originally published June 29, 2012
Continuing on with this week’s somewhat disconcerting fascination with death (death of people in 1871, death of restaurant franchises, death of our cultural morality thanks to Bob Log III, etc), I will once again be lowering the black tartan of the inevitable over today’s kilograph. I swear, it’s all a coincidence, or perhaps the dark humor of Ms. Wiki’s fiendish trigger of random miscellany.
My most recent Wiki-journey brings a pang of the personal to today’s article. Today we’re heading to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, located in the sparkly heart of Tinseltown.
Full disclosure: my dad has been a resident since March, 2007. This is why, when the topic popped up with a swift e-kick to my soul, I felt I needed to write about it. Also, there are easily a thousand words of good story here, give or take a rambling introduction or two.
In 1899 there was no cemetery in Hollywood. The neighborhood had only been in existence for a dozen or so years, and even then it wasn’t even really a neighborhood yet. The sightseeing tour buses had nothing to show tourists but a bunch of fields.
Isaac Lankershim and his son-in-law, Isaac Van Nuys (you have probably watched a porno that was produced in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood named after Mr. Van Nuys) bought 100 acres of land and opened up the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery.
Within two decades, the foundation had been laid for Hollywood to be the center of the movie universe, and the cement of success was drying quickly. The land was reorganized, with a portion reserved as the Beth Olam Cemetery for Hollywood’s deceased Jews (even then, it was well known that we’d be taking up a lot of space in Hollywood), and a large chunk was sold off to Paramount and RKO Studios. The Paramount lot still backs up against the west cemetery wall.
In 1939 the cemetery was sold to Jules Roth. Roth used the cemetery’s finances to maintain his lavish lifestyle – it was later discovered that over $9 million was missing from the cemetery’s endowment care fund. He fired staff and allowed the cemetery’s upkeep to suffer. He’d had two gorgeous strips of green space right out front which he sold off to become strip malls. Roth didn’t bother repairing crypts after earthquakes (or did so using cheap plywood), and he avoided connecting the cemetery to city water. That cost money, and he didn’t much care if a drought turned the grass brown.
Jules Roth was a dick.
Prior to buying the cemetery, Roth had been locked up in San Quentin for scamming the elderly. He saw owning this land as a cash-cow – people were dying all the time, and by cutting corners (and even inventing corners which he could then cut), he’d turn a great profit. Those lawns he sold to the strip mall developers? They funded his Hollywood home. He bought a yacht with cemetery funds, ostensibly for ocean ash-scattering ceremonies, but really he just wanted a yacht.
Roth was also not a fan of black people. He fought to ensure that the cemetery was whites-only, even when Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel, Mammy in Gone With The Wind, wanted to be buried there. Roth would have none of it.
And the touching part is that Roth’s parents were buried there, even before he took over.
Roth held on to the cemetery until eventually moving in after an unfairly long life in 1998.
Tyler and Brent Cassidy from Missouri bought the place and renamed it ‘Hollywood Forever’. They recognized that their celebrity guests were a tourist draw, so they jazzed the place up, made it look pretty. The Cassidys ran things above board, honestly, with no trace of criminal activity.
Well… except for all the criminal activity.
Tyler and Brent were indicted by the FBI in 2010 on 50 counts, ranging from wire, bank, mail and insurance fraud, money laundering and conspiracy. The details are lengthy and twisted, but the quick version is that people who paid for prearranged funerals had their money skewed through a third party and an insurance arrangement that netted the Cassidy boys a tidy sum in their pockets.
Allegedly, of course. The trial has yet to wrap up, and it still remains to be proven whether or not they scammed the system to snag $600 million for themselves.
Wow. Had I known I’d buried my father in a hotbed of nefarious scammery, I might have thought to lay him to rest elsewhere, somewhere more honest.
At least he’s in good company. There are tours through Hollywood Forever, because dozens of semi-famous to famous people are buried there. I’m not sure what the appeal is to visit a famous person’s headstone, but I guess some folks are into that kind of thing.
Don Adams, TV’s Maxwell Smart, is immortalized at his grave in his most well-known role. I wonder if the same thing will be done when Jaleel “Urkel” White or the guy who played Larry Dallas on Three’s Company dies.
One of my personal heroes, Mel Blanc, is also interred somewhere in my dad’s neighborhood. So are Jayne Mansfield, Peter Finch (the guy who was mad as hell and won a posthumous Oscar for it in Network), director John Huston, Cecil B. DeMille, Tyrone Power, fellow Albertan Fay Wray, Johnny Ramone and Douglas Fairbanks.
Another thing the Cassidy boys implemented – while they weren’t busy lighting cigars with their ill-gotten (allegedly) money – was to turn the cemetery into a nightspot. Starting in 2002, there have been regular film screenings in the cemetery, with movies projected onto the west wall of the Cathedral Mausoleum. Tomorrow night they’re showing Labyrinth.
Music events have taken place in the cemetery also. The Flaming Lips performed there last year, almost exactly a month before I saw them live in Chicago. I’ve no doubt that, if my dad had been able to hear, he’d still be complaining about that show.
If you’re in Hollywood and looking for a quirky tour of celebrity headstones instead of buying a map to the stars’ homes in order to stalk Jennifer Garner, you should check out a tour of Hollywood Forever. Sure, it might weird you out, but isn’t that what Hollywood is best at?
And if you see my dad’s memorial, you can say hello if you’d like. But there’s no way his spirit stuck around that place.
Not with all those tourists.