Graveyard groupies In Hollywood cemeteries, stars are only 6 feet away


April 30, 1998 GLENDALE -- Outside Forest Lawn's exclusive Great Mausoleum, where inside Carole Lombard, in a white gown designed by famous fashion designer Irene, rests next to Clark Gable and Jean Harlow's crypt is inscribed "Our Baby," the graveyard groupies pored over their most wanted dead celebrities list. "I've got to find Gene Kelly," vowed Anne Parisni, a 30-year-old San Diego restaurateur who was on a "hunt" with five cohorts. "Nobody knows where he is. Everybody is looking for him." Kelly, of course, has taken his last curtain call in this realm, which gives him a certain panache with this crowd. Celebrity graves are increasingly a top draw, keeping cemetery caretakers jumping, and creating an underground industry where tours, Web sites, books and even family vacations are devoted to finding famous earthly remains. On a recent warm Sunday afternoon, Parisni's camera-clutching battalion was maneuvering on a repeat visit around what the group dubs the "Fort Knox of cemeteries." Of the 18 or so Los Angeles-area burial grounds that boast VIPs who are R.I.P., the sprawling 300-acre Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale has by far the largest roster. But the eternal home for legends such as Humphrey Bogart and W.C. Fields is also the biggest challenge for looky-loos, since it's the only one that takes pains to chase them off and keeps some of its dearly departed behind locked gates. "Get David and Myron Selznick," ordered Parisni's colleague, Garden Grove homemaker Karen McHale, as a crypt commando snapped a photo of the filmmaking brothers' tomb. The funereal funsters had easily slipped around a chain inside the Great Mausoleum to get to an off-limits hallway. Such tactics aren't usually necessary. Most final resting places welcome admirers of Tinseltown's perished players and even provide helpful lists. Tyler Cassity, the new owner of the historic Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, where Rudolph Valentino and Tyrone Power are interred, gushed about his plans to make the landmark a "virtual cemetery," where visitors can view biographies of the long gone by pressing what will look like "an ATM screen." Even the living can't resist preparing for their headline death. Playboy guru Hugh Hefner already picked out his crypt -- right next to Marilyn Monroe's at Westwood Memorial Park. The late sexpot's pink marble vault -- which is always adorned by fans' flowers and simply says "Marilyn Monroe, 1926-1962" -- is a shade darker than others nearby because of the oil from so many hands touching it, said cemetery manager Nancy Fenderson. "Many, many years ago, I heard that someone jumped over a fence at night to get to her," Fenderson said. This day, Dean Martin seemed to be the object of someone's affection. Four smudged burnt orange lipstick kisses covered his wall crypt in the "Sanctuary of Love." Cardboard lips-on-a-stick jutted out of a flower receptacle, and on the ground below was a vase from an unknown admirer with a dozen red roses and a card that said, "With love always, Frances." Martin's epitaph reads, "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime." "We should have pulled the car up. We have the tape of his," said Thad Szpunar, a 48-year-old psychologist visiting from Barrington, Ill. In his hand, he held a cassette of "Dean Martin's All-Time Greatest Hits" featuring "That's Amore." Szpunar, dressed in a straw hat and Hawaiian shirt, was with his aunt, his two teen-age kids and his 7-year-old daughter, who had long braids and wore a pink Minnie Mouse shirt as she traipsed by Burt Lancaster and Donna Reed and eyed Heather O'Rourke. O'Rourke, whose crypt says, "Carol Anne -- Poltergeist I, ll, III," died in San Diego in 1988 at age 12 of an intestinal blockage after starring in the demon-tormented films. A faded pink Elmo doll eerily adorned her grave, which is adjacent to Truman Capote. The Szpunar troupe, with 65-year-old aunt Maria Peters aided by a cane, had already combed eight cemeteries in recent days. But don't call them sickos. "I'm a movie buff. These are like my old friends," said Peters, a Treasure Island, Fla., resident. Szpunar was toting the grave guide to the famous, "Final Curtain," by Everett Jarvis, which he had also carried when he and his family politely asked Glendale Forest Lawn employees where a few luminaries were. "They told us to get lost. They almost confiscated my book," he groused. A short time earlier at Westwood Memorial, 45 Belgian tourists hopped off a bus and made a beeline to stare stonily at Monroe's grave. Few probably noticed the man above the screen goddess, a nonceleb named Richard F. Poncer, who died more than two decades after Marilyn at the age of 81. "You're One in a Million, Freddie," his marker declares. From Monroe, whose grave was graced weekly by roses from ex-husband Joe DiMaggio for 20 years, the Belgian guests filed over to the lawn to gawk at Natalie Wood's tablet. It was sprinkled with 21 shiny pennies. "West Side Story! West Side Story!" were the only words the hyper tour guide said in English. Back in Glendale, the veteran searchers, who've picked through the same cemeteries for years, were just starting. McHale, 29, who runs a graveyard Web site called Hollywood Underground, and who organized the hunt, pushed open an unlocked gate inside the Great Mausoleum and crept down a hallway to steal a glance at Harlow, Irving Thalberg and Alexander Pantages. "You're talking to someone who doesn't even jaywalk," said the flushed mother of a 3-year-old girl. She explained her obsession this way: "My running joke is that it's the closest you'll ever get to a movie star. They're only 6 feet away." About this time, McHale's husband, Matt, a 31-year-old engineering planner, excitedly ran down the hallway. "Karen! Give me your camera! He's found Carolyn Jones! She's way up above!" In another aisle, a beaming 31-year-old Chris Martin of El Cajon stood on a scaffolding, face-to-face with a tiny plaque. The find, though, turned out to be a bust. It wasn't really Morticia of "The Addams Family," but another Carolyn Jones. McHale would later deride Martin as a disrespectful "idiot" for climbing on the ladder, and on a statue on a garden wall to find Joan Blondell. She says she strongly disapproves of such behavior. Forest Lawn prohibits photo taking inside the mausoleums, and cemetery officials frown on any celebrity grave beholding, whatsoever. Yet, the memorial park, which bills itself as "The World's Most Famous Private Cemetery," also seems to deliberately titillate those it wants to get lost. "We respect the families and survivors of the deceased," said Forest Lawn spokesman Dick Fisher. "We do acknowledge, of course, that many celebrities of Hollywood are buried here." Then, he rattled off a laundry list of clients, from George Burns to Walt Disney and Errol Flynn to Spencer Tracy. "They're hard to find, yeah -- we don't give you any clues," he said, with what sounded like a snicker. Headstone hunters are not deterred. "It took me a long time to find Rick Nelson, but I finally found him," Jim Maze, a 45-year-old mail carrier, said from his home in San Diego. "In fact it took me five years." Maze, who started his ghoulish hobby at age 17 and has more than 500 graves on video and stills, ultimately discovered Nelson at the 413-acre Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills cemetery. Lucille Ball, Bette Davis and Stan Laurel are among the dozens of notables buried there. Fascination with expired bigwigs can hatch a career. After he moved to Los Angeles from Kansas City, Mo., in 1985, former paramedic Greg Smith set about to find the grave of Jerome "Curly" Howard, one of "The Three Stooges" and a boyhood idol. When he found Curly in the Home of Peace Memorial Park in East Los Angeles, Smith said he was awe-struck, thinking "the guy who gave me so many laughs is 4 feet away, under the concrete here." Soon, Smith, 45, formed his own company, Grave Line Tours, which takes sightseers in a hearse to the scenes of celebrity deaths. Smith, whose job title is "director of undertakings" also hands out maps of cemeteries, but doesn't go there because "it wouldn't be cool to drive through with a tour and someone is burying their mother." McHale and the others usually go about their business quietly, even bringing flowers for long-forgotten stars. It's much easier at Hillside Memorial Park near Westchester, which provides a map and a list titled "Permanent Residents" that includes Jack Benny, Al Jolson and mobster Mickey Cohen. Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City -- where Bing Crosby is buried six plots down from Bela Lugosi (who was interred in his black Dracula cape) and John Candy is in the mausoleum two spots above Fred MacMurray -- also gives out written celebrity locations. By the end of their outing in Glendale, the graveyard groupies had found a number of sought-afters, including Blondell, singer Russ Columbo and Kay Spreckels Gable, Clark's fifth wife. "This was a good hunt," said a pleased Matt McHale. "We got a lot of people we didn't get before." Tapdancing Kelly, however, was still missing in action -- a superstar quarry for yet another day.