaissance Revival buildings that stand at the main gate and richly furnished it in the Spanish style. Another Spanish-influenced structure from the early thirties, a nearby three-story tower, today houses the Eliza Otis chimes. Otis was a poet, whose husband owned the Los Angeles Times ; both are buried in the cemetery. The chimes, commissioned in her memory, are a twenty-thousand-pound set of twelve cast-bronze bells, each inscribed with one of her verses. They hung in the bell tower of the cemetery’s chapel from 1905 to 1925, when the chapel’s beams bowed.

In the late 1940s, as the cemetery’s glamour faded, the stars began to turn to a newer place: Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale. The Masons moved out of their lodge in the 1960s. A cinder-block fence that had gone up around the cemetery in the 1930s, in response to complaints about too-visible tombstones, got a topping of barbed wire in the 1970s as the surrounding neighborhood deteriorated. The cemetery’s owners contributed to the decline when they sold some acreage fronting Santa Monica Boulevard, thereby cutting off their own water supply and turning green space over to strip malls and auto-repair shops.