Did you ever look at a crowd scene in an old movie and wonder whether the actors are dead yet?
I heard that bit of George Carlin comedy in the early 1970s. Today we don’t have to wonder. Watch any movie from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s or ’50s and chances are every star, co-star and bit player has passed on to the next plane.
Unlike today’s superstars who surround themselves with security and are mostly inaccessible to the public, yesterday’s box office giants are relatively easy to find and have all the time in the world for fans willing to seek them out. The only drawback is they’re dead.
But I wasn’t going to let that dissuade me from getting up close and personal with these celluloid heroes.
Then as now, most Hollywood stars chose to live in the Los Angeles area. And when they died, most chose to be buried there. My L.A. vacation would focus on finding as many as possible.
Where to begin? There are a lot of famous people buried all over Los Angeles, and I needed to find as many of them as possible in a short amount of time.
After much research it became clear where my star search would take me. Six Los Angeles cemeteries stand out in terms of quality of celebrities and quantity. And by visiting their graves and seeing how the superstars of Hollywood past and present elected to spend eternity, I somehow felt I would know them better.
There are several good websites run by people devoted to finding celebrity graves:
» seeing-stars.com: The best site for a novice grave hunter. It contains detailed maps of all the major cemeteries and mausoleums in the L.A. area as well as driving/walking directions on where to find the stars.
» hollywood-underground.com: After finding the really famous people, this a good site to visit next for the locations of many lesser-known stars.
» findagrave.com: This site contains millions of records and pictures of graves of everyone from athletes and movie stars to politicians, war heroes and criminals. It is a good site to check when looking for a particular grave.
Touring cemeteries and finding famous graves combines five of my favorite things: history, mystery, Hollywood, a bit of the macabre and plenty of exercise.
My journey began in the friendly confines of Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, a cemetery as loaded with superstars as it was difficult to find.
I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed when I parked right in front of the grave of Farrah Fawcett, who had the misfortune to die on the same day as Michael Jackson. But more about him later.
Pierce Brothers’ biggest draw is clearly Marilyn Monroe. Her modest crypt stands out because it is darker than its neighbors, stained by decades of people touching the marble. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner thought enough of his first centerfold to reportedly pay a six-figure fee for the crypt next to hers.
My favorite grave: The niche containing the ashes of actor Jonathan Harris (1914-2002), who played the cowardly Dr. Smith on the 1960s sci-fi classic "Lost in Space."
Next was Hollywood Forever, a much larger cemetery with a great view of the Hollywood sign from the entrance and three mausoleums holding the remains of thousands of the dearly departed.
Far from being the spooky, poorly lit mausoleums popular in horror movies, these great mausoleums are more like museums – well-lit, well-maintained marble halls with plenty of statues and artwork. I am not superstitious, so I was never scared, but I never forgot what was all around me.
It is outdoors where Hollywood Forever shines. The area known as the Garden of Legends has a lake, and at the center is a man-made island, the location of the Clark mausoleum, the centerpiece of Hollywood Forever. Built in 1920 for L.A. philanthropist William A. Clark and his family, this Grecian tomb reportedly cost $20 million. Most of the major celebrities at Hollywood Forever are buried around it. It is open to the public one day a year.
My favorite grave: Obscure horror film actress Maila Nurmi (1922-2008), who played "Vampira" in what is considered the worst movie ever made, the Ed Wood-directed "Plan 9 from Outer Space." I left flowers.
Then it was on to Hillside Memorial Park, the largest Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles, with the nicest mausoleum. Most of the famous residents can be found inside or on the grounds nearby.
The centerpiece is the tomb of legendary entertainer Al Jolson (1886-1950). During his life he was known as "the world’s greatest entertainer," and his grave lives up to this billing. It is the largest in L.A. and dominates the area with a six-tiered waterfall, a marble six-pillar dome with a painting of Moses holding the tablets containing the 10 Commandments on the inside ceiling, a three-quarter-size statue of a kneeling Al and a large sarcophagus containing his remains.
I marveled at how much this must have cost back then, but as one Hollywood legend goes, Jolson didn’t pay for it. At the time, the owners of Hillside Memorial wanted to make a splash and attract more customers, so they approached Jolson, who agreed to be buried there if a tomb like no other was built for him.
Another story is Jolson’s widow paid $9,000 for the plot and $75,000 for the monument, with Hillside Memorial chipping in the waterfall because Al told his wife he wanted to be buried near a waterfall when he died.
My favorite grave: My directions to Moe Howard’s grave were vague. So stumbling upon the leader of the Three Stooges’ wall crypt by accident was a real treat. I left a few coins behind since Moe was the only Stooge who could manage money, and subsequently died quite wealthy.
Just a few minutes’ drive from Hillside is the largest Catholic cemetery in L.A. Holy Cross is similar to Hillside in that it has one really nice large mausoleum surrounded by section after section of lawn markers.
Where Holy Cross differs is that the majority of its celebrities are buried in one small area called "The Grotto." This cemetery also commands a great view of L.A.
My favorite grave: Horror film actor Bella Lugosi (1882-1956). The most famous vampire of them all (sorry, "Twilight" fans), Lugosi chose to be buried wearing his cape. His lawn marker also pictures a cross, something no self-respecting bloodsucker would ever bear.
The big time for celebrity grave hunters is Forest Lawn Glendale, the Fort Knox of cemeteries and a place one comedian called "Disneyland for shut-ins." It houses the largest population of celebrity graves anywhere, and its mixture of religious and patriotic artwork and statuary has to be seen to be believed.
Forest Lawn Glendale appeals to the living as well as the dead, as approximately a million people a year visit and it has hosted some 60,000 weddings, including Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, in 1940. Talk-show host Regis Philbin was also married there.
A map provided at the gate helps navigators explore this huge place, where about 300,000 souls are interred. Asking for directions is discouraged, and I had heard security chases off sightseers who linger too long at a grave or are caught with maps or other reference material. I got away with that one.
My first stop was the Freedom Mausoleum with a 3-foot statue of George Washington as the centerpiece. In one corridor alone, the Sanctuary of Heritage, are the crypts of six superstars: Alan Ladd, Jeanette MacDonald, Nat King Cole, George Burns and wife Gracie Allen, and 1920s "It Girl" Clara Bow.
Unfortunately, the entrance to their area was roped off. I considered ducking under to get better camera angles, but the risk of getting kicked off the grounds or arrested for trespassing was too great, so I passed.
Then it was down to the lower level for photos of Larry Fine from the Three Stooges, two of the Marx Brothers (Chico and Gummo), and Motown singer Mary Wells ("My Guy"). No private areas down there. And no visible security.
Outside the mausoleum and accessible to the public are the graves of Walt Disney, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy and many others.
A short drive away is where Forest Lawn starts to show its weirdness. Near the full-size reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, a large statue of Jesus and another large statue titled "The Mystery of Life" are several locked gardens containing the graves of Humphrey Bogart and Sammy Davis Jr., among other notables.
I had read that sometimes groundskeepers will let you in if you ask politely. Sadly, there was no one around to ask, so I moved on, marveling that Forest Lawn must be the only cemetery where huge religious statues stand just a few feet away from graves adorned with statues of half-naked women.
I got lucky my second visit there. A nice Forest Lawn employee and (I’m guessing) a fan of Davis let me into the Garden of Legends where I got pictures of the graves of Davis, Bogart and 1920s superstar Mary Pickford. I felt as if I had hit the jackpot while making a friend in the process.
Then it was time to head to the Great Mausoleum, which lives (or dies) up to its name. It is a castle, complete with tower, arched driveways and, as legend has it, 13 sections of catacombs holding the remains of everyone from unclaimed L.A. city workers to Satanists. FLG officials won’t confirm or deny.
Michael Jackson was buried there last year. The entrance to his crypt, the Holly Terrace, is at the back of the mausoleum and locked to anyone not on a list approved by the Jackson family and accompanied by a Jackson family member. Visitors entering this area to visit departed loved ones must be accompanied by a security guard to avoid taking a detour.
I made my way back to the main entrance for a look inside where I was politely asked by security to leave my camera in the car. My whining that I was worried it might be stolen fell on deaf ears, so I slunk inside prepared to meet Hollywood history armed only with a 5-year-old cell phone camera and my maps, which security either failed to notice or just didn’t care about.
It didn’t really matter, though, as only about 1 percent of the Great Mausoleum is open to the public. The artwork is spectacular, with a 30-foot-long stained-glass reproduction of Di Vinci’s "The Last Supper" and other works by the Renaissance great. Unfortunately, most of the famous graves (Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, W.C. Fields and, of course, Jackson) are hidden in private rooms or deep in the mausoleum, likely never to be seen by their adoring fans.
My graveyard shift ended at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills. The second jewel in the FL crown is similar to its sibling in its disdain for sightseers. But unlike FLG, everything here is outdoors and its clientele nearly matches FLG’s in star power. It seems to be the final resting place of choice for many of L.A.’s famous recently departed, including Brittany Murphy, David Carradine and legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, among others.
I even found a touch of Hawaii when I stumbled across the grave of 1950s actress Laraine Day. Devoted to her Mormon faith, she and her husband supported Mormon missions in Hawaii and New Zealand and her lawn marker reflects this, bearing images of the Mormon Temple in Los Angeles and Diamond Head Crater.
Heading home, I knew I hadn’t come close to finding everybody, but the motto of a good celebrity grave hunter should be "They can hide, but they can’t run."
What and who you will find in Los Angeles’ most famous final resting places:
Most stars can be found in an area called the Garden of Legends or in one of two large mausoleums, the Abbey of the Psalms or the Cathedral Mausoleum.
Well-known residents include Rudolph Valentino, Peter Finch, Tyrone Power, Jayne Mansfield (though she’s not actually buried here), Don Adams ("Get Smart"), directors Cecil B. DeMille and John Huston, Bugs Bunny cartoon voice Mel Blanc and a memorial and grave for guitarists Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone of the punk-rock group the Ramones. Also here is a memorial to "Gone With the Wind" co-star Hattie McDaniel, who in 1939 became the first African-American to win an Oscar.
1920s superstar Douglas Fairbanks Sr. boasts one of the largest graves in Los Angeles. His sunken garden plot consists of a reflecting pool, a huge sarcophagus and a giant wall monument with showing him in profile. His son, Douglas Jr., is buried with him.
Hollywood Forever welcomes visitors and will even provide a map (available at the flower shop) pinpointing the locations of stars’ graves.
Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park
Its famous residents are legion; among them are Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Merv Griffin, Don Knotts, Farrah Fawcett, Rodney Dangerfield, Natalie Wood, Donna Reed, Burt Lancaster, Bob Crane ("Hogan’s Heroes"), country music legend Roy Orbison, author Truman Capote, rocker Frank Zappa, murdered Playboy Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten, Jack Lemmon, his on- and off-screen pal Walter Matthau and dozens of others. Orbison’s and Zappa’s graves are unmarked, as is actor George C. Scott’s ("Patton," "Dr. Strangelove"). Scott can be found next to Matthau. Pierce Brothers welcomes visitors, and the staff will be happy to point out a specific grave.
Holy Cross Cemetery
In the mausoleum are the crypts of superstars John Candy and Fred MacMurray and the Scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz," Ray Bolger. Elsewhere on the grounds are Ricardo Montalban, Chris Penn ("Footloose"), band leader Lawrence Welk and director John Ford.
Forest Lawn Glendale
Keeping Jackson company either on the huge cemetery grounds or in one of the two huge mausoleums are George Burns, Nat King Cole, Larry Fine from the Three Stooges, two of the Marx Brothers (Chico and Gummo), Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, W.C. Fields, Walt Disney, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, Yankees legend Casey Stengel and Clayton Moore (TV’s Lone Ranger). Elsewhere are Jimmy Stewart, Ted Knight ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Judge Smails from "Caddyshack"), Humphrey Bogart, Mary Pickford, Sammy Davis Jr. and hundreds of other stars, major and minor. Forest Lawn has a well-publicized disdain for sightseers, does not allow photography inside buildings and will not reveal the location of famous graves.
Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills
Unlike FLG, there are no indoor mausoleums or private, locked areas. Here you will find Bette Davis; Liberace; Lucille Ball (she’s not actually here anymore); John Ritter; Telly Savalas; Buster Keaton; Marty Feldman; Stan Laurel; David Carradine; Gene Autry; Sandra Dee; Ozzie, Harriet and Rick Nelson; Lou Rawls; Freddie Prinze; Andy Gibb; Dorothy Lamour; and recent arrivals Brittany Murphy and her husband, Simon Monjack; Art Linkletter; and John Wooden.