Making a night of Day of the Dead

Time Staff Writer

This evening, Sparrow Morgan will take part for the first time in the centuries-old Mexican tradition known as Day of the Dead.

As part of the observance, participants erect colorful altars at the graves of family members with candles, marigolds, candy skulls and other festive ornaments inviting the dead to return -- at least in spirit.

Morgan will do the same. But her altar will pay homage to the film and television actors who have played the legendary Spanish lover Don Juan.


The Hollywood film historian will decorate her shrine with photographs of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Errol Flynn and John Barrymore.

It’s all part of Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s seventh annual Day of the Dead observance.

“In Hollywood, we have a tendency to adopt other people’s legacies, because we don’t have much of a history of our own,” Morgan said. “I feel these people are our ancestors, like they are my family.”

Day of the Dead -- traditionally marked on Nov. 1 and 2 -- is a warm, sometimes whimsical celebration. It dates to the Aztecs, was transformed by the Spanish Catholic Church and crossed the border with millions of Mexican immigrants. Today, many people are adopting and remaking the tradition as their own.

Nowhere is that more evident than at Hollywood Forever, where organizers expect more than 100 altars to be erected this evening. Most participants will be non-Latinos such as Morgan who have added a quirky, only-in-L.A. sensibility.

“We’re about moving forward ... and forgetting about the past” in Los Angeles, said John Hunt, a director at CBS, who will build an altar for the first time. “Maybe some people have realized they need to take a moment and remember the past. It’s really nice to have a forum that’s not weird and creepy.”

This is fitting for the Santa Monica Boulevard cemetery -- perhaps most celebrated as the resting place of silent screen legend Rudolf Valentino -- where layers of L.A. history lie buried as if at some precious archeological site.

Since it opened in 1901 -- on land owned by Isaac Lankershim and Isaac Van Nuys -- Armenians, Thais and World War I vets from the Midwest have been laid to rest near the likes of Tyrone Power and Cecil B. DeMille.

Dozens of Russian Jews, after a lifetime in the pall of war and totalitarianism, lie buried under swaying 50-foot palms a few yards from Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, whose tombstone cheerfully declares, “That’s All Folks.”

But it is the cemetery’s Day of the Dead activities that underscore the city’s ability to absorb and transform endless waves of newcomers.

Thousands are expected at tonight’s ceremony. Six stages will hold dance troupes, storytellers and musicians. Scores of immigrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca will launch the event, carrying a coffin from stage to stage.

The Oaxacans, who make up a large part of the neighborhood around the cemetery, showed up two years ago, adding something “authentic,” said Santiago Garcia, a local restaurant owner.

For them, he said, the event is an echo of the past as they confront the jangle of L.A. life and their children learn about trick-or-treating.

“We have to teach them that they have to keep preserving these traditions,” Garcia said.

But the old Mexican tradition also has an American quality, each altar promoting free expression and creativity.

Last year, Steve Piacenza, a grandson of Italian immigrants, erected four life-sized skeletons playing cards and drinking cocktails -- his mother’s grandparents’ favorite pastimes. The year before, he filled a plastic pool with water and placed floating candles in it with a skeleton nearby -- honoring a grandfather who loved to fish.

Renee Phipps has traveled from Rialto the last three years to build altars to service members who have died in Iraq, while Leor Warner’s altars are dedicated to his three pet Chihuahuas.

Storytelling is the most important aspect of Day of the Dead as spectators inquire about the altars’ honorees, Warner said.

“People really are communicating, and it’s not about the weather,” said Warner, a Hollywood artist. “There’s a thirst for more of this.”

Maripat Donovan and friends plan to build an altar to her mother that includes generators powering fans blowing ribbons of Mylar, like the flames of hell.

“We’ll be very American and show-bizzy compared to the traditional altars,” said Donovan, a Hollywood playwright. “We’re not Mexicans.... But we’re going to incorporate the spirit of it, in our own little Hollywood way.”

Day of the Dead L.A.-style doesn’t bother Mauro Hernandez, a janitor at Caltech who is leading a group of Zapotec Indians from Oaxaca in building a traditional altar for their dead. After all, the ceremony is nothing if not flexible.

“The same thing happened when our Indian traditions met Spanish culture,” Hernandez said. “When things mix, there’s something new, something different.”

The Day of the Dead ceremony will be held from 4 to 11 p.m. at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd. For more information, call (323) 447-0999 or visit