From the San Diego Union Tribune 9/6/01

Mourning glory | Nearly forgotten celebrity cemetery in Hollywood rises from the dead with groundbreaking attractions

By Norma Meyer, Copley News Service

HOLLYWOOD -- Under a festive red canopy, not far from the concession stand selling popcorn and pita-wrapped provolone, young hipsters sip merlot at a raffle table. The winner gets a once-in-an- after-lifetime prize: a cremation niche for his or her ashes, just feet from Rudolph Valentino's crypt. The hopefuls drop their sweepstakes tickets into a fishbowl, then join the dozens of picnickers sitting on blankets and in lawn chairs adjacent to Douglas Fairbanks' imposing marble tomb. There are, just for starters, a veiled woman in funeral black, a public access TV host in giant sombrero and a man in a Boy Scout shirt who drove up in a white hearse. As the sun sets and tiki torches flicker, it's time for the showing of Valentino's "Blood and Sand." Only it's not on a movie screen, but on the side of a mausoleum where the dearly departed are housed. This is Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a boneyard so way-cool, it's been called Disneyland of the Dead. On these otherworldly, palm tree- dotted premises -- where legends such as Cecil B. DeMille, Tyrone Power and Peter Lorre are buried -- there are birthday parties, political fund-raisers and weddings. This night, there's a silent film to mark the 75th anniversary of the death of Valentino, one of the 90,000 permanent guests. "It's the best way to celebrate his life," says Tyler Cassity, the soft-spoken 31-year-old owner of this tombstone Tinseltown. "We're showing movies every day about other people." Cassity is referring to Hollywood Forever Studios, also on these hallowed grounds. In an old Masonic lodge, "producers" and "editors" mesh musical scores, home movies and photos to create video biographies of everyday people before or after they pass on. Those tributes, which are shown at funerals, can also be viewed in the Hollywood Forever Theater, over the Internet or at several ATM-like talking touch screens at the memorial park. (One is in the gift shop, where Hollywood Forever coffee mugs sell for $10). Step inside the airy sunflower-adorned lobby of the funeral home. Rather than a Bible, "Films of the Fifties" is on a coffee table for the grief-stricken to peruse. And behind the reception desk is Samantha Tibbs, who came straight to her job at the cemetery from the Hollywood Angels, a hot-oil wrestling troupe. Tibbs, 34, used to slather her bikini-clad self in slippery Wesson oil and try to pin down men who bid on her for as low as $25. Dealing with the dead is so much better. "It's really a job that gives back to you," she cheerily says.

The story of Hollywood Forever could leap from the silver screen. Cassity, whose father was in the funeral business in Missouri, bought the 102-year-old decaying landmark for a mere $375,000 in 1998. Then called Hollywood Memorial Park, it had been taken over by the state because the previous owner, Jules Roth -- a shady character swinging enough to have a wet bar in his cemetery office -- allegedly looted endowment funds. The graveyard was so trashed that relatives of makeup mogul Max Factor had his remains dug up and moved elsewhere. Tombstones tilted, mausoleum roofs leaked and weeds hid markers. Cassity, a boyish-looking English lit grad, took one glance at the ghostly compound abutting Paramount Studios and in the shadow of the famous Hollywood sign and thought it the most magical place he had ever seen. Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, lies here, his headstone engraved with the sign-off, "That's All Folks!" This is also the final resting place of Oscar winners Peter Finch, Paul Muni, director John Huston and first-ever Best Actress Janet Gaynor. Other VIPs who RIP include Eleanor Powell, Nelson Eddy, movie pioneer Jesse Lasky and mobster Bugsy Siegel. Carl Switzer, the freckle-faced "Alfalfa" of "Our Gang" comedies, was buried here after being shot dead at age 32. His former co-star, Darla Hood, is entombed in a vault not far from "Wizard of Oz" director Victor Fleming. In another corridor, a plaque on Oscar nominee Joan Hackett's crypt reads, "Go Away -- I'm Asleep." "There have been such immense improvements," marvels 62-year-old Lee Hommel, fondly known as The Duck Man. A "regular," he rides the bus daily to feed the quackers on Hollywood Forever's lake. Hommel used to rub elbows with breathing stars at the Beverly Hills hotel where he was a bellman. Cassity loves the tourists. His company also owns cemeteries in Missouri, one of which has a visitor-friendly fitness walk. And because his philosophy is about celebrating lives, he wants everybody in death to have a close-up, "like an A&E Biography." So far, Hollywood Forever Studios has produced about 12,000 mini- documentaries. "It seems so much more powerful than a casket or tombstone," Cassity says. For those who have not yet bit the dust, especially for this techno-savvy generation, "there is something attractive to be able to leave and control what is said about them." Steve Goldstein, 44, is alive and kicking. The healthy Redondo Beach payroll executive bought a crypt at Hollywood Forever and had a biopic made of his life with his own music as background. Goldstein's movie, which can be screened at his funeral, includes highlights about his college days as an aspiring rock star and his hobby of sending out wacky holiday cards. "It appealed to my whole stupid ego," he says with a laugh. The biography, which like others begins with the credit, "Hollywood Forever Presents," ends with Goldstein delivering a message for the future. "Life is short," he waxes on. "Enjoy it while you can." "We describe it as filling in that dash between the date of birth and the date of death," says Jay Boileau, a boyhood friend of Cassity's and the cemetery's technology guru. Boileau used to be a country music video producer. o o o o o o "Please press `Help' for instructions at any time," commands the talking rock. Bandleader Nelson Riddle's name is entered, and the still of the cemetery is shattered by Frank Sinatra crooning, "I've Got You Under My Skin." Riddle's star-studded bio is stored in kiosks with thousands of lesser-known souls, such as the Mexican immigrant who loved motorcycles and the Chile-born grandmother who made luscious empanadas. The cemetery also does live Web casts of funerals, so relatives of the heavily immigrant clientele -- many are Russians, Armenians, Asians and Latinos -- can watch from other countries. Online mourners can chat about the deceased as they view the service. Some in the funeral biz find all of this way too tacky. "A death in the family is not necessarily a dot-com experience or a media event," bristles Thomas Lynch, a renowned Michigan funeral director and author of the book "The Undertaking." "It's all cartoon and caricature and a little bit corny, until it's your mother who's dead." Cassity is proud to be the grooviest gravedigger around. And, he says, he's doing everything he can to ensure that Hollywood Forever - - where "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" has filmed -- is an uplifting hangout. Next month, there's a concert honoring big-band icon Woody Herman, whose remains will be moved from a low-rent crypt to better digs. And at the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead, Aztec warriors will dance and actor Edward James Olmos will receive a community award. On this evening, where in 1926 tens of thousands of fans lined the cemetery for Valentino's interment, the music of Ella Fitzgerald fills the air and picnickers await the matinee idol's movie. Bob Mitchell, 88, soon starts playing the organ, just like he did as a teen-ager in the theater for Valentino films. "This is terrific," raves software executive Jeffrey Saadeh, 41. He and friends are feasting on shrimp cocktail and pannini with proscuitto. "Fresh air, good food and . . . " he says, looking over the monuments and tombstones in this infamous city of the dead. "Good company."