|Thursday, October 12, 2000
More Than a Passing Fancy
Call them weird or macabre, but members of the group Hollywood
Underground are deadly serious about their hobby: celebrity grave
hunting in L.A.'s star-filled cemeteries.
MILLER, Times Staff Writer
J. Watson Garman knows people think he is weird.
People above ground anyway.
"They find out
about it and say, 'Whoa! I think I'll stand over here [away from
you]," said Garman, a Venice resident.
The 53-year-old freelance photographer is a
member of the Hollywood Underground, a group that is accustomed to
reactions of wide-eyed disbelief to their hobby of celebrity grave
hunting. At least once a month, the group of a couple dozen members
meets at a Los Angeles area cemetery to look for new grave sites and to
revisit the final resting places of some of Hollywood's greatest
like many group members, keeps careful records of his graveside travels.
He photographs each new celebrity-related grave and writes down any
pertinent information that his diligent research can dig up about the
He then meticulously catalogs the bounty in a
three-ring notebook. (Most younger members record the information on
their Web pages.) Each letter gets its own binder. His "B"
notebook is as thick as a dictionary.
"My wife thinks I'm crazy," he
admitted. "But is this so different than going to a wine auction
and paying $5,000 for a bottle?"
Besides, Garman maintains, they aren't the real
"Compared to the Trekkies, we're like the
Salvation Army," he said. "But I have to say there is a real
nut element to this and they are the ones that give us a bad name."
The "nuts" are the ones who crash
graveyards at night. (Hollywood Underground doesn't. Graveyards are
closed and it's hard to find a head marker in the dark anyway.) The nuts
dress in black. (Actually, some Hollywood Underground members dress in
black, but it's not a prerequisite for joining or participating.)
The nuts, Garman said, usually don't have
jobs or social lives. (Most Hollywood Underground members have both.)
And, in perhaps the most important distinction, the nuts sever the heads
off small animals. (Hollywood Underground doesn't. Indeed, many report
having happy pets.)
"Once we found a headless chicken
behind a gravestone," said Steve Goldstein, a Hollywood Underground
member finishing up a book called "Southern California's Graves of
the Famous, the Infamous and the Just Plain Dead." "I mean,
we're not doing satanic rituals here. We're just normal people with an
Hollywood Underground is certainly not the
only group that chases down dead celebrities. By far, the largest tribe
of grave hunter-gatherers is made up of tourists. Camera-toting
looky-loos from around the globe frequent many of the Los Angeles area's
half dozen or so major cemeteries.
"It's one thing to see where Lucy
[Lucille Ball] lived," said Steve Okin of Los Angeles, who is not a
member of the Hollywood Underground. "It's another to be standing
where she is now. These places are filled with tourists."
Several years ago, Okin helped develop
"The Original Map to the Stars' Bones" after attending a
funeral and noticing the scads of bused-in folks photographing long-gone
celebs. The map, available for sale over the Internet at http://www.graveconcerns.com,
provides the "star-studded" locations of about 350 graves.
Tourists, however, are relative
fair-weather fans in the world of celebrity grave hunting. For
determination, persistence and organization, it's hard to beat Hollywood
On a recent Sunday afternoon, members
endured 100-degree-plus temperatures to tour one of their favorite
haunts, Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale. The cemetery, which Jack
Paar once quipped was "Disneyland for shut-ins," reads like an
all-star lineup of entertainment greats. Members passed by Walt Disney,
Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr. and Errol Flynn, to name just a very
"You get closer to them in death than
you ever would have in life," said Goldstein, whose findings from
his many graveyard shifts can be seen at http://www.beneathlosangeles.com.
"In a graveyard, you're only 6 feet away."
Sometimes, in cemeteries like Forest Lawn
in Glendale, it's hard to get even 6 feet away. Many celebrities,
including Mary Pickford, Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell, are buried
behind walls with locked iron gates and doors. It takes a special key to
enter, which only cemetery staff, family members and close friends may
In fact, among the Los Angeles area
cemeteries, Forest Lawn in Glendale is probably the least accommodating
to the pursuit of celebrity grave hunting. The graveyard's locked gates
and strict policies have earned it the nickname the "Ft. Knox of
For instance, its Great Mausoleum--resting
place of W.C. Fields, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow--allows visitors to
grieve for their specific loved one, but then they must leave
immediately. No wandering or snooping around for celebrities.
Such a policy, which is designed to
protect the privacy and the dignity of the departed, leaves little room
for Hollywood Underground members to maneuver. Members try to sneak in
quietly, but nearly every member has a tale about being chased off by
Forest Lawn staff.
"There's one [staff member] I avoid
as much as I can," said Anne Parisi, 33, of San Diego. "She
doesn't put up with anything. She can tell who you are and what you are
Most members would probably stay away but
can't, because the Glendale cemetery inters most of old Hollywood's most
"It's hard to believe they would have
spent their life working to be famous and then would want to disappear
from the public eye just because they are gone," said Garman,
voicing a common grave hunter defense.
It's a defense members have had a lifetime
to prepare. Many acquired a fascination for and comfort with cemeteries
As a youngster growing up near Boston,
Goldstein remembers visiting the gravestones of Paul Revere, John
Hancock and Louisa May Alcott. Then he collected headstone rubbings--a
kind of signature produced by putting a piece of paper upon a headstone
and lightly penciling over it.
"I had cousins who lived across the
street from a cemetery and we used to play there," said the sales
manager for a payroll company whose offices are across the street from
Holy Cross Cemetery. "I guess I never grew out of it."
Group member Lisa Burks has enjoyed
soaking up the tranquil atmosphere of cemeteries since visiting the
graves of her grandmother and grandfather as a preteen in Michigan.
"I always found it very peaceful in
cemeteries," said Burks, 39, a press manager for NBC Entertainment.
"For me, it's like gardening or going to the beach with a
The other common thread among members is a
love for old Hollywood. There's scarcely a member that can't rattle off
the pictures of Jean Harlow or Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
"Sometimes, I think some of us don't
even belong in this era," said Parisi, who regularly vacations out
of state to track down celebrities, most recently Jackie Gleason in
Florida. "It's nice to watch an old movie where you can use your
imagination. There was no sex, no violence and it usually was a nice,
"I think it's our way of hanging onto
the past," she added.
If group members did live in an earlier
time, they probably would never have met. The group was formed a few
years ago over the Internet. Before finding one another via Web sites
and chat rooms, they thought they were solitary souls.
"I used to go alone to cemeteries all
the time," said Burks. "I used to be embarrassed about it, but
then I found out I wasn't the only one."
In addition to new friends, graveyards
have also taught members important life lessons, they said. Burks
recalled visiting the grave of former NBC President Brandon Tartikoff at
Mount Sinai Memorial Park.
Burks, who began her NBC career as a page,
never worked closely with Tartikoff but always admired him, particularly
for his kind treatment of lowly pages. Tartikoff died in 1997 of
complications of Hodgkin's disease.
"I looked at his grave and it was a
celebrity grave," said Burks, who brought flowers from the NBC rose
garden. "But it really hit me what a tragedy and a loss it was this
man was gone.
"I realized in a cemetery everybody
is a somebody to somebody. There are faces and stories behind every
gravestone," she added. "It was really sad and touching. It
really put me more in contact with life, standing in the cemetery that
Members Leave Flowers, Tend to Grave Sites
Though group members use photography in
their hobby, they are more than graveyard paparazzi. It's not uncommon
for members to leave flowers by their favorite stars' graves. And before
taking photos, members typically clean up the site.
"I used to wash them off with
water," said Parisi. "But then I found WD-40. It makes the
picture come out better."
Members realize that other graveside
visitors might not appreciate their pastime and therefore try to be as
courteous as possible. "If a funeral is in progress," said
Garman. "We give them a wide berth. We don't want to disturb
But he admits other celebrity grave
hunters aren't so well-behaved. "I've seen some loud disruptive
types," he added. "I've seen them climbing on Bette Davis'
grave [Forest Lawn Memorial-Park Hollywood Hills]. That's just
Over time, members develop loyalties to
certain cemeteries and graves. Goldstein prizes the Douglas Fairbanks
Sr. grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Burks' No. 1 is Jean Harlow's
site at Forest Lawn Glendale.
"I guess my favorite would be Al
Jolson [at Hillside Memorial Park]," said Parisi. "He's got a
big waterfall and that little sculpture. I guess basically you could say
he proved you can take it with you."
In contrast to Forest Lawn Glendale,
members have grown to appreciate the openness of other L.A.-area
cemeteries. For instance, Holy Cross Cemetery--containing the graves of
Bing Crosby, Bela Lugosi and Rita Hayworth--and Hillside Memorial--the
resting place of Lorne Greene, Jack Benny and Michael Landon--publish
lists and locations of the many stars within their friendly confines.
In fact, some cemeteries are so appealing
to members that they have made arrangements to take up permanent
residence. Goldstein bought a crypt for himself at Hollywood Forever,
where he'll join Tyrone Power, John Huston, Rudolph Valentino and Mel
Blanc. "It has a lake and it's real nice," said Goldstein.
"I liked the idea of being in the wall and not in the ground where
worms can eat me--though I guess I won't know the difference."
* * *
Places of the Stars Here are some places to do some stargazing
during daylight hours.
Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, 712 S. Glendale
Ave., Glendale, (800) 204-3131. 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, until 5 p.m.
after Oct. 29. Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Pickford, Spencer
Tracy, Dorothy Dandridge.
Forest Lawn Memorial-Park Hollywood Hills,
6300 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles, (800) 204-3131. 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
daily, 5 p.m. after Oct. 29. Bette Davis, Liberace, Lucille Ball,
Scatman Crothers, Jack Webb.
Hillside Memorial Park, 6001 Centinela
Ave., Culver City, (310) 641-0707. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Closed
Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Al Jolson, Michael Landon, Dinah Shore,
Lorne Greene, Moe Howard.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa
Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 469-1181. 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Rudolph Valentino, John Huston, Cecil B. DeMille, Tyrone Power, Mel
Holy Cross Cemetery, 5835 Slauson Ave.,
Culver City, (310) 670-7697. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Bing Crosby, Bela
Lugosi, John Candy, Lawrence Welk, Jimmy Durante.
Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 5950 Forest
Lawn Drive, Los Angeles, (323) 469-6000. 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday to
Friday. Phil Silvers, Irwin Allen, "Mama" Cass Elliot, Totie
Fields, Lee J. Cobb
Westwood Village Memorial Park, 1218
Glendon Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1579. 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Natalie Wood, Dean Martin, Jim Backus.
* Source "Map of the Stars'
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