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Cemetery tour guide loves her dead-end job

Cemetery tour guide loves her dead-end job
Karie Bible, in her 1940s-style dress, retro sunglasses and lacy black parasol, leads a tour at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Unlike the usual rumor-laden Hollywood death tour, there’s not an ounce of fiction as she tells visitors about the famous and nearly forgotten.
(Al Seib, Los Angeles Times)

With her chiseled features, 1940s-style black dress, retro sunglasses and lacy black parasol, tour guide Karie Bible strolls the 60 acres of Hollywood Forever Cemetery looking as if she might be a wayward mourner from the funeral of Tyrone Power or another Tinseltown luminary.

She answers the obvious questions that, yes, her name really is Karie Bible, and, yes, she really was born on Halloween, saying, “I can’t make this up.”

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Being a cemetery tour guide may seem an unlikely avocation. But it’s the logical fusion of two of Bible’s childhood influences: horror films and family vacations to Civil War battlefields.

“We went to Vicksburg, Miss., one summer ... and I remember the docent had this beautiful antebellum gown on even though it was a billion degrees, and she let me touch a cannonball that was lodged in the wall of this old antebellum mansion,” Bible said. “Going to those battlefields is just history brought to life. As a kid, that was just the most exciting thing in the world to me.”

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At home, she consumed old horror movies broadcast on television. “I didn’t like Barbie, but I loved Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Those were my little girlhood heroes,” Bible said. After earning a film degree from what is now the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, Bible headed west. “I came out here in 2000 and fell in love with this cemetery,” she said.

She walks the cemetery like a historian exploring a Civil War battlefield. Unlike the usual rumor-laden Hollywood death tour, there’s not an ounce of fiction as she tells visitors about the famous and nearly forgotten, from Vampira to Valentino, among the cemetery’s roughly 89,000 residents.

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“There’s this sense that you can write anything you want about a Hollywood star and people take it at face value,” she said. “You couldn’t write a trashy, sleazy tell-all about someone like Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln…. But if you write that about Joan Crawford or Valentino, people just believe it.”

Not that the facts are always easy to discern. Consider the erroneous birth year on Jayne Mansfield’s cenotaph (the actress is actually buried elsewhere, but her fans wanted her to have a marker in Hollywood). “Lying about your age is common in Hollywood, even unto death,” Bible said.

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Every Aug. 23, on the anniversary of Rudolph Valentino’s 1926 death, Bible dons a period costume to evoke Hollywood’s iconic Lady in Black, who mourned at the silent film star’s crypt, but she considers herself more of a “Historian in Black.”

“I really endeavor to humanize these people,” she said. “They’re not just tabloid fodder. They are real flesh-and-blood people who lived and walked the earth and mattered.” And although she was born in the 1970s, “way too late to meet a lot of these amazing people,” the next best thing is meeting their families and asking questions. The research for her tours never ends, she said.

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The variety of monuments placed at Hollywood Forever, mostly hidden behind a strip mall on Santa Monica Boulevard, offers a rebuttal to the popular wisdom that death is the great equalizer. There’s a towering obelisk at the grave of Griffith J. Griffith — who notoriously shot his wife and donated land for Griffith Park — and there’s a black-and-gold spire at the tomb of fashion critic Mr. Blackwell. But Hollywood giant John Huston’s headstone, with a crack across one corner, is about the same size as those of his more obscure neighbors.

“That’s the weird thing about this place,” Bible said of the contrast. “It’s not what you’d expect. But I guess in L.A., things aren’t always what they seem.”

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Among the stops on Bible’s standard two-hour tour (she also offers “Hidden Hollywood” and “Jewish Heritage” tours) are Florence Lawrence, the first movie star, whose grave was unmarked until actor Roddy McDowall paid for a headstone, and David White of the TV show “Bewitched,” who is buried in a niche with his son Jonathan, a victim of the 1988 bombing of Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

And then there is Virginia Rappe, whose mysterious 1921 death resulted in murder charges and three trials for film comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle before he was acquitted on allegations of manslaughter.

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“To me, she had a sad life,” Bible said of Rappe, who is buried next to her fiance, Henry Lehrman. “She never knew the identity of her father; her mom was a chorus girl who died when she was about 13 years old. She was left to be raised by her grandma, who died when she was 20.”

Today, Rappe’s story is best known by the lurid account in “Hollywood Babylon,” Kenneth Anger’s notoriously sleazy book about studio scandals, frustrating people like Bible who seek to set the record straight.

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“I had a lady on my tour who kept correcting me in front of everybody. She’d say, ‘That’s not what was written in “Hollywood Babylon.”’ And I wanted to be polite as possible, but I said, ‘You know what? Just because something makes it into a book doesn’t mean it’s true,’” Bible said.

In her 10 years of leading tours at the cemetery, she had a chance encounter with Anjelica Huston tending the grave of her father, John; stood by as a group of French tourists sang at the grave of French pop star Joe Dassin; and saw people leave plastic fangs on the headstone of Vampira (Maila Nurmi), who introduced horror movies on local TV in the 1950s. Today, Nurmi is mostly remembered for one day’s work in a non-speaking role in Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” sometimes described as the worst movie ever made.

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Of all the monuments at Hollywood Forever, Valentino’s grave, still marked with lipstick prints, is the most celebrated, visited and talked-about, Bible said.

“People still constantly kiss that grave,” Bible said. “When I get younger people that maybe don’t know about him, I kind of compare it to the recent death of Michael Jackson.” Some of the cemetery’s residents were famous only in their time, but Valentino, who died at 31, is one who transcends his era, she said.

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“There’s something incredibly romantic about dying young,” Bible said, comparing him to James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow. “You don’t get old, you don’t get heavy, you don’t make bad movies, you’re kind of frozen in time. I think there’s something incredibly romantic about that.”

As for Hollywood Forever, Bible said: “I feel such a sense of peace when I’m here…. I’m not a ghost chaser. I’m not into psychic stuff. I’ve been to certain [cemeteries] where I don’t have a good feeling. Here I do. I feel peace.”

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larry.harnisch@latimes.com


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