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Celebrating the Dead Is No Grave Undertaking

Television* An HBO documentary tells how a group of friends turned a bankrupt Hollywood cemetery into a spiffed-up screenland shrine.

May 18, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hollywood Memorial Park, the final resting place of such legendary Hollywood denizens as Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Peter Lorre and Tyrone Power, fell into bankruptcy in the 1990s, losing its license in 1994. Families were disinterring their loved ones and moving them to operational cemeteries.

Then in 1998, Tyler Cassity, a movie-star-handsome 31-year-old from Kansas City, Mo., bought the 62-acre property on Santa Monica Boulevard for $375,000. Cassity, his brother Brent and their friends changed the cemetery's name to Hollywood Forever, renovating the dilapidated grounds and introducing the latest in funeral-business technology, including digital memorials and Webcast funeral services. An in-house mini film studio, Forever Studios, produces the multimedia "life stories" of its clients

How Cassity and his cronies transformed the dormant cemetery into a thriving business is the subject of the HBO "America Undercover" documentary "The Young and the Dead," airing Sunday on the cable network after "Six Feet Under," HBO's drama series revolving around a family-owned L.A. funeral home.

The husband-and-wife documentary team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini was looking for a follow-up to its acclaimed 1998 feature debut, "Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's," chronicling the shuttering of the famed Beverly Hills restaurant, and thought a documentary about the cemetery would be an interesting sequel.

"Chasen's is about celebration," Berman said. "On the surface, it is a place where people celebrate, get married and have anniversary parties. But the movie itself was really about death." Though Hollywood Forever is a cemetery, she added, "The way Tyler was approaching it, it seemed like he was focusing on the celebration of life. It seemed like an interesting follow-up."

The filmmakers spent a year at Hollywood Forever. The documentary chronicles the often eccentric regulars who visit the cemetery every day, as well as the devoted fans who attend the annual Valentino memorial service.

"I think what interested us most was how passionate these young people were about their new business," said Pulcini. "They were new to Los Angeles and new to this business, and they were really excited. They kind of had their post-college friendship going on. We wanted to capture that feeling of how much they loved the place and how excited they were about their ideas."

New Owner Dresses Up the Valentino Memorial

Hollywood Forever, which shares a back wall with Paramount Pictures, was established in 1899 and features two major mausoleums that are the final resting places of various stars, as well as elaborate headstones, including ones shaped like obelisks and rocket ships.

Jules Roth, a rather colorful and somewhat unsavory character who spent the Great Depression in San Quentin, took over the cemetery after his release from prison. Roth, also known as Jules Hine Roth, was a white-collar criminal and once the right-hand man of oil stock swindler C.C. Julian. Roth is buried at Hollywood Forever.

One of the reasons why the cemetery went bankrupt was that Roth kept the memorial park segregated. In fact, he refused to allow Oscar-winning African American actress Hattie McDaniel to be buried there 50 years ago. Once Cassity took over, he honored the actress by building a monument dedicated to the "Gone With the Wind" star.

Participating in "The Young and the Dead" was "in a strange way an education in what we do," said Tyler Cassity, who with his brother now owns six cemeteries. "I always thought we could learn a lot from these professional teams documenting us, because that's what we do with everyone else. We saw it as a learning process."

Since his arrival, Cassity has also dressed up the Valentino memorial--a ceremony that has been going on since the screen idol's death in 1926. "We added historians and entertainment," he said. "It's fun to see something that is 75 years old become more than it was."

In the documentary, a bust of Roth rested behind Cassity's desk, but it has since been moved. "We started not to get along," he said, laughing. "So he's up on the third floor. He was a real playboy. There is a room adjacent to my office that used to be his playboy room--with the bar and the lounge and a little TV that pops out of the wall."

Like Paramount, Hollywood Forever is said to be one of the most haunted areas in Los Angeles. Valentino, for example, supposedly walks back and forth across the wall between the studio and the cemetery.

"Clifton Webb is supposed to get up in the middle of the night and walk the corridors of the mausoleum," said Cassity. "I think with all of those things your imagination has to be primed."

Hollywood Forever does have a connection with HBO's "Six Feet Under," which shoots a few blocks away at the Sunset-Gower Studios. "At the beginning of the season we had numerous meetings with the writers," Cassity said. "They film here, and we are their prop house. Also, our embalmer has gone on their staff as a technical advisor."

Berman thought doing "The Young and the Dead" would be a depressing experience but found that it wasn't. "It was surprisingly uplifting," she said. "I understand the appeal of the place. When we go to L.A. ... if we have time to kill in the afternoon, a lot of the times we will actually go there and have a coffee. It's beautiful and very peaceful."

*

"The Young and the Dead" can be seen Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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