During its fabled heyday, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios boasted of having "more stars than there are in the heavens." But MGM has nothing on Margaret Burk and Gary Hudson, whose new book features a star-studded cast of hundreds. It's the kind of company any Hollywood star would die to join.
Alas, that's just what they did.
"Final Curtain: Eternal Resting Places of Hundreds of Stars, Celebrities, Moguls, Misers & Misfits" is Burk and Hudson's guide to the final resting places of nearly 1,000 famous people--everyone from Bud Abbott to Adolph Zukor.
Published by Seven Locks Press of Santa Ana, the illustrated trade paperback takes the reader through 26 Southern California cemeteries.
Burk, co-producer of the monthly Round Table West literary luncheons in Los Angeles and Newport Beach, and Hudson, a writer, director and producer, have done their homework.
The coauthors traversed the grounds of each cemetery, seeking out the sometimes hard-to-find headstones of departed celebrities. And they scoured death certificates, obituaries and show business books to write the accompanying biographical sketches.
"Final Curtain" also includes sections on "death styles of the rich and famous," "death by mysterious circumstances," cemetery scandals and assorted oddities. There are also enough famous last lines, celebrity self-epitaphs, movie eulogies and humorous death-related quotations to ensure that the proceedings are more a celebration of life than of death.
As George Bernard Shaw said during his final delirium: "Curtain! Fast music! Lights! Ready for the last finale! Great! The show looks good."
The bulk of the book is devoted to what Burk and Hudson refer to as "Who's Who and Where?"
Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale has the largest celebrity clientele: more than 120, including Walt Disney, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Sammy Davis Jr., W.C. Fields, Mary Pickford, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, George Burns and Gracie Allen.
But Westwood Memorial Park, a tiny cemetery surrounded by tall office buildings and condominiums, is the final resting place of more than 40 celebrities, including one of the most enduring: Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962), who is included in the chapter on mysterious deaths.
Monroe can be found in a crypt in the Corridor of Memories in the northeast corner of Westwood Memorial Park.
In the center of the cemetery, "south of Natalie Wood," is Donna Reed (1921-1977). Not far away, in an outdoor mausoleum, is Heather O'Rourke (1975-1988) whose marker reads, "Star of Poltergeist One, Two and Three."
In death, as in life, some of the celebrities cited in "Final Curtain" are given the star treatment.
Jayne Mansfield (1933-1967), described by the authors as "an off-the-rack Marilyn Monroe look-alike," receives eight biographical paragraphs, while her Hollywood Memorial Park neighbor Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer (1927-1959) of the Little Rascals is given but one line.
Entertainer Al Jolson (1886-1950) has the distinction of being the celebrity with the largest monument. The star of "The Jazz Singer" is entombed at Hillside Memorial Park near Culver City beneath a dome supported by six towering marble pillars. On the ceiling of the monument, which is visible from the San Diego Freeway, is a mosaic of Moses holding the Ten Commandments. Nearby is a full-size statue of Jolson, down on one knee and with outstretched arms in the singer's trademark pose. And, cascading down the hill in front of the monument, is a 120-foot-long waterfall.
Errol Flynn, in contrast, is buried beneath an unpretentious ground-level marker at Forest Lawn, Glendale. The Flynn inscription reads, "In memory of our father from his loving children." But the marker, according to the authors, wasn't installed until 20 years after the swashbuckling actor (1909-1959) died.
Burk, a former executive of the Ambassador Hotel and author of self-published "Are the Stars Out Tonight? The Story of the Famous Ambassador and Cocoanut Grove . . . Hollywood's Hotel" (1980) says she has always been fascinated by cemeteries and marker inscriptions.
The history of a place can be found in its cemeteries, Burk says. "There is a connection [with cemeteries] that we've kind of lost sight of. With this book, we've established a general philosophy that these people are gone, but we haven't forgotten them."
Coauthor Hudson, who is married to Burk's Round Table West partner, Marylin Hudson, agrees.
"When you go to the cemeteries, you can sort of feel the spirit of the people that are there," he says. "There were a lot of really poignant moments--like Charlie Chaplin's little baby that only lived four days. 'The little mouse,' it says on his tombstone."
Veteran Hollywood reporter James Bacon, who wrote the foreword to the book, provided the authors with several choice anecdotes, including one he observed at Bela Lugosi's funeral in 1956.
While Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff were viewing the body of their old friend, who had risen out of so many coffins as Count Dracula, Lorre said, "Come now, Bela, quit putting us on!"
Burk and Hudson spent seven months researching and writing the book. Finally, Burk says, "it got to the point where we had to cut ourselves off because there was so much interesting material."