Column: SoFi Stadium had the Super Bowl, but Inglewood Park Cemetery has the legends
A phalanx of black Escalades stuttered down Prairie Avenue, their police escorts bleating and blaring, but Big Mama Thornton paid them no mind.
Tour buses belched and hooted west on Florence and Manchester, shimmying their way to SoFi Stadium, but Etta James, Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald remained unperturbed. And if Chet Baker, Billy Preston and T-Bone Walker were at all impressed by the hullabaloo of Super Bowl LVI, they did not say.
For the record:
6:12 p.m. Feb. 13, 2022An earlier version of this story said Sugar Ray Leonard was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery. It is Sugar Ray Robinson who is buried there.
The shadows of aircraft, so large they count as shade on a hot day, act as constant reminder that SoFi’s biggest and most demanding neighbor is LAX. But far closer than that bustling tangle of humanity is Inglewood Park Cemetery.
Two hundred acres of rolling green swards, drooping angels and picturesque mausoleums, Inglewood Cemetery is the final resting place of thousands, including some of L.A.’s brightest stars, from Betty Grable and Gypsy Rose Lee to former Mayor Tom Bradley, Johnnie Cochran and Robert Kardashian. (As is fitting, Kardashian’s marker commands an excellent view of SoFi.)
Sugar Ray Robinson is there, as is Paul R. Williams and William Thomas, a.k.a. Buckwheat of “Our Gang’s” Little Rascals.
With the Super Bowl back in L.A. after more than 30 years, and boasting a halftime lineup of locals, including Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar, it seemed a fine day to pay my respects on the way to the big game.
Fine, and a little hot. Quite hot actually when I was informed that my plan to walk from one entrance — Florence Avenue — to another on Manchester Boulevard — was not a good one. In order to enforce the “No Super Bowl or event parking” rules, the cemetery had closed the Manchester exit. So after saying hello to Fitzgerald and Bradley in the Sunset Mission Mausoleum, finding Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s marker right on the fence line on Prairie, finding Baker and Preston near the Manchester exit, I was able to loop back and salute Grable, Charles and Cesar Romero in the Mausoleum of the Golden West.
Which was very nice, because, along with being filled with stained glass windows depicting various California landscapes and a history of the state, the Mausoleum of the Golden West is deliciously air conditioned and has a restroom.
Built in 1907, Inglewood Park Cemetery was, like SoFi, planned and executed to be the best, the biggest and the most beautiful.
“Los Angeles is to have the largest cemetery in the world,” the Los Angeles Herald wrote breathlessly on Nov. 26, 1905. “The great tract will consist of 300 acres of the prettiest property of this section of the country and usual grewsome [sic] appearances of such places will be avoided. Beautiful statuary, bubbling fountains and pretty stretches of lawn will make the city of the dead a lovely spot.”
For many years, it dominated the landscape of Inglewood; when the new racetrack opened in 1938, The Times wrote that the reason it was called Hollywood Park instead of Inglewood Park was to avoid confusion with the cemetery, although “there will still be expensive ‘funerals’ [at Hollywood Park].”
It remains an oasis of leafy trees and emerald silence, anchored by a small lake and a growing city of mausoleums. A few cars trailing L.A. Rams flags drove through in the late Super Bowl Sunday morning, but the color preference of grave decorations, balloons and flowers was pink and red for Valentine’s Day, rather than blue and yellow for the Super Bowl.
Still, the cemetery was visible from the upper levels of SoFi, and it was hard not to think that, as the national anthem was sung and the halftime show performed, the bar this city set was very high. Never mind having an introduction by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, when you are singing in the literal shadow of Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James and Ray Charles, when Chet Baker and Billy Preston are less than half a mile away, the echoes of the dead make music that is tough to live up to.
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