April 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 2
THE PLACE where the greatest early movie stars built their final homes is returning to life
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.
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.