Smack in the middle of Tinseltown, and butting right up against Paramount Studios, Hollywood Forever is the final resting place for the likes of voice legend Mel Blanc, legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, early stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and many, many more.
Overwhelming? Don’t worry, every Saturday there is a tour to help you find these stars that still shine bright from the great beyond, and if you’re luck you’ll have a black cat as your co-host!
On a misty Saturday morning that cleared up to provide the classic California sunshine that I’ve grown accustomed to, tour guide Karie Bible took us on a winding and informative walk around the sixty-acre property. Bible has been enchanted by old Hollywood since she was a child, and when she learned there was no official tour for Hollywood Forever, she created it herself, with full permission of and involvement with the cemetery, which, it should be noted, is still very, very active.
Nearly every Saturday since 2002, Bible has hosted her tour pointing out the graves of various celebrities, notable L.A. legends, all while dishing the history of each person. But among the headstones or peering down from atop an ivy-covered wall you may see a feline or two, as the cemetery is also home to a feral cat colony with more than sixty furry faces.
Despite Hollywood Forever being the happy haunting ground for many movie stars, perhaps the biggest star is one of these feral cats, Close Up, the black cat that accompanies Bible on her tours. While nearly all of the other cats scurry away when a visitor gets near, Close Up is extremely friendly and just showed up in the middle of one of Bible’s tours back in 2019, atop Cecil B. DeMill’s crypt no less. He returned the following Saturday, and the next, and the next.
Bible dubbed him Close Up, after the famous line in the movie Sunset Boulevard “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up!” delivered by Gloria Swanson as the driven big-screen actress Norma Desmond in the closing scenes of the 1950 classic. Bible has also noticed Close Up is very in tune with the needs of others, and she’s even seen him comforting mourners.
When we started our tour, Bible brought up Close Up near the beginning, saying “He likes to make an entrance” and sure enough he did, prowling down the still ever so slightly misty roadway, and then he plopped himself down in front of Bible has she began to tell us about Griffith J. Griffith (for whom Griffith Park is named after, and was also an awful man who attempted to murder his wife by shooting her point blank in the head) and she immediately pulled out some treats for visitors to give the silky feline.
The feral cats aren’t the only animals that call Hollywood Forever home. There are swans, turtles, ducks and peacocks as well. The peacocks are kind of celebrities too, as they have been featured in stained glass in one of the cemetery’s buildings and even atop the golden dome at the cemetery. Meanwhile a group of black ducks lurk near what is to be the final resting place of Johnny Ramone of the punk rock band, The Ramones. His ashes are with his wife, Linda, and when she passes, they will both be laid to rest here. The ducks have been dubbed the Ramone Ducks.
Founded in 1899 as Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, it quickly became the place to be buried. It was originally owned by Isaac Lankershim and his son-in-law Isaac Van Nuys, but later fell under the control of Jules Roth, an “oil swindler and convicted felon” who let it fall into disrepair. It was under Roth’s time that Hattie McDaniel, the first Black actor to win an Oscar, passed away. She wished to be laid to rest at Hollywood Forever, however Roth enforced a racist, whites-only policy, and McDaniel was buried at Angelus-Rosedale. When Roth passed away in 1998, the cemetery was bought by the brothers Tyler and Brent Cassidy. The pair reached out to McDaniel’s family asking if they would like for her to be reinterred at Hollywood Forever, but they declined, and instead a cenotaph (a memorial when remains are elsewhere) was erected in McDaniel’s honor.
Other cenotaphs include Jayne Mansfield and a Toto Memorial. Toto, the famous terrier from The Wizard of Oz, was actually named Terry, and a female. When she passed her remains were buried on the property of her owner and trainer, Carl Spitz. However, her grave was destroyed when the Ventura Freeway was built in 1958.
One thing that makes Hollywood Forever unique, aside from the celebrities, is the creativity with the headstones here, including a couch with bronze dachshund statues, a record, and even a missile, just to name a few.
While not part of the tour, I wanted to pay a visit to Florence Lawrence. If you don’t know the name, don’t worry, because most don’t. Lawrence got her start in Hollywood in the 1900s and starred in nearly 300 films, many of which were for the Biograph Company. At the time, movie stars were not credited on screen (I know, what a bizarre contrast from today) so she simply became known as “The Biograph Girl.”
Nearly ten years after getting her start, she was severely burned after rescuing another actor from a fire and her career and love life were quite the roller coaster. Lawrence didn’t just star in pictures. She was also an inventor, and, while she never filed the patent, she did invent the “auto-signaling arm” – the first turn signal for cars, as well as a break signal. After a wave of misfortune, Lawrence committed suicide by eating ant paste followed by a swig of cough syrup. From her burial until 1991, Lawrence’s grave was unmarked. It wasn’t until Roddy McDowall (one of my favorite actors) came to the rescue and paid for her headstone.
Other notable people interred at Hollywood Forever include Hannah Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin’s mother), Iron Eyes Cody, musician Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave fame, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Peter Finch, Peter Lorre, fellow Ramone Dee Dee Ramone, composer Nelson Riddle, Mickey Rooney, Norma Talmadge, make-up legend Ern Westmore, “Golden Girls” star Estelle Getty, and scream queen Fay Wray. Legendary mobster Bugsy Siegel is also at Hollywood Forever, however the mausoleum that he is interred in is closed on Saturdays.
In 1999, when Hollywood Forever turned 100, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and earlier this year it became a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. In addition to still being an active cemetery, Hollywood Forever also plays host to events such as film screenings, a large Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, concerts and even yoga. Located near many film studios, the place is also a popular filming location. Movies and TV shows such as “The Prestige,” “L.A. Story,” and “American Horror Story: Hotel” have filmed here.
Hollywood Forever is free to visit, but if you want a little aid finding the stars, a map is available for purchase. Interested in taking one of Bible’s tours? You can purchase tickets on Bible’s website, cemeterytour.com. I highly recommend taking Bible’s tour, as it is informative, efficient (you won’t get lost!) and she is truly a joy to talk to!
See the stars and more at Hollywood Forever at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard (aka Route 66) in Los Angeles.