Never mind the more than slightly macabre fact that it's home to a hundreds of buried remains. Never mind that many of these graves host the bones of Tinseltown legends such as Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and Cecil B. DeMille, as well as musicians Art Pepper, Woody Herman and two members of the Ramones. And never mind that partying in the cemetery is a pastime usually relegated to teenage Goths and metal-heads.
Hollywood Forever, the 62-acre, 113-year-old graveyard abutting the Paramount Pictures lot, has unexpectedly become one of L.A.'s most beloved entertainment venues.
Thanks in part to archivist John Wyatt, who founded Hollywood Forever's' film series "Cinespia" 10 years ago, the cemetery now hosts thousands of people each summer for its outdoor weekend movie screenings. For several months, huge crowds gather on the wide spread of grass beside Fairbanks' tomb to listen to DJ sets, eat picnic dinners and enjoy such flicks as "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," "Dazed and Confused" and "Easy Rider."
Increasingly, though, the cemetery is opening its gates to welcome musical acts into the same magical atmosphere, both outside on the lush green lawn and inside the grounds' elegant Masonic Lodge. Over the last few years, artists including Bon Iver, Belle & Sebastian, Hope Sandoval, the Swell Season, Broken Social Scene and others have played among the dead.
This summer, Troubadour booking agent Brian Smith and Hollywood Forever's Jay Boileau continue to combine forces to unleash a 2011 performance schedule that highlights the cemetery as one of America's unique concert venues.
"I presented Hollywood Forever's dream artists to Brian at the very beginning, when we first decided we were ready to do music at the cemetery," Boileau says.
"It is true collaboration," Smith adds. "My background is booking the artist and the work relating to them. Jay is very good at getting the details right. He has his eye on getting the highest-quality audio and production for the shows. We both work together on the creative details outside of simply putting on a concert."
The result of their efforts is a series of shows perfectly suited to each of the venue's unique spaces, such as the lush experimental pop of the Flaming Lips out on the Fairbanks Lawn or the raw energy of Appalachian folk singer Marideth Sisco inside the austere confines of the Masonic Lodge. Sisco is performing in Los Angeles for the first time and will be part of an evening with the other musical contributors to the soundtrack for the Oscar-nominated film " Winter's Bone."
"Maybe it's because I'm a newcomer to L.A., but I am still completely charmed and fascinated by the fact that Hollywood Forever is a music and film venue," says Matt Sullivan, whose label, Light in the Attic, released the soundtrack to "Winter's Bone."
"This town has such a unique way of remembering and reinventing its history," he says, "and there's something very sweet and respectful about the way the cemetery is being used. This is the first time that the musicians from the 'Winter's Bone' soundtrack are touring together. We wanted it to be special, and Masonic Lodge seemed like an obvious choice."
Originally called the Southland Masonic Temple, the Masonic Lodge was built in 1927.
"It has phenomenal architecture that only the Masons can deliver," Boileau says of the building. "When you enter the space you get the feeling that you are in some sort of nondenominational temple-town hall meeting space."
Smith says that they use the Masonic Lodge to deliver smaller and more intimate shows, mostly for established artists looking to play a stripped-down or acoustic set to better connect with the audience. "We use the Fairbanks Lawn for the artists who require more production and more space," Smith says, "yet we still try to maintain a sense of intimacy by not overcrowding the space."
The performances reflect the eclectic feel of the space as well: dreamy, contemplative, vaguely psychedelic.
One of the most popular recent shows at the cemetery was Austin's cinematic, instrumental experimenters Explosions in the Sky. The band's Munaf Rayani says of the experience, "Very rarely does one get a chance to play for the living and the dead. We were lucky to get the opportunity." The week before the performance, the cemetery opened its gates to a handful of visual artists, each of whom created a piece to accompany a song from Explosions' new album. The crowd roamed the park after dark listening to music among the gravestones.
In fall 2009, the cemetery organized a slumber party with acclaimed indie soul singer Justin Vernon, who performs as Bon Iver. Vernon programmed the midnight to morning event, which featured a DJ set, a screening of Wes Anderson's film "Bottle Rocket," a Buddhist monk daybreak invocation and, finally, at sunrise, a Bon Iver performance.
And for their upcoming concerts at the venue, the Flaming Lips will be playing (for one of the two nights they're booked) Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" in its entirety. It's a show that perfectly suits the strange, but special, environment.
Boileau and Smith plan on a summer of artist bookings in the same vein: poetic, sublime and individual.
"My absolute dream would be to have Leonard Cohen perform a solo acoustic show," says Smith, adding a few other ideas: "I would love to present Sigur Ros, Portishead, Boards of Canada, Kate Bush, Brian Eno, Scott Walker or the Smiths. With the latter, we would write into their contract that they were obligated to play their song 'Cemetery Gates.'"