More Than a Passing FancyCall 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.
Source: MARTIN 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 legends.
Garman, 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 deceased.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 weirdos. "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 unusual hobby."
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 Underground.
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 few.
"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 have.
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 Cemeteries."
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 there for."
Most members would probably stay away but can't, because the Glendale cemetery inters most of old Hollywood's most famous dead.
"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 during childhood. 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 book."
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, happy story.""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 day."
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 anyone." 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 uncalled-for."
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."