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More Than a Passing Fancy

Call 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.

October 12, 2000|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 wineauction 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.

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