Near the entrance of Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, California, a gift shop sells maps demarcating where dozens of Hollywood luminaries are buried. It reads like a sobering “Who’s Who” of the afterlife, and it’s a crowded place. Among the cemetery’s many famous permanent residents is actress Judy Garland, actor Rudolph Valentino, voice actor Mel Blanc, musician Johnny Ramone, and actress Maila Nurmi.
Hollywood Forever is a grand tribute to the legends interred there, but it’s also about the living who still visit them. Every star—even in death—gets gifts.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the headstone for Nurmi (more commonly known as her horror character Vampira) is adorned with bright red and pink lipstick kisses. A mini bottle of perfume and a toy action figure sit in the grass next to it. A shrine for Valentino has been graced with a cigarette, a lighter, and a mostly-empty bottle of tequila. And Garland, who presides over the cemetery in her own pavilion, is offered dried roses and a letter surrounded by fake gemstones, tenderly addressed to “Dear Judy” in pencil.
Even Toto, Dorothy’s sidekick in The Wizard of the Oz, is properly memorialized at Hollywood Forever. A granite monument was erected on the grounds for Toto (whose real name was Terry), though the actual dog has been interred for more than half a century in nearby Studio City. Recently, someone left Toto an orange tennis ball and a stuffed animal at his pseudo resting place.
“There’s no place like home,” his monument reads. “Rest in peace, dear friend.”
The Lady in Black
One of the people tasked with keeping the history alive at Hollywood Forever is Karie Bible, a tour guide who’s helped preserve the memories of those buried there since 2002. Bible explains that what led her to Hollywood Forever was a cocktail of Universal Studios horror films and childhood visits to historic sites such as Civil War battlefields. She calls the horror films her “gateway drug” into the annals of classic Hollywood. When she first watched the original Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, on TV as a kid, she was hooked. “I just fell insanely in love with old Hollywood,” she says.
When she finally visited Hollywood Forever for herself in the early 2000s, Bible says it was “magic.” She later convinced cemetery owner Tyler Cassity to allow her to give tours. Since then, she’s been giving historic tours several times a month, including ones with an art deco or Day of the Dead theme.
Once a year, Bible also dons a black, 1920s gown to impersonate the “Lady in Black.” For decades, this mysterious woman left red roses at Valentino’s grave on the anniversary of his death. Bible likes the idea of keeping the old tradition alive, so now she does the same.
“But I don’t cry or faint or swoon. I definitely do not kiss the marble. If you see red smears on the marble, it wasn’t me,” she says.
Fact over fiction
During October, cemetery imagery is seemingly everywhere. But Bible says that cemeteries are worthwhile destinations all year round. She grew up down the street from one and used to ride her bike there with her brother.
“A lot of people see it as this spooky, weird, creepy, universal horror place. And I just didn’t see it that way,” she says.
For many years, Hollywood Forever has hosted a regular schedule of events for the public, including outdoor movie screenings, concerts, and an annual Día de los Muertos festival (this year the celebration takes place on November 2).
“In a way that stuff has been really beneficial because I think it has kind of normalized [the cemetery] a little bit,” Bible says. “People look at a cemetery as more of a normal thing and not this terrifying, creepy thing. I think it’s kind of given people a bit of comfortability with it.”
If she ends up giving a Hollywood Forever tour on Halloween, Bible says she may bring a jack-o’-lantern and hand out candy. But mainly she’ll stick to the central point of her tours: fleshing out the lives of the pioneering people who built an industry and, along with it, an entire city.
“I’m not a ghostbuster,” she says. “My attitude is and always will be that I think history is so much more interesting. It doesn’t need embellishment.”
Across the cemetery, that history is represented in both extravagant and simple memorials. The grave of Johnny Ramone, guitarist for the punk rock band the Ramones, is marked by a life-size statue of Ramone playing an electric guitar, inscribed with quotes about his life from famous friends.
Mel Blanc’s tombstone is more unassuming. A brief inscription describes him as the “man of 1,000 voices” and a “beloved husband and father.” Parroting one of Blanc’s on-screen characters, Porky Pig, the inscription concludes: “That’s all folks.”
If you go
The grounds of Hollywood Forever Cemetery are open Monday through Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.