The Untold Truth Of Hollywood Forever Cemetery

In 2022, Hollywood Forever Cemetery was established as a historic-cultural monument, and for good reason. Heather Goers, an Architectural Historian at Historic Resources Group, told LAist, "It's truly a special place on so many levels, both in terms of its architecture, and its landscape, but also in terms of the history that contributed to the development of this place." And of course, countless pop culture icons and historical figures are buried there, including Rudolph Valentino, Mel Blanc, Cecil B. DeMille, Johnny Ramone, Peter Lorre, Jayne Mansfield, Bugsy Siegel, and many others.

Anyone who's lived in the Los Angeles area has heard of Hollywood Forever Cemetery and its fascinating history throughout its nearly century-and-a-quarter existence. The cemetery was established in 1899 by early Southern California pioneer Isaac Lankershim and his son-in-law Isaac Newton Van Nuys (whose last names are more than familiar to Angelenos today) and began as little more than 100 acres of empty land. While Hollywood Forever Cemetery is currently surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the entertainment and tourism industries, at the turn of the 20th century the area was extremely rural, a far cry from the busy pop culture-soaked city that typifies the environs now. Of course, the film industry took off over the next few decades, with numerous studios taking over the nearby skyline, and it wasn't long before it became the final resting place of Hollywood's biggest stars. However, there's far more to this famous cemetery than most people, even locals, may realize.

It's home to more than movie stars

Based on its name alone, one would think that Hollywood Forever Cemetery only interred A-list celebrities. The layout of the place certainly adds to this impression; with its elaborate Greek and Egyptian-style temples that look straight out of a studio backlot, it's easy for anyone to believe that all of the cemetery's "residents" were rich and famous.

While there's no shortage of illustrious figures buried there, Hollywood Forever Cemetery counts many other fascinating people among its 73,000 graves. The very first person buried there was a Hollywood blacksmith's wife; she was interred there in 1901 back when the cemetery was known as Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery. Since then, a wide and surprising variety of people of note have been laid to rest there, including exiles from czarist Russia, 19th-century colonialists, and even Confederate soldiers. The remains of Hollywood city founders, including Daeida Wilcox Beveridge, who named the city, reside there as well.

Featured image by Atomic Hot Links via Wikimedia Commons|Cropped and scaled|CC BY SA 2.0]

Despite its classy clientele, it went bankrupt in the 1990s

Considering how so many famous and illustrious people are buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, it's hard to believe that it was managed so poorly that it needed to be sold off. Under the management of millionaire and criminal Jules Roth (more on him later), who owned the place from 1940 until his death in 1998, the cemetery gradually fell into grave disrepair over the decades, losing its luster as the final resting place of the stars in the process. The 1994 Northridge earthquake caused considerable damage to the place that went unfixed for years. Towards the end of Roth's tenure at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the condition of the place got so poor that the state of California even nullified its license to sell its outstanding plots. Not that anyone wanted to be buried there; its main source of revenue was from families moving their loved ones' remains out of the squalor and into better-maintained graveyards.

And so, it was on December 11, 1997, that a hearing in Federal Bankruptcy Court saw Judge Thomas B. Donovan approve the sale of the cemetery to brothers Tyler and Brent Cassity -- for a paltry $375,000. Imagine that: the resting place of countless movie and pop stars selling for less than the cost of building a house on the property. However, like so many movie and pop stars, Hollywood Forever Cemetery was on the brink of a major reinvention.

It was completely renovated in the 1990s

Prior to being purchased by Tyler and Brent Cassity in 1997, there were some efforts by the community to fix the place up. Jackie Goldberg, who was serving as a Los Angeles Councilwoman at the time, had attempted to appeal to both major studios and local nonprofits for support in cleaning up Hollywood Forever Cemetery but made little progress. Roxana Tynan, Goldberg's deputy for economic development, told The New York Times that "there has been some openness to trying to step in and help out, but it really required that every other option be exhausted."

Luckily, the Cassity brothers' purchase of the cemetery signaled a major upgrade. Wanting to return to the legacy of its heyday when it was referred to as Cemetery of the Immortals, they hired top designer Brad Dunning to revamp the building's interiors; architect Frederick Fisher to build new mausoleums; and garden designer Nancy Goslee Power to oversee the landscape's overhaul. Tyler told The New York Times, "I want it to be a cultural center — because it is, and the neighborhood needs one. And I want it to be a place where important figures are buried. We'll restore it to such a state that today's celebrities will want to continue to be part of that narrative." Since then, he's largely kept his promise, as Hollywood Forever Cemetery is now regarded as less of a resting place and more of a tourist attraction.

Rudolph Valentino's grave was haunted by a lady in black for decades

Rudolph Valentino was a major Hollywood heartthrob during the silent era, who made a name for himself in such films as "The Sheik" and "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." His more passionate and tender screen presence made him stand out from the more rugged masculine leading men who dominated cinemas at the time. Unfortunately, he suffered an untimely death at 31 in 1926, sending his legion of fans into mourning.

But there was one fan in particular who honored his passing in a uniquely touching, if creepy, manner. For decades following the famous actor's death, a "lady in black" went to Valentino's grave on the anniversary of his death to place a single red rose on his resting place. Decked in all black — veil and all — there was considerable speculation about who the spectral figure was, and that it may have been multiple women. However, it appears that the woman who started the tradition was Ditra Flame, who was visited by Valentino when she was in the hospital as a child. She carried on this tradition for 30 years after his death but stopped as more women took over her role. Flame eventually died in 1984, but that hasn't stopped many other fans from continuing the practice in their own ways since then.

It's home to a lot of animals

Hollywood Forever Cemetery is obviously home to the famous dead, but it's also home to the furry and the feathered. Most notably, there is a pack of wild cats that have made the place their own. The feline population is largely looked after by Michelene Cherie, who works with the nonprofit organization FixNation on Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) to ensure it doesn't get out of control. Life as a cat at the cemetery is pretty nice as there are 10 feeding stations throughout the grounds offering both wet and dry food. Some of the cats even become famous to locals, such as the incredibly photogenic Closeup, who even has his own Instagram page (run by tour guide Karie Bible — more on her later).

Other animals that reside in Hollywood Forever Cemetery include peacocks, who are mostly cared for by funeral coordinator and crematory technician Eddie Martinez. He told We Like L.A. that "I noticed there wasn't really somebody that took on the job of taking care of the peacocks and they were treated like any other animals. I wanted to give them a little extra care so I took that upon myself. I enjoy the time with them, it's like my little zoo over here." No animals are buried at the cemetery, but that hasn't stopped many squirrels, raccoons, possums, rabbits, and turtles from moving in. Oh, and be sure to stop by the koi fish-filled lake next time you're there.

One of Hollywood's most important actresses was honored there — decades after her death

Hattie McDaniel is one of the most important actresses in Hollywood history, having paved the way for Black women in the film industry. She started her career as an entertainer at a young age, performing as a musician and as a member of an all-female minstrel show. McDaniel worked her way into the radio world and into movies, with her first speaking part in 1932's "The Golden West." However, it was her role as Mammy in 1939's "Gone With the Wind" that really made her famous; not only was the film a massive hit, she became the first Black person to win an Academy Award.

But, despite McDaniel's massive contributions to cinema, she was still denied the chance to be buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, her final wish, as non-White people weren't allowed. The cemetery's owner at the time refused to let her be interred there following her death in October 1952, so she was ultimately buried at Rosedale Cemetery. Although that policy changed in 1959, it wouldn't be until 2009 that the legendary actress would be honored at the famed cemetery with a cenotaph bearing the words: "Aunt Hattie, you are a credit to your craft, your race, and to your family." Though her remains are still at Rosedale Cemetery, McDaniel's spirit can at least rest assured that her legacy will be immortalized at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

One of its previous owners was a criminal...

Of Hollywood Forever Cemetery's numerous owners, Jules A. Hine Frederick Roth ran it the longest. He was also one of its most corrupt owners. Roth's early business partner C.C. Julian was a con artist himself, and the two got into the Los Angeles oil business, which made them incredibly rich. Of course, their massive business was actually a $150 million scam that prompted a federal investigation. The two men fled the country, as Roth had been charged with grand theft, securities violations, and 37 other counts. Roth was ultimately caught and returned to Los Angeles, where he was convicted on 21 counts and sentenced to time in San Quentin State Prison.

While he was sentenced to a maximum of 95 years, Roth won parole in 1937 and purchased Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, later named Hollywood Forever Cemetery. If you thought his time in San Quentin would give him a new lease on life, you'd be wrong — his operation of the cemetery was anything but lawful. Roth embezzled money from the cemetery's funds and used it to fund a lavish lifestyle, such as building a wet bar in his office and purchasing a yacht that, despite using it for pleasure, he claimed was to enable customers to scatter their loved ones' ashes at sea. The list of unsavory behavior he dabbled in goes on, but that all ended when he died on January 4, 1998, with little fanfare.

...And its subsequent owner was also a criminal

Unfortunately, Jules Roth wasn't the only felonious owner of Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Brothers Tyler and Brent Cassity (pictured) purchased the cemetery following Roth's disastrous decades-long operation of the place and are responsible for dramatically upgrading it from its decrepit state. While Tyler hasn't gotten into legal hot water, Brent has. You see, Brent, his and Tyler's father Doug, and their company National Prearranged Services (NPS) were charged with 50 counts involving the fraud of $600 million. 

NPS was one of the more prominent companies selling funeral plots to living customers, often at cheaper prices. And because transactions take place before deaths, funeral homes can use the money for maintenance. However, because of the lack of regulations, the pre-need funeral industry has plenty of bad actors, NPS among them. Joshua Slocum, the executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, told Tablet that "NPS always had a reputation for being very aggressive," engaging in numerous unethical practices. Brent was ultimately sentenced to 60 months in prison.

While Doug didn't operate Hollywood Forever Cemetery in any official capacity, his actions were particularly reminiscent of the way Roth ran the cemetery; Doug siphoned money from pre-need funeral trusts to finance his own lavish lifestyle. His son Brent may have only been co-owner of Hollywood Forever Cemetery for a few years (he sold his interest in it in 2000, three years after the purchase), but his criminal behavior is undoubtedly something that would've made previous owner Roth proud.

Being a tour guide there is... unique

Hollywood Forever Cemetery has a tour guide who gives guests a look into the lives, deaths, and lore of its prominent residents. That tour guide is Karie Bible, who's been showing visitors around the place since 2002. But because of the cemetery's eclectic history, Bible's job is a little more interesting compared to that of other historical site tour guides. She often has to clean up some of the cemetery's more sordid stories; she told Los Angeles Magazine that "I had a group of Girl Scouts take the tour recently, and I was like, 'I can't talk about rape, murder, and suicide in front of these kids!' I didn't want to be the person to open Pandora's box and show them all the evil and ill in the world. So I G-rate the tour a lot."

There's one grave in particular that's frustrated Bible: that of Johnny Ramone. In her interview with Los Angeles Magazine, she said, "He wanted a grave that would compete with Jim Morrison's in France." It's hard to compete with Ramone's grave; the monument is a large, attention-grabbing bronze statue of the late rocker playing guitar. "I have a certain order I go in for flow of information. I'll be talking about Hattie McDaniel or Douglas Fairbanks, and people will stop listening to me and wander off to Johnny Ramone. His grave is like a siren's call," Bible stated. Not many tour guides have to contend with dead rock stars interrupting their lectures.

There are so many things to do there other than pay respects

A cemetery in Hollywood is bound to be much more entertaining than your typical neighborhood graveyard. Among Hollywood Forever Cemetery's many other things to do besides touring the grounds and searching for famous graves is their annual Dia de Los Muertos celebration, held every November 2. This festival is filled with numerous festivities, including live music and dancing, colorful and elaborate altars, arts and crafts activities, and more. The cemetery's nearly-century-old Masonic Lodge is a popular space for live events such as concerts, lectures, interviews, and other cultural events.

However, the most popular activity to partake in at Hollywood Forever Cemetery is attending a summer film screening produced by Cinespia. The organization has been hosting film screenings there since 2002, kicking off with Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train." It wasn't long before word spread of classic movies being shown in a cemetery where celebrities were buried, and now each installment typically brings in a crowd in the thousands. Cinespia's founder and programmer John Wyatt told the Los Angeles Times that "these [movies] are meant to be seen with a lot of people. They're meant to be communal events. It transforms the viewing experience." While watching a movie in a graveyard sounds a bit morbid on its surface, there's something thrilling about viewing a screening of a movie in the same venue its actors are buried in.