Posted by Susan Doll on May 20, 2013
Last year when I attended the TCM Classic Film Festival, I was hoping to find remnants of the film industry’s mythic, glamorous past. But, Hollywood’s enchanted past is well hidden beneath a tacky veneer of souvenir shops, never-ceasing traffic, noisy crowds, shiny modern buildings, and those would-be “actors” costumed as movie superheroes who stroll up and down Hollywood Boulevard. With the help of some research, I did find the ghosts of Old Hollywood, which lifted my spirits and reminded me that the past is always a part of the present, even if we don’t immediately see it. This year, I went in search of Old Hollywood once again, and some of the “ghosts” I found were literal ones, because I spent an afternoon in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Originally named Hollywood Memorial Park, the cemetery was created in 1899 by wheat developers I.N. Van Nuys and Col. Isaac Lankershim, who designated 100 acres for its use. However, when Paramount built its studio next door, the cemetery lost 40 acres of land. Hollywood Forever is located about two-and-a-half miles from Grauman’s Chinese Theater, meaning it is quite possible to see your favorite classic star’s final resting place, search for his/her star on Hollywood Blvd., and step into their footprints in front of the theater on the same day.
However, I came to the cemetery for the history. And, a lot of legend and lore is represented by the stars who quietly inhabit Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Clues to a star’s career and personality can be found at their final resting place if you know how to look: Where is their grave located? What is the decoration or inscription like? Do fans leave mementos or trinkets? For example, the inscription on the gravestone of Mel Blanc, who was the voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and other Looney Tunes characters, reveals just how much he loved his job. Blanc’s epitaph reads, “That’s all, folks”—the well-known ending to every Looney Tune and Merrie Melodies cartoon that fans recognize instantly. Or, certain monuments spurred me to research the stars, character actors, or notorious celebrities they memorialized, which led to a finer understanding of their careers or the eras they represent. Questions raised by the burial sites of Marion Davies, Carl Alfalfa Switzer, and Virginia Rappe sent me to my reference books where I found some surprising answers. I thought I would share my discoveries about Old Hollywood, focusing on lesser known stars and celebrities today, and the brightest stars from the past in next week’s post.
It was with much excitement that my fellow explorer, Maryann, and I entered the gates of Hollywood Forever. We did not know where to start, so I bought an overpriced map in the “gift shop,” which was not really a gift shop but a place to buy flower arrangements. Likewise, the map wasn’t really a map but a bad diagram. Not surprisingly, it took us a while to find our first star, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, because the map tricked us into believing he was located close to the road. Most film buffs know that Alfalfa, the scrawny freckle-faced kid from The Little Rascals, came to a tragic end. By the mid-1950s, his career was in decline, and he was reduced to appearing in uncredited bit parts. To supplement his income he worked as a bartender, hunting guide, and a breeder of hunting dogs. Some of his clients included Roy Rogers and Jimmy Stewart. (Switzer had a small role in the dance scene in It’s a Wonderful Life.) While arguing with a man over $50 supposedly owed to him because of a lost dog, 31-year-old Switzer pulled out a knife, and the man shot him. Oddly, there is nothing on Switzer’s marker that recalls his Hollywood career; instead, an image of a hunting dog represents his years as a professional dog breeder—and, ironically, the cause of the argument that led to his death. Internet sources claim that the dog is “Petey” of The Little Rascals, but Petey was a pit bull, not a hunting dog or pointer. Carl lies next to his father, G. Fred Switzer, who was the inventor of something called the Switzer Method. The image on Fred’s marker has been described variously as a gasoline pump or a washing machine. However, an unconfirmed source claims that the Switzer Method was a breast enlargement system. Good grief. Carl’s brother, Harold Switzer, is buried on the other side of Fred, but an ordinary rose graces his stone.
Little was made of Carl Switzer’s death on January 21, 1959, but not because his career was in decline. His tragic, unexpected death occurred on the same day that Cecil B. DeMille died of a heart ailment. DeMille had been ill for some time, so his death was more or less expected. Likely his obituaries had already been researched and written, so the famous C.B. completely overshadowed the sudden demise of the largely forgotten Alfalfa. Coincidentally, DeMille is also buried at Hollywood Forever in one of two plain marble sarcophagi. His wife Constance is interred in the other sarcophagi, while his brother William’s remains are in a marble urn, and his sister-in-law Clara is buried in front of them. I have to say I like the Switzer family’s small but personalized markers better. A breast enlarger engraved on a gravestone trumps a marble sarcophagus any day.
Mel Blanc was not the only celebrity to choose an epitaph that is humorous. While it is obvious why Blanc chose the aforementioned “That’s All Folks,” actress Joan Hackett’s crypt marker bears the enigmatic inscription “Go Away—I’m Asleep.” Some suggest it was a nod to her insistence on lengthy periods of beauty sleep during her lifetime. The epitaph on Jayne Mansfield’s marker reads, “We Live to Love You More Each Day,” which may sound odd because it is not a statement written from the perspective of the deceased. Her stone was provided by the Jayne Mansfield Fan Club, and the epitaph certainly represents the fans’ sentiment about their favorite star. In the lower right corner is the word “cenotaph,” which is Greek for “empty tomb.” While the fan club meant well, the date of her birth is incorrect. Mansfield was born in 1933, not 1938. She is buried in Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania, next to her father. Interestingly, the epitaph on her gravestone also reads, “We Live to Love You More Each Day.”
Sometimes, it’s not the epitaphs or images on a star’s marker that make it fascinating; it’s what is left behind by fans. Virginia Rappe, the poster girl for the dark side of life as a Hollywood starlet, is buried near Mansfield’s cenotaph. Rappe died after incurring severe injuries at a three-day party thrown by comedian Fatty Arbuckle over Labor Day weekend in 1921. Arbuckle was accused of raping her behind closed doors, which supposedly led to her injuries. She died of a ruptured bladder five days later, and the corpulent comic was charged with first-degree murder. After three trials, and two hung juries, Arbuckle was acquitted, though his career was ruined. Rappe’s grave marker is currently covered in pink and red heart-shaped stickers. Much speculation exists about what actually happened to Rappe in Arbuckle’s hotel room, with many claiming that the comedian was innocent and unjustly accused. Others feel Rappe’s reputation has been unfairly smeared in efforts to clear Arbuckle. Stories of abortions, bladder conditions, pregnancies, and venereal disease have dogged Rappe for decades. But, however the story is spun, Hollywood buffs see her as a victim of the underbelly of Hollywood, where starlets are exploited and stars get away with murder. The hearts are a valentine to Virginia Rappe and other starlets like her.
At the time of her death, Rappe was involved with producer-director Henry Lehrman, who earlier in his career had directed Arbuckle in a few shorts. Lehrman found work for Rappe during the 1910s, though she was never lucky enough to find a breakthrough role. In 1921, she had been living with the director for four years, and he had yet to propose marriage. After she died, he played the distraught and angry boyfriend, though he did not attend her funeral, because he was busy directing a film in New York. A fitting ceremony was arranged by Lehrman’s friend, a young Norman Taurog (later the director of Boys Town and a slew of Elvis Presley movies). Lehrman displayed his devotion—at least to the press—by sending a blanket of 1000 tiger lilies with a white satin ribbon that read, “To my brave sweetheart from Henry.” On his return to Hollywood, he made a display of his devotion, visiting Virginia every week. He bought a cemetery lot next to hers and finally made good on his pledge of eternal love when he died in 1946.
The saddest grave markers are those of forgotten stars who do not have a devoted following. For years, Florence Lawrence, nicknamed the Biograph Girl and known as the first official movie star, was buried in an unmarked grave. Lawrence became a star in 1910 after Carl Laemmle released her name in a publicity stunt to promote her as part of his IMP studio. Five years later, she was seriously injured during a stunt on a burning staircase, which affected her physically and mentally. She suffered a back injury, facial scarring, and temporary paralysis. In 1936, she was hired by MGM for $75 per week to play bit roles, but years of misfortune had destroyed her. She killed herself two years later by ingesting a lethal mixture of cough syrup and ant paste. Completely forgotten, Lawrence rested for decades in an unmarked grave 1,000 feet from her mother’s marker. In 1991, actor Roddy McDowall, who served on the National Film Preservation Board, paid for her stone. The inscription reads, “The Biograph Girl/The First Movie Star.” Despite the marker, few are likely to find Lawrence. She is located among a handful of sunken markers along the north wall of the cemetery—impossible to run into unless you are looking for it.
In contrast to the modest, hidden, or forgotten grave sites of Florence Lawrence, Virginia Rappe, or even Carl Switzer, the monuments around Lake Clark and the crypts in the Cathedral Mausoleum are those of the great stars whose final resting places are indicative of their status. Find out more about Old Hollywood through their lives and deaths in next week’s “tales from the crypts.”
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