A Final Resting Place?

Hollywood Memorial Park faces closure unless a buyercomes to the rescue

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Photos by Peter Halmagyi

Hollywood Memorial Park is the cemetery of the stars, and rightnow it is starring in a cliffhanger of its own.

At stake is whether the memorial park, whose graves and cryptshold the last remains of Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, DouglasFairbanks Sr., Tyrone Power and John Huston, will remain open andfunctioning, or whether it will be padlocked and abandoned.

Equally atstake is the future of Beth Olam Cemetery, the park’s Jewish sectionand the last resting place of an estimated 20,000 Jews, includingactors Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre and Mel Blanc,producers Harry Cohn and Jesse Lasky, composer Erich WolfgangKorngold, and mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.

In the worst-case scenario, the entire place will be closed down,thus barring mourners from visits to relatives’ graves and deprivingothers of their pre-paid plots and mausoleum niches.

In a happier ending, a responsible buyer will ride to the rescueat the last moment and not only keep the memorial park open but,hopefully, restore neglected buildings and grounds to their formerglory.

At press time, the final outcome was still uncertain.

The Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, to give its full name, wasfounded in 1899 by two historical figures, I.N. Van Nuys and Col.J.B. Lankershim. It stretched over 100 acres south of Santa MonicaBoulevard and east of Gower Street. Later, the southernmost 40 acreswere sold to the expanding Paramount Studios.

The 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged some of the structures andgrounds at the cemetery, which is operated as a for-profit business.The following year, alleged questionable business practices by theformer owners, which depleted the endowment funds for care andmaintenance, came to a head and accelerated the downward spiral.

In late 1995, the state Department of Consumer Affairs seized thecemetery’s records. During the first half of last year, the cemeteryfiled for bankruptcy, further sales of plots were prohibited, and acourt-appointed trustee took over daily operations.

For more than a year, the trustees have looked for a buyer to takeover the cemetery, but have found no takers. In a last-ditch efforttwo weeks ago, the trustees held a nationally advertised auction.

The only bid came from Buck Kamphausen, a successful operator ofcemeteries in Sacramento and Fresno, who offered $275,000.

Now enter another party — the Heritage Auxiliary Company, a CoastFederal Bank affiliate that holds the mortgage on the cemetery.Heritage is owed $2.7 million for pre-bankruptcy loans extended toHollywood Memorial. Before the auction, it announced that it wouldentertain a bid of at least $500,000.

Currently, Heritage and Kamphausen are in negotiations, and it isreported that the gap over the sales price has narrowed considerably.

A court hearing has been set for Dec. 10, and it will likelydetermine the future of Hollywood Memorial and Beth Olam cemeteries.

Meanwhile, three major players are working intensively to save thecemetery, while fielding hundreds of phone calls from worriedcitizens.

One is David Isenberg, attorney for the trustees, who has beentrying to bring the cemetery’s plight to the notice of the media andthe general public.

Another is Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, whosedistrict includes the cemetery. Goldberg vows that she is absolutelycommitted to saving Hollywood Memorial and that “there is no way wewill abandon it.”

Her deputy, Roxana Tynan, has been canvassing motion picturestudios and charities and says that she has had some encouragementfrom neighboring Paramount.

She is also seeking city and state support and hopes to have thecemetery recognized as a national historical monument, which mightunlock funds from the Getty and other foundations.

She is also considering an approach to the Los Angeles Times.After all, the daily’s founder, Gen. Harris Gray Otis, and hissuccessor, Harry Chandler, rest under tombstones at the cemetery.

Another activist is Lauri Lopp, an executive with the Bank ofHollywood and a volunteer ambassador for the Hollywood Chamber ofCommerce.

As a banker, Lopp judges that a settlement between Coast Federaland Kamphausen is feasible. She reserves high praise for Homer Alba,the cemetery’s office manager, who has been “polishing tombstones”and trying in other ways to maintain the grounds, said Lopp.

Concerned persons are encouraged to call Tynan at Goldberg’soffice at (213) 913-4693. If she is not in, leave a message for her,including your name, address and phone number.