Before there was Disneyland, there was Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.
Prior to the 1955 opening of the Magic Kingdom, “Forest Lawn was the #1 tourist destination for visitors in the Los Angeles area,” writes Douglas Keister, author of “Forever L.A.: A Field Guide to Los Angeles Area Cemeteries & Their Residents” (Gibbs Smith; $19.99).
The Chico photographer, historian and storyteller extraordinaire doesn’t see dead people, but he likes to visit them.
Thankfully, he’s passed on his vast store of cemetery lore to us in “Forever L.A.,” replete with photos and information about the graves of the rich and famous, as well as the 13 cemeteries and their often stunning architecture, sculptures and paintings.
“A hundred years ago, garden cemeteries were a destination,” Keister said in a phone interview. “They were wonderlands that pre-dated public parks. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., which was the template for Central Park, was the second most popular destination in the U.S. besides Niagara Falls. Then someone said, ‘Maybe we should have a place like this without graves.’”
We also should be thankful for cemeteries, he added, “because they preserve open space. If it weren’t for some cemeteries, there’d be a bunch of office buildings there.”
Keister, who has authored more than three dozen books, many on architecture, has earned the title of America’s most noted photographer of historic architecture and the country’s top expert on cemetery symbolism “only because nobody else is,” he said. “I get calls all the time from New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and recently I was on ‘CBS Sunday Morning.’”
Keister’s flair for words gives readers wonderful nuggets about cemetery celebs, to be enjoyed even if you never get out of your armchair. Here are a few:
— The inscription on “don’t-get-no-respect” Rodney Dangerfield’s headstone in Westwood Village Memorial Park reads: “There goes the neighborhood.”
— Left-wing political activist Jerry Rubin, buried in Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, died two weeks after being hit by a car while jaywalking on Wilshire Boulevard. It is ironic that, when a picture of his grave marker was taken, it was embossed with lawnmower tire tracks.
— One of Rod Steiger’s most memorable roles was as a mortician (Mr. Joyboy) in the 1965 movie “The Loved One,” which spoofed what proved to be Steiger’s last address: Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills.
— John Uhler “Jack” Lemmon has one word (in lower case) on his headstone in Westwood Village Memorial Park: in.
— The crypt directly above Marilyn Monroe’s in Westwood Village Memorial Park was purchased from Joe DiMaggio by Richard Freddie Poncher. In accordance with his wishes, he was interred face down. (DiMaggio’s grave is in Colma, Calif., just south of San Francisco.)
“People ask me how did I choose who should be in the book and where,” Keister said, “so that’s why I did the ‘Reprised in Repose’ section of the book.”
In this chapter, the author gathers the stars who worked together in life and in films and shows, even though they may have been laid to rest hundreds of miles apart.
Included are Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; George Burns and Gracie Allen; the Three Stooges; and the casts of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Our Gang /Little Rascals,” and “Bonanza.”
For techies, a bonus: “L.A. Forever” features GPS points for many of the featured graves.
For convenience: The full-color guide has been published in a handy 5-inch by 9-inch format for easy portability.
With dwindling space, escalating costs and changing attitudes, the death-care industry (that’s what it’s called, Keister said) has gone through some recent changes.
“When cremation came along,” he noted, “cemeteries were really worried; there goes the revenue. But cremation niches have breathed life back into cemeteries.”
On the other hand …
“We boomers all think we’re so unique,” added Keister, 62, “so there has been resurgence of markers, especially with this laser carving. That’s made for a renaissance in cemetery art.”
As for the author/photographer’s plans for the inevitable?
“If I got cremated, I’d like to be in a cemetery with celebrities so maybe someone would come and visit me, even if accidentally.”
The Coast News has been delivering high-quality news, community voice and storytelling since its inception in 1987. Since then, the news organization has grown into a successful newsgroup covering a majority of San Diego’s populous North County region.