L.A. Death Trip - Death is a star attraction in the City of Angels

By Mark Besten LEO

October 25, 2000

They don't call it "The City of Angels" for nothing. Life is lived large in Los Angeles, ever since the orange groves of an arid hamlet called Hollywood gave way to the dream factories. In the early 20th Century, the actors and musicians who gravitated there wasted no time in taking their places as de facto American royalty: They played their real-life roles extravagantly in public view, and when their time came, they died -- sometimes even more extravagantly. Little has changed in the intervening years. Today, some foresighted and PR-savvy celebrities secretly hope for a poignant and memorable death, so as to extend their posthumous popularity for many years to come. Ah, death ... THAT'S entertainment! Of course, death in Hollywood is remarkably similar to death practically anywhere else -- only much more so. The distinction puts me in mind of a classic one-liner tossed off by a poet friend at Transylvania University. Like many students in the artsy cliques at Transy in the late 1970s, my friend had grown weary of the endless campus tributes to the quiet courage of a Transy basketball player (we'll call him Randy Stevenson here) who had recently died of leukemia. "Jim Morrison," observed the poet, "is deader than Randy Stevenson will ever be." Certainly many dead celebrities do seem much more dead than regular dead folk, and the manner, place and cause of death -- whether natural, accidental, homicidal or suicidal -- have the power to capture the imagination in ways that the demise of ordinary mortals simply do not. This phenomenon helps explain the popularity of a quirky Los Angeles attraction once known as the Grave Line Tour. Established in 1987 by eccentric entrepreneur Greg Smith, the Grave Line Tour was a crowd-pleasing expedition done in deliberately poor taste. Passengers were driven through the 902-something ZIP codes of Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Hollywood and shown the homes and hangouts of the stars -- provided the stars died colorfully there. That the Grave Line tourists were conveyed in a vintage hearse added immeasurably to the tour's campy sensibility. I first read "Hollywood Babylon," film historian Kenneth Anger's definitive tome on the subject of celebrity death, at the tender age of 13. My last visit to L.A. was in 1982, at which time I made self-guided pilgrimages to a few of the area's most sensational locales -- notably the former sites of the Spahn Movie Ranch where Charles Manson and his brood of murderers and misfits hung out and and the residence of Roman Polanski and wife Sharon Tate, scene of one of the Manson "family's" most brutal murder rampages. (Vincent Bugliosi's epic chronicle of the Charles Manson phenomenon, "Helter Skelter," vies with Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" for top honors on my true crime bookshelf.) So, when it appeared that another story would take me to L.A. in early summer, I eagerly made plans to go "Grave lining." With considerable dismay, I learned that Greg Smith had put the Grave Line Tour on indefinite hiatus, citing professional burnout. I poked around on the Web and eventually located an excursion known as Oh Heavenly Tour. Querying, I was informed that Oh Heavenly Tour, in fact, made the same stops as the Grave Line Tour. Curtis Duncan, a former Grave Line driver, had purchased the proprietary tape-recorded narrative and a 1971 Cadillac hearse from Smith, although Smith refused to sell the Grave Line brand name in anticipation of someday resuming his own tour operations. Thrilled with my discovery, I booked a spot on Oh Heavenly Tour at a cost of $40. I've missed a few buses in my day, but when that Friday morning arrived I had the unique opportunity to miss my hearse. The e-mailed arrangements called for passengers to meet in front of Ubon, a tres chic restaurant adjacent to the Beverly Center, which is a multimillion dollar shrine to extremely conspicuous consumption located in the heart of Beverly Hills. I warmly recalled seeing it overrun with molten lava in the Tommy Lee Jones turkey, "Volcano." Arriving shortly before the appointed time of 11 a.m., I discovered Ubon actually has two entrances; from where I stood I couldn't see the other. I paced back and forth between the doors but found no tourists in either spot. Soon, a young Ubon employee appeared, knocked on the door and stood waiting to be admitted to the not-yet-open restaurant. "Excuse me," I began in my best Lost Tourist manner. "Do you know where the hearse stops for Oh Heavenly Tour?" She knocked again, this time more urgently. Her frightened expression told me that she either didn't understand English or didn't care to hear talk of hearses with a very large man pacing the streets of the Beverly Center. At 11:30 I concluded that I'd missed the hearse by being in the wrong spot or -- since it seemed I was the day's only fare -- the driver simply hadn't bothered to show. The latter possibility seemed more likely when I reached Curtis Duncan by telephone and had difficulty convincing him to reschedule my tour for Monday morning; there were no other passengers booked for Monday either. After telling a few tiny fibs about the editorial reach of LEO, and the huge numbers of Louisvillians who'd soon be jetting out to the coast as a result of my story, I had Duncan agreeing to take me on a private tour Monday. And, come Monday, I was psyched. About half an hour before the appointed time, tooling through the immaculate streets of downtown Beverly Hills in a rental car under an azure sky that seemed surprisingly free of smog, I was cheerfully heading for a dead celebrity tour that I'd wanted to take for most of my adult life. It was then that I experienced what monologue artist Spalding Gray would call a "Perfect Moment" -- the voice of Randy Newman singing "I Love L.A." floated from the car radio that was tuned to a classic-rock station. And boy, did I ever. At that point I wanted to call Louisville and have all my belongings shipped out to me. I now knew exactly where to wait for the hearse, and Duncan was right on time. He was in his late 20s, TV handsome (in fact, he said he had a few small acting credits, plus an album of original music) and laid back in a way that only a Columbus, Ohio, transplant in Southern California had any right to be. I settled into the hearse's back seat, and soon we were chugging slowly down Beverly Boulevard. "It has its problems," Duncan allowed of the coughing deathmobile, which lacked a working air conditioner. It was warm in Los Angeles (as a huge "Dragnet" fan, I've always wanted to say that), so I took Duncan up on his offer to crack a window. I happened to notice the El Coyote restaurant, where Sharon Tate, Sebring and other friends had their last meal on the night of the fateful visit by the Manson followers. But Duncan didn't say anything -- it wasn't officially on the tour -- so I furtively snapped a picture without mentioning the restaurant's significance. I didn't want Duncan to think I was a hot dog. The tour began in the older sections of Hollywood, and some of the first stops had only thin, if any, connections to death. I didn't care since they were all very cool: the tree-lined street where Jamie Lee Curtis babysat in "Halloween," the Cunninghams' house from "Happy Days" (snow machines were used to make it look like Milwaukee); and the house (with the giant picture window) where Kim Basinger's "L.A. Confidential" character lived. Next up was the suburban residential hotel where Divine (star of the John Waters films "Pink Flamingos" and "Hairspray") died in his sleep. Duncan shared the irony that the comic actor was Grave Line owner Greg Smith's first death-tour customer and was now himself featured on Duncan's. I also saw the street corner where William Frawley (Fred Mertz on "I Love Lucy") -- described by the tape-recorded narrator as a far-gone drunk -- collapsed and died, falling to the pavement with a thud (a sound-effect 'splat' on the tape here). In a particularly seedy section of Hollywood, the hearse rolled to a stop at an intersection where a street person locked eyes with me. "Hey, big man," he called playfully, "where's the body?" As we rounded the bend on the Sunset Strip, Duncan pointed out Shoreham Towers near the super-sized Tower Records. The Shoreham is the high-rise where Art Linkletter's daughter Diane, thinking she could fly, defenestrated herself and fell to her death (acid-heads do the darndest things). I was fascinated to learn that the man -- one Edward Durston -- who was with her when she believed she'd rewritten the law of gravity also was in the company of buxom Carol Wayne (the Matinee Lady on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show") when she drowned under highly suspicious circumstances in Mexico. Another former resident of Shoreham Towers was one-time Soviet ballet star Alexander Godunov, who defected to the United States, had a second career as an actor and finally did "Die Hard" there, ostensibly of end-stage alcoholism. Tabloid headlines suggested a more controversial cause of death. When we stopped at the apartment building where actor Jack Cassidy (TV's "He and She") perished in a penthouse fire -- he "burned like a crispy critter," the tape's narrator intoned -- Duncan told me that he once drove Cassidy's son, 1970s teen idol Shaun Cassidy, on the tour. "So, do people ever get offended by this tour?" Cassidy asked him. Duncan replied (somewhat nervously, I gathered) that humor helped to lighten up an otherwise grim subject. And, I found the tour was mostly effective in using humor as an emotional detachment. I chuckled as we approached actor Jack Haley's former home and the taped narrator intoned, "In 'The Wizard of Oz,' the Tin Man got a heart -- and you're about to see where it finally stopped ticking." On the other hand, the narrator was not without his groaners, as when we sidled up to the final home of Jack Webb of "Dragnet" fame: "Here's where Friday died on Thursday." As the hearse edged into Bel Air, I enjoyed a moment of pride in my commonwealth when the narrator pointed out the beautiful home of native Kentuckian Rosemary ("Come on-a My House") Clooney -- although she's not dead yet. Our next stop -- 668 St. Cloud -- had less to do with death than the apocalypse. All I could see of the house there was its mailbox. The tape's narrator said the house number was changed from 666 -- the biblical "mark of the beast" -- to discourage comparisons of the antichrist to the new owner, former President Ronald Reagan. I did mention to Duncan that Ronald Wilson Reagan is an anagram of Insane Anglo Warlord. That didn't make me feel too much like a hot dog, and Duncan trumped me by revealing that, in 1997, the Grave Line Tour stopped for a break in a nearby park and was approached by the former president himself. Indeed, when I got home I found an Associated Press wire story that contained the following bizarre passage, under the headline, "Former President Surprises Tourists." "'Well, well, Grave Line Tours,' Reagan said as he peered inside the group's (hearse) Saturday, according to driver Ray Savage." (God, I would've paid anything to see that.) Next up was the Holmby Hills area, where I got as close as I'll probably ever get to that Mecca of male heterosexuality, the Playboy Mansion. Nobody dead in there, at least not physically -- but Duncan took this opportunity to point out that Bob Fosse's "Star 80" used as its shooting location the actual house in which Paul Snider murdered his wife, Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten. Director Richard Brooks did likewise by shooting 1967's "In Cold Blood" inside the Clutter farmhouse in Holcomb, Kan. The effect in both cases was very, very creepy. As we headed back to the Beverly Center, I asked why two of the most infamous L.A. death sites had not been included on the tour: the site where Sharon Tate died, and the condo where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered. "Can't get the hearse up the hill on Cielo," Duncan said of the steep canyon side where Tate and Polanski had lived in their dream home. The house was demolished in 1994, after Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails had converted the living room into a recording studio he dubbed Le Pig of Beverly Hills. As for Nicole's place, it's way over in Brentwood, and the neighborhood association is quite active when it comes to deterring sightseeing horehounds. The Rockingham house, where O.J. Simpson claimed to have been chipping golf balls when his wife was murdered, was torn down several years ago -- after his 1995 acquittal of the murders of Nicole and Ron Goldman. Winding things up, I thanked Duncan for the personal tour and for taking time to answer my questions. I told him I thought the success of his tour was being stymied by the absence of the Grave Line brand name. There was a certain level of awareness of it nationwide, thanks to frequent media exposure during the O.J. circus. Duncan agreed, but shrugged ruefully that there was little chance of the owner relinquishing it. We shook hands, and I watched him drive away in his hearse. Even in Hollywood, happy endings are never 100-percent certain -- unless your last name happens to be Spielberg. Back home in Louisville as I prepared to write about my experiences on the death tour, I attempted to contact Curtis Duncan to ask a few follow-up questions. I learned that he committed suicide in early September. Those who are quick to judge -- or write narratives to entertain Hollywood site-seers as they make the rounds on a death tour might offer a pithy epitaph such as, "Live by the hearse, die by the hearse." I only knew him for two hours; I don't know his motive or the circumstances that led him to take his life. The future of both the Grave Line Tour and Oh Heavenly Tour is uncertain. Neither is currently offering its services to the public. The writer can be reached at hackwriter@iglou.com