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Splendor Fades at Final Resting Place of Famous, Almost Famous

July 03, 1988|RON RUSSELL | Times Staff Writer

On the day in 1901 when a Hollywood blacksmith's wife was laid to rest beneath some trees near Santa Monica Boulevard and Gower Street, no one could have guessed that it would mark the beginning of one of the world's great cemeteries.

In the eight decades since Mrs. T. W. Price became the first person buried in what is today Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, she has been surrounded by a disparate throng of movie stars, pioneer settlers, exiles from czarist Russia, Confederate soldiers and titans of industry.

Among its 73,000 graves, crypts and niches are enough obelisks and small Greek and Egyptian temples to make the 57-acre grounds appear to have been dreamed up by Cecil B. DeMille, who indeed is buried there. To accommodate thousands of tourists, maps point out the final resting places of such notables as Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

Complaints About Vandalism

But while Hollywood Memorial Park enjoys a heritage few cemeteries can match, all is not well beneath its soaring palms. Critics complain of vandalism and poor maintenance, including unkempt grass, crumbling roads and mausoleum roofs that are badly in need of repair.

State officials say that in the last five years they have received more complaints about Hollywood Memorial than any other cemetery. "We've averaged about six to eight letters per year and more phone calls than I'd care to recall," said John Gill, executive secretary of the state Cemetery Board.

By law, the more than 200 cemeteries the board oversees are required to invest a portion of their earnings in an endowment care fund and to spend the interest for upkeep. The board is responsible for seeing that all of the money is spent. However, it does not have the authority to impose sanctions against ill-kempt cemeteries.

Hollywood Memorial officials declined to say how much was spent on maintenance last year, but Cemetery Board records show that it was at least $143,568, which was the amount earned by the cemetery's $1.7 million endowment.

However, Gill and others say that even if the amount spent were twice as much, it would not begin to approach what is needed to restore the cemetery to its former splendor.

"It's a disgrace what's happened over there," said Minni Schoenburg, 70, who travels from Arizona each year to pay respects at the plot in the Beth Olam Jewish section of the grounds where her parents are interred.

"Eight years ago I was humiliated when we buried my mother and the grass was a foot high around the other graves," Schoenburg said. "None of us would have ever been put there if we'd known it was going to deteriorate the way it has."

Max Factor Remains Moved

Water damage from a leaky roof has discolored the wall crypts in parts of the Beth Olam Mausoleum. Last year, the heirs of makeup artist Max Factor, who had been entombed there since 1938, transferred his remains and those of other relatives to another cemetery.

Jules F. Roth, Hollywood Memorial's 80-year-old principal owner, insists that the cemetery, which continues to be profitable, has done its best given that its endowment earnings have not kept up with soaring costs.

"For someone buried here in 1901, $5 went into a perpetual care fund," Roth said. "Now you tell me, how much income can you get from $5? But we still have to take care of that grave. . . . We do the best we can with what we've got."

The law requires cemeteries to set aside for endowment care at least $1.75 per square foot for ground burials, $75 for each mausoleum crypt and $25 for each niche bearing crematory remains.

Gill said Hollywood Memorial has for a long time contributed more than the minimums "but the problem is that they sold a lot of graves in the '30s and '40s at a time when endowment care wasn't a priority and as a result the money they're generating isn't nearly enough."

"It's a universal problem among older cemeteries. Some just happen to be harder hit than others," he added.

There have also been problems that have not involved maintenance.

A Los Angeles woman filed a class-action suit seeking damages from the cemetery in 1986 on behalf of 1,000 other plot owners. It claims their privacy was violated after cemetery officials allowed employees of Paramount Pictures to park their cars in the cemetery for several months while work was being done on a studio parking structure.

"When I placed my little boy there, they advertised a haven as cloistered as the storied Shalimar," said Gertrude Allison, who filed the suit. "They never said anything about it being turned into a parking lot."

In an interview, Roth declined to comment on the matter, noting that the suit is still pending. The employees are no longer parking in the cemetery.

Roth has appeared before the Cemetery Board twice in recent years. In 1983, the board summoned him to a meeting to express concern that insurance proceeds from a fire in one of the mausoleums be used properly. In 1984, he was asked to answer complaints about poor maintenance.

Fourth Major Ownership

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