Valhalla Cemetery Records History of Famous, Forgotten

September 02, 1985|STEPHEN G. BLOOM | Times Staff Writer

Wrestler Gorgeous George is buried there, with a simple flat marker reading, "Love to Our Daddy, Gorgeous George, 1915-1963."

Comedian Oliver Hardy, the portly half of the classic Laurel and Hardy comic team, is nearby in the Garden of Hope. "Oliver Hardy, 1892-1957, A Genius of Comedy. His talent brought joy and laughter to all the world," his memorial plaque says.

They are among the celebrities, most of them with names remembered now only by a few, who are buried in the San Fernando Valley's oldest cemetery, Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood.

As cemeteries go, the cast is nothing like the nearby 400-acre Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills, where such stars as actor Charles Laughton; Hardy's sidekick, Stan Laurel, and comedians Buster Keaton and Freddie Prinze are among 67,000 people interred there.

'On Tourist Maps'

"It's even on tourist maps," Valhalla director Richard Steinmetz said of Forest Lawn, one of the most famous cemeteries in the country and Valhalla's biggest competition.

But the smaller Valhalla, a former 63-acre ranch at Victory and Cahuenga boulevards, has a history of its own.

Valhalla, which takes its name from the palace of Odin, the Norse mythical god of death, was founded in 1923 by two Los Angeles financiers, John B. Osborne and C. C. Fitzpatrick.

Within a year, both men were indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with masterminding a scheme to defraud buyers by reselling cemetery plots. Some plots, the indictment charged, were sold as many as 16 times. Osborne and Fitzpatrick were alleged to have netted from $3 million to $5 million from the scheme.

Property Sold in 1940s

According to Steinmetz, that scheme and other run-ins with the law eventually prompted the state to force the pair to sell Valhalla. The cemetery and mortuary were bought by Pierce Brothers in the mid-1940s.

Joe Albritton, publisher of the defunct Washington Star, later bought Valhalla from Mark Pierce, though the Pierce Brothers sign remains atop the property.

Albritton, a millionaire Texas banker who owns six small newspapers in the Northeast, sold 20 acres of the property to private developers, who built condominiums that have a view of Valhalla over a brick wall.

The cemetery, which has 76,038 graves, found itself in the middle of a controversy when it agreed three years ago to inter in concrete vaults at no cost more than 16,500 aborted fetuses that were found in a container at the Woodland Hills home of a former medical laboratory operator.

Steinmetz said the cemetery consented to the arrangement because of its role as a community provider.

"The right-to-life groups came to us, and we said we wouldn't endorse any political viewpoint, but we thought that interring the bodies was a proper thing to do as a service," he said.

Subsequent rulings by a state appellate court and the U.S. Supreme Court held that the fetuses could not be buried as humans, but last month a Superior Court judge ruled that the county could authorize burial as long as there was no religious ceremony. Last Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors turned over the fetuses to Guerra-Gutierrez & Alexander Mortuary of Los Angeles for burial arrangements.

Valhalla, like many cemeteries, has changed with the times.

Because North Hollywood now has a large Latino population, the cemetery promotes itself through Spanish-language radio commercials. It also has yielded to the trend toward cremation, which two decades ago accounted for less than 1% of Valhalla's business and now is about 16%, Steinmetz said.

'Learning to Change'

"We said it never would be an acceptable way," Steinmetz, a solemn man with fingers the size of cigar stubs, said about cremation. "We are learning to change as society changes."

Like Forest Lawn, which pioneered patriotic cemetery theme sections such as the Court of Freedom, Valhalla in 1953 dedicated an area called Portal of the Folded Wings, a memorial to pilots and others connected with the aviation industry.

The memorial houses the remains of Jimmy Angel, discoverer of Angel Falls in Venezuela, the world's tallest waterfall. Also buried there is Walter Brookins, who set a flying altitude record in 1910.

Appropriately, the rococo dome that shelters the memorial is directly under the flight path for Burbank Airport, with the attendant thunder of jets and the smell of diesel exhaust.

Among the monuments at Valhalla is a memorial to the 241 U.S. Marines killed on Oct. 23, 1983, in a terrorist attack in Beirut. The memorial, in an area reserved for burial of veterans, is distinctive for its traditional soldier's grave marker--a vertical rifle with combat helmet atop--and a quote from Sir Walter Scott: "Soldier Rest! Thy warfare o'er, dream of fighting fields no more; sleep the sleep that knows not breaking, morn of toil, nor night of waking."

Scattered throughout the flat, grassy cemetery are the graves of these well-known actors:

Bea Benaderet, who played the mother in the television show "Petticoat Junction."

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