Forever Hollywood

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By the 1990s Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery had nearly died from mismanagement and neglect, and the 1994 Northridge earthquake left it with potholed roads, stagnant ponds, open crypts, and rain-soaked murals. Maintenance was so minimal that the grass was barely being watered when state officials showed up in 1995.

 

Pursuing an investigation that had begun with allegations of improprieties at another California cemetery, auditors followed the owners’ trail to Hollywood, took a look at the books, and issued a report that led the California attorney general’s office to charge that endowment-care funds had been illegally used. In April 1996 the Hollywood Cemetery Association filed for bankruptcy, and the court later appointed a trustee to oversee operations. The resting place of the stars went up for sale.

The $375,000 price tag was low, but prospective buyers balked at the estimated seven million dollars needed to reverse the decades of neglect. Then, in late 1997, twenty-seven-year-old Tyler Cassity, whose family owns cemeteries and funeral homes in St. Louis, saw an opportunity in the battered graveyard. He took ownership in April 1998, renamed it Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and began renovations.

 

Cassity hopes to benefit from a surge of interest in Hollywood history, as silent films are recovered and preserved and the town itself is revitalized. He has started to re-landscape the grounds and is making room for more burial plots. While working to restore the elaborate architectural details of the original structures, he has uncovered splendid, long-forgotten rooms with vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows.

 

He was drawn to the cemetery not only because of its role in the history of the movies but also because he saw it as a laboratory for a high-tech, New Age concept he hadn’t been able to sell to the essentially conservative mortuary business: biographies on video. He has begun showing “lives” of the celebrities and the lesser-known residents, consisting of photos, home movies, taped interviews, and, for those in the industry, film clips. He displays them on several kiosks scattered throughout the cemetery and in a special theater as well as on large-screen television sets in the chapel. Eventually they will be made available on a Web site.

In October 1999 he rectified an insult dating back nearly fifty years when he dedicated a granite monument to Hattie McDaniel, the Oscar-winning African-American actress, who died in 1952. The bigotry of the times had denied her express wish to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery. “They made a horrible decision,” said Cassity, “and it is in our power to correct it.”

 

Last May, as Hollywood Forever began its second century, it was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. “This cemetery is part of Hollywood’s hopes and its problems,” Cassity says. “We want to show that we value the past and restore it to the point where others can also see its value.” Finally, what a local reporter once called “one of the finest examples of how a great city may care for its dead” is—after a long sleep—coming back to life.