I was looking for Marilyn Monroe, when I nearly walked over Rodney Dangerfield - literally. The path to the most famous crypt in California leads past the comedian's grave.
"There goes the neighborhood," reads the epitaph on Dangerfield's headstone at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park. With Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder nearby, it really is a neighborhood. Even in death, the Hollywood crowd tends to form cliques.
Los Angeles has one of the world's greatest collections of cemeteries and memorial parks. Over the course of two days, I paid my respects to Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Jean Harlow, Rudolph Valentino, Jayne Mansfield, Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Walter Matthau and George C. Scott. While Los Angeles County has over 50 major burial spots, just a half dozen or so attract visitors from around the globe. It can be a tricky trip for the dedicated grave spotter.
Rules and decorum vary wildly. At Hollywood Forever Cemetery, they sell maps to the stars' graves and even show classic films in the cemetery on summer nights. Across town, at the sprawling Forest Lawn in Glendale, final home to more stars than anywhere in the world, the staff is tight-lipped about the permanent locales of silver-screen legends.
I stopped by the visitor center to ask if someone could direct me to Bogart's grave.
"No, we cannot," said a friendly but firm greeter.
Cemetery operators have to walk a fine line, said Donna Steward, family-service counselor at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park.
"We understand the curiosity of the public, but our families come first," said Steward, dressed in fashionable but suitably funereal black. "We don't allow tour groups to come in, no guide yelling 'so and so is buried here; so and so is buried there.' We ask people to show respect."
Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park is a good place to start a trip to the three most significant graveyards in the Los Angeles area. It's a tiny plot down a side alley hemmed in by the skyscrapers of Westwood. Happy noise from a nearby church preschool can be heard beyond the walls.
Despite its small size, the 112-year-old memorial park is packed with celebrities, from crooner Dean Martin to rock guitarist Frank Zappa, movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck to "Green Acres" star Eva Gabor and "In Cold Blood" author Truman Capote.
All of them pale in comparison with the crypt of 1950s film bombshell Marilyn Monroe. For two decades after her death in 1962, one of her ex-husbands, Yankee baseball great Joe DiMaggio, had roses delivered to her crypt. The pilgrims still come bearing tributes. The park holds a memorial service every Aug. 5, the anniversary of Monroe's death.
"We get a very big crowd," Steward said.
If there is one Southern California graveyard that has "gone Hollywood," it is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Rescued from bankruptcy, the former Hollywood Memorial Park reopened in 1998 with a new name and a mission that included embracing its position as a tourist attraction.
"My favorite has always been Hollywood Forever," said Steve Goldstein, who runs the Beneath Los Angeles Web site, dedicated to grave tourism. "All the history there, the beautiful statuary, and the beautiful grounds. I have many favorite graves there, the best being Douglas Fairbanks. There is nothing else like it in grandeur, although the Al Jolson monument at Hillside (Memorial Park) certainly comes close."
The location is right out of central casting - the Hollywood sign on the nearby hills can be seen between the crypts. There is no southern wall of the Memorial Park - the graves back up right to the workshops and sound stages of Paramount Studios. The cemetery was here first. The former owners sold 40 acres stretching south to Melrose Avenue to Paramount and RKO for studio lots.
Hollywood Forever has a split personality. It's still an operating cemetery. But Hollywood Forever celebrates its permanent residents. In the flower shop, an attendant sells maps of the cemetery's main attractions, with top celebrity grave spots marked with stars. During the summer, Hollywood Forever hosts a weekend film series, shown on a screen under (and above) the stars. It's a new role for Hollywood's oldest cemetery, which dates to 1899.
Prior to Monroe, the most famous celebrity grave undoubtedly was the crypt of silent-screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, star of "The Sheik" and other sword-and-sandal epics. Valentino's death in 1926 caused riotous mourning among his largely female fans. Thousands have filed past the silver-screen shrine since, including the mysterious "lady in black," who made annual visits on the anniversary of the star's death.
The grandest grave at Hollywood Forever is the tomb of Douglas Fairbanks (junior and senior). A long reflecting pool leads to a tomb whose white marble wall is decorated with the elder Fairbanks' famed pointy-nosed profile.
Across the way from the Fairbanks tomb is a recent addition. Johnny Ramone, "legendary guitarist for the Ramones" as the tombstone is inscribed, arrived in 2004. The New York punk pioneer (whose real name was John Cummings) is shown playing guitar, the black rock block inscribed with salutations from famous friends.
Star power never dies
Celebrities still draw the crowds at Los Angeles-area cemeteries
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