Hollywood Forever: The Story of an LA Icon

Hollywood Forever Cemetery


Even your permanent resting place can be a status symbol — and no cemetery proves that better than Hollywood Forever. Tons of celebs and semi-famous types are buried on its grounds, from old school movie stars and publishing titans to rockers and even a couple of gangsters. The cemetery is also a social hub, hosting one of the city's most popular outdoor movie screening series. Consider it a thoroughly modern case of adaptive reuse.

Getting There

Hollywood Forever's charms are somewhat hidden. Drive by and you might barely notice it, unless you're trying to make your way past the line of cars snaking out onto Santa Monica Boulevard some Saturday night. (More on that later.) Tucked off of a busy stretch a few blocks east of Vine Street, it's easily accessible by bus. Visitors can tour the grounds for free from Monday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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The Original Entrance, built in 1901 - Chapel, Office and Bell Tower. The original chapel is still standing. | Photo: Hollywood Forever, Facebook

A Little History

Founded as Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery in 1899, when filmmaking wasn't yet an industry, it grew along with the movie business. In fact, the original owners — Isaac Lankershim and his son-in-law Isaac Van Nuys — sold swaths of their land to Paramount and RKO. No wonder so many studio heads are buried there. By the 1980s, it had fallen into disrepair, thanks to crooked owner Jules Roth, an oil swindler and convicted felon. The 1994 Northridge earthquake further damaged several crypts. When Roth died in 1998, it became apparent how many financial and physical problems the cemetery had.

Modern Revival

In 1998, brothers Tyler and Brent Cassity bought the property. They poured millions into renovations, renamed it Hollywood Forever and began hosting events and tours. The renaissance kicked into high gear when outdoor movie nights debuted in 2002. It wasn't all roses. Brent, along with Cassity patriarch Doug and several partners in their company, were indicted for fraud in the pre-need funeral business.

Hollywood Forever was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 1999.

Cinespia at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Cinespia at Hollywood Forever Cemetery | Photo: Cinespia, Facebook

Movie Night

You might catch Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom or the 1944 film noir Double Indemnity at Cinespia, the al fresco movie series. Screenings occur on the Fairbanks Lawn after sunset. Bring blankets, food, booze and low chairs as you and your friends picnic the night away. The screenings, which run from May through September on Saturday (and sometimes other) nights, are extremely popular. Buy your tickets in advance and arrive early!

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Silversun Pickups perform in the Masonic Lodge | Photo by Debi Del Grande - courtesy of Hollywood Forever, Facebook

Cultural Calendar

On the grounds sits the old Masonic Lodge, which now plays home to concerts, comedy shows and movie screenings. It's a great midsize venue that makes big-time acts like Chvrches and Garbage feel intimate while giving smaller acts a larger stage to play on.

Dia de los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Dia de los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetery | Photo: RebecaAR, Flickr

Dia de los Muertos

Americans have Halloween. Mexico has Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a tradition that dates back to the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mesoamerica. What better place to honor that tradition than in a cemetery? Hollywood Forever's annual Dia De Los Muertos celebration has become a day-long festival with gorgeous altars, decorated calaveras (skulls), bands, Aztec dancers, a ritual procession and more.

Clark Family Mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Clark Family Mausoleum at Hollywood Forever | Photo: Michael Locke, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

Who's Who (And Where)

There are hundreds of famous and formerly folks buried in Hollywood Forever. On its website, the cemetery offers an interactive map, conveniently divided into categories such as actors, musicians, etc., that details their locations. Here's a sampling.

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel - His life wasn't long (41 years) but it was action-packed. The bootlegger, hitman and mobster helped develop the Las Vegas strip before it all caught up with him. In 1947, he was shot through the window of his Beverly Hills home by an unknown killer.

Bob Guccione - Who knows what the Penthouse magazine founder is reading (or who he's ogling) in the afterlife.

Estelle Getty - Thank you for being a friend. The "Golden Girls" star was buried here in 2008 after dying at the golden age of 84.

Hattie McDaniel - When the African American actress, best known for playing Mammy in "Gone with the Wind," died in 1952, Roth refused to allow her to be buried at the cemetery, which remained segregated until 1959. In 1999, a cenotaph was dedicated to her just south of the lovely Sylvan Lake.

Jayne Mansfield - The busty actress and early Playboy Playmate (also mom to actress Mariska Hargitay) is actually buried in Pennsylvania but she has a monument here. She died tragically in 1967 at the age of 34 in a car crash.

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Johnny Ramone cenotaph at Hollywood Forever | Photo: Little Ned Pepper, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

Johnny Ramone - The guitarist and co-founder of punk band The Ramones is honored with an 8-foot, bronze statue of him playing guitar but he isn't buried here — yet. His wife is holding onto his ashes and after she dies, the'll both be inurned in the statue. His bandmate Dee Dee Ramone (no relation; Ramone is a stage name) is buried not far away.

Mel Blanc - Famous for voicing Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and countless other animated characters has this famous epitaph on his tombstone: "That's all folks."

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Rudolph Valentino's funeral | Photo courtesy of Hollywood Forever, Facebook

Rudolph Valentino - The Italian-born actor was one of the early heartthrobs of silent films. When he died in 1926 at the age of 31, Valentino had so many fans his New York funeral mass caused a near riot. His body traveled by train to Los Angeles for a second funeral.

Tony Scott - The Top Gun director was laid to rest here in 2012, after he committed suicide by jumping from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro.

William Andrews Clark, Jr. - The philanthropist who founded the LA Phil and helped fund construction of the Hollywood Bowl is buried in the private family mausoleum that he built on the island in Sylvan Lake. His son and both of his wives are also entombed in the mausoleum.

Yma Sumac - The Peruvian-born singer was famous for her five-octave vocal range and exotic image, both of which she showcased on several popular lounge music albums beginning in the 1950s.

Karie Bible is the "Lady in Black" at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Karie Bible is the "Lady in Black" at the annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service | Photo: @cemeterytourguide, Instagram

Walking Tour

One of the best ways to experience Hollywood Forever is by taking a walking tour with Karie Bible (yes, that's her real name). Dressed in a vintage gown from her collection which spans the 1920s through the '50s, Bible takes guests on a two-hour overview of the cemetery and its most famous residents. Bible is also the current "Lady in Black" who honors silent film legend, Rudolph Valentino. 

Tours are $20 per person and can be paid in cash or booked online ($1 extra). Private tours are available and options include the Jewish Heritage tour and Hidden Hollywood. For more info and the schedule of tours, visit cemeterytour.com.

 

Hollywood Forever Cemetery
6000 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles 90038
(323) 469-0181