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More Stars than in Heaven

June 1, 2015

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If you ever find yourself in Los Angeles in the vicinity of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards (an easy stroll down from my alma mater, UCLA), take an hour out of your busy day to visit the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. A hundred years ago, the cemetery was surrounded by dirt roads and grasslands. Now, as it is entirely surrounded by high-rise buildings and is no longer even visible from the street. It’s a good bet that the vast majority of drivers passing on nearby Wilshire Boulevard have no idea it’s even there. In fact, it’s a bit tricky to find even if you know where it is – it always takes me a couple of tries to locate the alley which serves as the unassuming entrance.

Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.  (Photo credit: Oleg Alexandrov)

Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. (Photo credit: Oleg Alexandrov)

The Westwood Cemetery was established in 1905 as Sunset Cemetery, the burial ground for the sleepy village of Westwood, CA. It is just 2 ½ acres, miniscule by most cemetery standards. By contrast, Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills sprawls over hundreds of acres. If you are into dead celebrities, both are worth a visit. The Westwood Cemetery, however, has more entertainment industry luminaries interred or entombed per square foot than any cemetery in the world.

When I visited recently with my daughter, we had the place mostly to ourselves. She was impressed by Marilyn Monroe’s niche in the mausoleum, stained pink from all the smooches left over time. She’s a teenager, so recognized few other entertainment industry icons. For my part, it was sobering to realize just how many of the names I did recall. Marilyn Monroe’s niche in the mausoleum (Photo credit: Tom Laemmel)

Billy Wilder’s tombstone (Photo credit: Tom Laemmel)

Billy Wilder’s tombstone is sure to elicit a chuckle for those that recognize the reference to what is probably the most famous line from his film, SomeLike It Hot. Wilder was also the screenwriter of Sunset Boulevard: a movie which famously opens with the screenwriter star (William Holden) floating dead in the swimming pool of a Sunset Boulevard mansion. It seems that Billy Wilder had a sense of humor about his chosen profession.

Marilyn Monroe’s is the most visited gravesite at Westwood Village Memorial Park. Legend has it that Joe Dimaggio had roses sent to her every week for as long as he lived. And Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy, is rumored to have purchased the burial spot next to her for his future resting place (it remains unmarked). The second most visited gravesite is probably Natalie Wood’s, who died a tragic death by drowning, and was the star of Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, and Splendor in the Grass. Just one row down from Natalie Wood’s grave lies Col. Hogan of TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, Bob Crane, (another actor with a tragic Hollywood death). Three rows down is the grave of actor Eddie Albert, star of the Green Acres TV sitcom about a New York lawyer who drags his spoiled wife out to live on a farm (played by Eva Gabor, also buried here). In this same area is the gravesite of actress Donna Reed who won an Oscar in 1955 for her supporting role in From Here to Eternity. She also played Jimmy Stewart’s wife, Mary, in the 1946 Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, but she may only be known to some as Miss Ellie, from her role on the original Dallas TV series.

There goes the neighborhood! (Photo credit: Tom Laemmel)

Rodney Dangerfield’s headstone: “There goes the neighborhood.”

There are simply too many luminaries to recount, giving a new twist to MGM’s claim from the 1940’s that they had “more stars than there are in heaven.” Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, the original Odd Couple, are buried not far apart. Dean Martin, Carroll O’Connor, Brian Keith, Don Knotts, George C. Scott, Burt Lancaster, James Coburn, Karl Malden, John Cassavetes, Robert Stack, Eve Arden, Eva Gabor and John Cassavetes. Rodney Dangerfield’s headstone reads, “There goes the neighborhood.”

Frank Zappa’s Unmarked Grave (Photo credit: Tom Laemmel)

Curiously there are still open plots and crypts, along with evidence of recent internments. How does this place not fill up? There’s the unmarked empty crypt next to Marilyn Monroe and some empty spots in the grass aren’t really empty at all: a blank space just beside Lew Ayers (nominated for an Oscar in 1948 for Johnny Belinda) is where Frank Zappa was buried with no marker. A few yards away lies Roy Orbison’s unmarked grave.

In addition to all the movie stars, Westwood Cemetery has its share of movie moguls, such as Darryl F. Zanuck, authors like Truman Capote, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), Sidney Sheldon and the previously mentioned Billy Wilder. Musicians are represented as well; Mel Tormé, Minnie Riperton, “the world’s greatest drummer” Buddy Rich, and Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys are interred here.

A version of this article also appeared on the Snackdish users blog. Snackdish is a social platform for TV and movies.

By the way, today is Marilyn Monroe’s birthday. She was born June 1, 1926 in Los Angeles and died August 5, 1962 in her Brentwood home, just a couple miles from the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.

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