Splendor Fades at Final Resting Place of Famous, Almost Famous
On the day in 1901 when a Hollywood blacksmith’s wife was laid to rest beneath some trees near Santa Monica Boulevard and Gower Street, no one could have guessed that it would mark the beginning of one of the world’s great cemeteries.
In the eight decades since Mrs. T. W. Price became the first person buried in what is today Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, she has been surrounded by a disparate throng of movie stars, pioneer settlers, exiles from czarist Russia, Confederate soldiers and titans of industry.
Among its 73,000 graves, crypts and niches are enough obelisks and small Greek and Egyptian temples to make the 57-acre grounds appear to have been dreamed up by Cecil B. DeMille, who indeed is buried there. To accommodate thousands of tourists, maps point out the final resting places of such notables as Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
Complaints About Vandalism
But while Hollywood Memorial Park enjoys a heritage few cemeteries can match, all is not well beneath its soaring palms. Critics complain of vandalism and poor maintenance, including unkempt grass, crumbling roads and mausoleum roofs that are badly in need of repair.
State officials say that in the last five years they have received more complaints about Hollywood Memorial than any other cemetery. “We’ve averaged about six to eight letters per year and more phone calls than I’d care to recall,” said John Gill, executive secretary of the state Cemetery Board.
By law, the more than 200 cemeteries the board oversees are required to invest a portion of their earnings in an endowment care fund and to spend the interest for upkeep. The board is responsible for seeing that all of the money is spent. However, it does not have the authority to impose sanctions against ill-kempt cemeteries.
Hollywood Memorial officials declined to say how much was spent on maintenance last year, but Cemetery Board records show that it was at least $143,568, which was the amount earned by the cemetery’s $1.7 million endowment.
However, Gill and others say that even if the amount spent were twice as much, it would not begin to approach what is needed to restore the cemetery to its former splendor.
“It’s a disgrace what’s happened over there,” said Minni Schoenburg, 70, who travels from Arizona each year to pay respects at the plot in the Beth Olam Jewish section of the grounds where her parents are interred.
“Eight years ago I was humiliated when we buried my mother and the grass was a foot high around the other graves,” Schoenburg said. “None of us would have ever been put there if we’d known it was going to deteriorate the way it has.”
Max Factor Remains Moved
Water damage from a leaky roof has discolored the wall crypts in parts of the Beth Olam Mausoleum. Last year, the heirs of makeup artist Max Factor, who had been entombed there since 1938, transferred his remains and those of other relatives to another cemetery.
Jules F. Roth, Hollywood Memorial’s 80-year-old principal owner, insists that the cemetery, which continues to be profitable, has done its best given that its endowment earnings have not kept up with soaring costs.
“For someone buried here in 1901, $5 went into a perpetual care fund,” Roth said. “Now you tell me, how much income can you get from $5? But we still have to take care of that grave. . . . We do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
The law requires cemeteries to set aside for endowment care at least $1.75 per square foot for ground burials, $75 for each mausoleum crypt and $25 for each niche bearing crematory remains.
Gill said Hollywood Memorial has for a long time contributed more than the minimums “but the problem is that they sold a lot of graves in the ‘30s and ‘40s at a time when endowment care wasn’t a priority and as a result the money they’re generating isn’t nearly enough.”
“It’s a universal problem among older cemeteries. Some just happen to be harder hit than others,” he added.
There have also been problems that have not involved maintenance.
A Los Angeles woman filed a class-action suit seeking damages from the cemetery in 1986 on behalf of 1,000 other plot owners. It claims their privacy was violated after cemetery officials allowed employees of Paramount Pictures to park their cars in the cemetery for several months while work was being done on a studio parking structure.
“When I placed my little boy there, they advertised a haven as cloistered as the storied Shalimar,” said Gertrude Allison, who filed the suit. “They never said anything about it being turned into a parking lot.”
In an interview, Roth declined to comment on the matter, noting that the suit is still pending. The employees are no longer parking in the cemetery.
Roth has appeared before the Cemetery Board twice in recent years. In 1983, the board summoned him to a meeting to express concern that insurance proceeds from a fire in one of the mausoleums be used properly. In 1984, he was asked to answer complaints about poor maintenance.
Fourth Major Ownership
As president of the Hollywood Cemetery Assn., Roth represents the fourth major ownership change since San Fernando Valley pioneer Isaac Lankershim and his son-in-law Isaac Newton Van Nuys established the association and bought 100 acres for a cemetery in 1899.
It was a time when Hollywood’s 500 residents lived along wide dirt avenues flanked by ranches, bean fields and lemon groves.
The names of many of the settlers can be found on the grounds, including Harvey Wilcox, the Kansas prohibitionist credited with founding Hollywood; homesteader John T. Gower, and U.S. Sen. Cornelius Cole, after whose children 10 of Hollywood’s streets are named.
By 1920, Hollywood and the cemetery were caught up in the boom brought by the movies. Forty unused acres on the cemetery’s south side facing Melrose Avenue were sold off to make way for Paramount and another studio that has gone through several incarnations, including Desilu in the 1950s.
When Roth assumed the management in 1939, the cemetery had already begun to experience some lean years.
Bowing to complaints from trolley passengers annoyed at the sight of tombstones as part of their daily commute, a previous owner in the 1930s erected a fortress-like wall the length of the cemetery along Santa Monica Boulevard between Gower Street and Van Ness Avenue.
Then, to recoup the wall’s cost and boost the cemetery’s ailing finances, he transferred the property outside the wall to a separate holding company and attempted to sell it for commercial purposes, only to have the deal fall through after he was unable to get the zoning changed.
When the three-acre sliver was finally sold for $2.4 million to developers who built a strip shopping center there in 1984, some plot owners felt betrayed.
“I consider it an indignity,” said John Sherman, 79, whose parents are buried in the cemetery. “I never thought I’d live to see the day when part of what used to be the cemetery would be turned into a place for muffler shops and fast-food stores.”
Yet the same conditions that cause some to complain appear to attract others to the cemetery.
“Sure, it may have seen better days, but that antiquated, kind of grown-over feeling you get when you enter is what makes it a storybook kind of place,” said Frank Cooper, who conducts an annual tour of the grounds sponsored by the Art Deco Society.
While Oddfellow Cemetery, established in 1870, claims to be the city’s oldest, and other cemeteries, including Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale with 300,000 interments, are larger, few rival the mystique of Hollywood Memorial.
Its ornate statuary reads like a local who’s who from the first half of the century: philanthropist William A. Clark Jr., who founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Harrison Gray Otis, the major publisher of The Times; Arthur Letts, founder of The Broadway department stores, and Griffith J. Griffith, who donated the land for Griffith Park.
Near the lake are the graves of singer Nelson Eddy, Columbia Pictures czar Harry Cohn, Tyrone Power, Marion Davies and Janet Gaynor.
Besides Valentino, others in the mausoleums include silent screen stars Norma and Constance Talmadge, Barbara La Marr and Mary Miles Minter, movie pioneer Jesse Lasky, character actors Peter Lorre and Clifton Webb and director Victor Fleming (“The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind”).
Among the ranks of the less famous buried there are Clark Gable’s father, Anthony Quinn’s son, Rita Hayworth’s brother, Charles Chaplin’s mother and Elmer Berger, inventor of the rear view mirror.
In some cases, inscriptions offer colorful clues about those who have departed.
The flat gravestone of child star Carl (Alfalfa) Switzer of “Our Gang” fame is inscribed with a picture of Pete, the gang’s trusted dog.
Not far from his plot, the modest marker of actress Peggy Shannon bears the slogan, “That Red Haired Girl.” Promoted as the next sex symbol when she arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s, she wound up in bit parts after playing leading roles in half a dozen films.
When 63-year-old Elmo Lincoln died in obscurity in 1952, the screen’s original Tarzan had no inscription. His cremated remains were placed in a community niche along with those of other people of meager means in what is today a rust-covered corner in one of the oldest buildings.
While fascination with the great and not-so-great draws movie buffs and nostalgia seekers, the cemetery has also attracted its share of vandals, thieves and muggers.
On a single night several years ago, vandals overturned or desecrated 114 tombstones. Another time, thieves stole an entire stained glass window from one of the private mausoleums. It was later recovered.
But the most serious breach occurred two years ago when the decomposing head of a woman, stolen from a crypt, was found under a parked car outside the grounds. Two men were later convicted of desecrating the woman’s remains. After that, officials installed razor wire above the walls on all but one side of the cemetery.
Despite such difficulties and nearly half a century on the job, Roth speaks about Hollywood Memorial with enthusiasm, envisioning a day when, with additional mausoleum crypts and niches, the cemetery can accommodate 150,000 entombments.
“I see a great future here,” he said. “It may be for others to carry it through, but this place is going to be here as long as people die.”