L.A. story, part 2: cities of the dead in the City of Angels

P1040854A common pastime for tourists in Los Angeles is to drive past the homes of celebrities. One of my cherished activities during my own trips to L.A.. has involved a twist on that concept: visiting the current residences of people who are rich, famous — and dead. As you might expect given the association of the city with show business, several area cemeteries include large concentrations of former stars from the entertainment field. I’ve been to two of those cemeteries so far: Forest Lawn, which is located in the town of Glendale; and Hollywood Forever, which as its name implies is situated in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles.

This post is a sequel of sorts to my article from December 2012 about offbeat attractions that I found in Los Angeles. Below, in part 2 of the series, I recount my excursions to a pair of the L.A. area’s “cemeteries to the stars.” As those visits took place in 2012 and 2013, it has obviously taken me a while to get around to writing about them. However, be warned: death waits for no man.

Graveyard # 1: Forest Lawn Memorial Park – Glendale

Date of visit: September 2012

Among the ashes interred in the Columbarium of Victory in the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn are those of actress-singer Dorothy Dandridge.

Among the ashes interred in the Columbarium of Victory in the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn are those of actress-singer Dorothy Dandridge, who in 1954 became the first African-American to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.

Forest Lawn Memorial Park opened its gates in 1906. It was conceived not as a cemetery but as a “memorial park,” reflecting the founder’s view of cemeteries as “unsightly, depressing stoneyards.” To house the dead in a more appealing way, he aspired to create “a great park devoid of misshapen monuments and other signs of earthly death, but filled with towering trees, sweeping lawns, splashing fountains, beautiful statuary, and … memorial architecture.” One of the unique consequences of this ethos is that the facility has no upright gravestones. Another significant component of the founder’s vision was an abundance of decorative artwork; and today, Forest Lawn abounds with copies of famous paintings and sculptures as well as a museum with a collection of cultural artifacts from around the world. So when you wander through Forest Lawn, even as you’re surrounded by death, you can be uplifted by some of the greatest expressions of the human spirit.

In the over a century since its founding, Forest Lawn has expanded into a chain of “memorial parks” in southern California. In addition to the original Glendale location that I visited, it operates other cities of the dead in Cathedral City; Covina; Cypress; Hollywood Hills; and Long Beach. The Hollywood Hills property, like the Glendale one, can boast a plethora of show-business icons interred on the premises. Among the Earthly remains in permanent residence at the Hollywood Hills site are those of Steve Allen; Gene Autry; Tom Bosley; David Carradine; Bette Davis; Sandra Dee; Casey Kasem; Stan Laurel; Ozzie, Harriet, and Ricky Nelson; Lou Rawls; John Ritter; Joan Rivers; and Telly Savalas. When I get the chance, I’m going to make it out to the Hollywood Hills branch to pay my respects in person to those dear departed folks. But now, on to my tour of the Glendale location:

The artworks and artifacts

In the Court of Freedom there's a 13-foot monument to George Washington, although I'm pretty sure that America's first President never stepped foot in California.

In the Court of Freedom there’s a soaring monument to George Washington, although I’m pretty sure that America’s first President never stepped foot in California.

This painting depicts the Founding Fathers of the United States.

This mosaic in the Court of Freedom reproduces the famous painting “The Signing of the Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull. The original oil-and-canvas painting is on display in the rotunda of the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC.

Why go to Florence when you can see a replica of Michelangelo's David in a California cemetery?

Why go to Florence when you can see a replica of Michelangelo’s David in a California cemetery?

The Mystery of Life

“The Mystery of Life,” an original marble sculpture created for Forest Lawn by Ernesto Gazzeri, consists of 22 life-sized human figures.

This panel of stained glass windows, in the Court of Honor within the Great Mausoleum, recreates Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece, “The Last Supper.” Da Vinci’s original mural painting hangs in a convent in Milan, Italy.

The head of a moai from Easter Island is among the treasures on display in the on-site museum.

The head of a moai from Easter Island is among the treasures on display in the on-site Forest Lawn Museum.

Also in the Forest Lawn Museum is a replica of the “Gates of Paradise,” the exquisite gilded bronze doors designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti that adorn the Baptistery of St. John in Florence, Italy.

The deceased

An afternoon at Forest lawn is a culturally enriching experience. But the main reason for going is to commune with the dead. Join me now as I guide you through the final resting places of some of Forest Lawn’s more illustrious residents.

George Burns and the love of his love, Gracie Allen, are together for all time.

George Burns and the love of his love, Gracie Allen, are together for all time.

Swashbuckling film star Errol Flynn.

Born on the Australian island of Tasmania, swashbuckling film star Errol Flynn had a reputation as a playboy; the expression “in like Flynn” is believed to have originally referred to his infamous prowess with women. In 1943 he was tried for the statutory rape of 2 underage girls, but was acquitted by the jury.

Clara Bow, Hollywood’s original “It” girl, received that sobriquet after starring in the silent romcom “It” in 1927. She also appeared in “Wings,” released the same year, which won the first-ever Best Picture Oscar.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were one of the great Hollywood power couples of their time.

Movie mogul David O. Selznick was the producer of “Gone with the Wind” and “Rebecca,” taking home Best Picture Oscars for both films. Not bad for a boy from Pittsburgh.

Spencer Tracy. You have to look really close to make out his name.

Spencer Tracy won back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for his roles in “Captains Courageous” (1937) and “Boys Town” (1938). While his name has faded on this marker, he will never be erased from our hearts.

This sculpture marks the grave of silent film star Mary Pickford.

This sculpture adorns a private walled garden containing the graves of, among others, Humphrey Bogart and Mary Pickford.

Walt Disney.

Walter Elias “Walt” Disney played an outsized role in creating the pop culture of the twentieth century. Can you imagine a world without Mickey Mouse? Or Disney World?

A marker above the grave of beloved author of Westerns, Louis L'Amour.

Beloved author of Westerns, Louis L’Amour, wrote over 100 novels, and over 300 million copies of his books have been sold.

Elizabeth Taylor.

Elizabeth Taylor, who died in 2011, is one of the more recent additions to Forest Lawn. She is resident in the Great mausoleum.

One burial site at Forest Lawn that I meant to stop by, but which I inadvertently missed, belongs to lovable actor Jimmy Stewart. If I had taken a photo of his grave marker, I totally would have captioned it “Mr. Smith goes to heaven.” 🙂 Additional notable names entombed at Forest Lawn in Glendale, but not pictured above, include actor-comedian W.C. Fields; actress Jean Harlow; singers Sam Cooke and Teena Marie; George Cukor, director of such films as The Philadelphia Story and My Fair Lady; Samuel Goldwyn, a co-founder of MGM Studios; and sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the creator of Mount Rushmore. (Some of those individuals are interred in private areas that are off-limits to the public.)

Graveyard # 2: Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Date of visit: September 2013

You can see the famed “Hollywood” sign from the Hollywood Forever cemetery.

Originally called Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, this oldest cemetery in Hollywood dates back to 1899. By the late 1990s, the site had fallen into disrepair, and financial mismanagement had pushed it into bankruptcy. However, in 1998 it was purchased at auction by new owners who sought to rescue the historic cemetery. After acquiring it for the bargain-basement price of $375,000, the buyers refurbished the grounds, rebranded the facility as “Hollywood Forever,” and began offering public tours. In addition, films are now screened at the cemetery during summer months and holidays (they’re projected onto the wall of one of the mausoleums); these movie showings are a substantial source of revenue for the formerly cash-strapped graveyard. Unlike the corpses who inhabit it, Hollywood Forever has been resurrected. It’s now a pleasant place to spend time (as long as you’re not spending eternity there). 🙂

A view of the lake and the Douras mausoleum at Hollywood Forever. It's hard to believe you're in a cemetery!

A view of the lake and the Douras mausoleum at Hollywood Forever. It’s hard to believe you’re in a cemetery!

Punk rock legend Johnny Ramone has been permanently sedated.

Punk rock legend Johnny Ramone has been permanently sedated.

Mel Banc's tombstone said exactly what I expected it to.

The tombstone of Mel Blanc, the legendary voice of Porky Pig and many other cartoon characters, said exactly what I expected it to.

Rudolf Valentino.

Rudolph Valentino, one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols, died at just 31 years of age after undergoing an appendectomy.

Jayne Mansfield.

Jayne Mansfield, one of Hollywood’s original “blonde bombshells,” was sometimes called the “working man’s Monroe.”

Tyrone Power.

Tyrone Power was what today you might call an “action hero,” having starred in a slew of adventure films during cinema’s golden age. Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Yul Brynner, and Gregory Peck were among the luminaries attending his funeral here in 1958.

The tomb of Douglas Fairbanks.

Douglas Fairbanks, whose tomb is seen here, was another of the “swashbuckling” actors. In addition to his work in front of the camera, he was a founding member of both the United Artists studio and the Motion Picture Academy of America.

Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar, taking the Best Supporting Actress trophy for her role in “Gone with the Wind.”

Movie director Victor Fleming helmed some of the most popular and acclaimed films of all time, such as “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

Cecil B. DeMille is ready for his close-up.

Cecil B. DeMille is ready for his close-up.

Mystery sculpture

I liked this elaborate sculpture, but I’ve forgotten whose tomb it belongs to. If you have any idea, please let me know!

Because I was pressed for time and had a flight to catch, I didn’t get to all of the graves that would have liked to see at Hollywood Forever. Some of the more high-profile corpses whose grave markers are not shown above are those of director John Huston (known for such cinematic classics as Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, and The African Queen); actress Fay Wray (the damsel in distress in the original 1933 King Kong movie); “Golden Girl” Estelle Getty; and actress Marion Davies, the long-time mistress of William Randolph Hearst.

One of the most prominent decedents at Hollywood Forever was neither an actor or director, but was someone whose fame was enhanced by other people’s depictions of him on the big screen:

Notorious mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was a driving force behind the development of the Las Vegas Strip as a gambling mecca.

And finally, a reminder of how the denizens of Hollywood Forever get there in the first place:

Seen at Hollywood Forever: this cute Rolls-Royce hearse.

Seen at Hollywood Forever: this cute Rolls-Royce hearse. If it’s all the same, I would rather not go for a ride in it. 🙂

Do you like visiting the final resting places of famous people?

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10 thoughts on “L.A. story, part 2: cities of the dead in the City of Angels

  1. Oh this is so cool! Such a unique way to spend the day in L.A. So much history in all of those cemeteries. I’ll bookmark this for the next time I head to the west coast.


  2. galanda23

    I live in Los Angeles and visiting the Forest Lawn cemeteries was one of the first things I did when we moved in the area. The one in Glendale has on display the largest painting ever painted: The Crucifixion (195 feet x 45 feet).


    • @Anda: I saw that painting, but I didn’t have any photos of it that I liked enough to include in this post. 🙂 The Glendale location does have an impressive array of art on display!


  3. jennmalka

    Im from LA and have never been to either! Thanks for sharing some interesting things to do in my own hometown! 🙂


  4. I had no idea LA had so much history and culture. This is really cool, and maybe I’ll check these places out next time I visit!


    • @Richelle: Well, much of the history and culture are in the context of one industry; but it really is a rich heritage. I do highly recommend visiting both of these cemeteries!


  5. Hm.. I never would’ve thought to do this in L.A… but I have enjoyed visiting cemeteries. Earlier this year I saw the graves of the wild west outlaws in Tombstone, AZ.. and before that I visited a cemetery in Nicaragua several presidents and famous people had been buried. It certainly makes for an interesting and unique time!


    • @Escaping Abroad: The wild west cemetery in particular (and seeing tombstones in Tombstone) sounds interesting. Visiting cemeteries can be a great local activity, and is often a unique way to learn more about the history of the area. Pere Lachaise in Paris is another great example.


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