Monday, November 23, 2020

Blog #99: Ten Years of Grave Hopping!


I launched Six Feet Under Hollywood in 2018 as a means of showcasing the many famous graves I've visited in my travels.  The fun began eight years earlier on a trip to Los Angeles when a friend and I realized we were driving past the cemetery where Sorrell Booke (AKA Boss Hogg) was buried and we decided to stop and take a look.  Once we were there in the park, our other plans for the day went out the window, and we found ourselves going from grave to grave to grave.  I've been hooked ever since.

That was November 2010.  This month marks ten years since that first grave and coincidentally, it also marks 100 blog posts (next week).  So, I thought I'd share some fun facts and stories from a decade of grave hopping.

Over the last ten years, I have visited 437 distinct graves in 28 states.  Oddly, those only account for 435 people, two of whom were reburied!  As you'd expect, California accounts for more than half of the total.

Looking at what makes each of these people famous, more than 73 percent were in the entertainment industry.

I've had some interesting experiences with this hobby.  Here are just a few that I will never forget.

Roxie Roker.  Ironically, I haven't profiled Roxie yet on this blog.  That's a shame, cause I love this story.  Roxie was famous for two things - she starred on the hit series The Jeffersons for more than a decade and in real she was the mother of singer Lenny Kravitz, who's become even more popular than she was.  

When Roxie passed away in 1995, she was buried in her hometown of Miami.  I can state definitively that she is the most famous person buried at Southern Memorial Park.  It's not even close.  On a trip to Florida in 2013, I knew I had to stop to pay my respects. 

Normally I'm pretty good at finding these graves.  I do my research ahead of time and map them out.  This one wasn't so easy however and I was totally stumped, so I went by the front office to ask for directions.  I usually try to avoid this step, as some cemeteries are hesitant to identify famous burials. 

I was met by a woman who appeared to be in her early 20s.  I felt confident that she was too young to know who Roxie Roker was and probably wouldn't give me any static.  My hunch paid off, when she asked me how to spell Roxie's name.

Once she located the site in her records, she offered to show me to the grave personally.  True southern hospitality.  I accepted her offer and we climbed into a golf cart.  She drove me to the location and got out to see the grave for herself.  When she saw Roxie's full name on the marker, Roxie Roker Kravitz, the lightbulb went off.  She asked "I wonder if she's any relation to Lenny Kravitz." 

At this point, I figured she wouldn't mind the truth, so I told her that yes, this was in fact Lenny's mother and that she had been on The Jeffersons.  As it turned out, my tour guide was a huge Lenny Kravitz fan, but even after working at Southern Memorial Park for two years, she had no idea that his mother was buried there.  Additionally, she had recently started watching The Jeffersons on Bounce TV, and was a big fan.  I called up Youtube on my phone, and we listened to the theme song together.  This of course, led to dancing.  Not exactly what you're supposed to do at a grave.  

I left her with some advice.  Be sure to come by this spot every year on Mother's Day.  Who knows, maybe she'll get to meet Lenny one day.
Penn and Teller.  Speaking of dancing at one 's grave, there was the time I paid my respects to Penn and Teller.  But wait you say - Penn and Teller are not dead!  I know.  That's what makes this story even weirder.

It was on a trip to Los Angeles in 2015.  My friend Jon and I were grave hopping again at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.  We had just paid our respects to John Ritter when a portly gentleman approached us and asked us for a favor.  He had with him a 1990's era video camera that had seen much better days.  He wanted to know if we would film him dancing on one of the graves.  Anyone else might have told him to get lost, but fortunately for him, we love crazy people.

We followed him to the grave and were shocked to see that it was a cenotaph for Penn and Teller, two magicians with a regular show in Las Vegas.  Our visitor explained to us that he was himself a magician, despite the Disney Store name tag on his work shirt.  He further explained that Penn and Teller had completely stolen his act and became rich in the process, a point he can never forgive them for.  He wanted the video in order to show his grandmother that he had gotten his revenge.  He did a jig for the camera while we did our best to contain our laughter.  I think we were mostly successful.

Mr. Ed.  One of the first posts I did for this blog was Mr. Ed, the talking horse from the 1960's sit-com.  While I profiled the grave itself, I didn't go into too much detail about finding it or of nearly dying in the process.

In 2017, I discovered that Mr. Ed had retired from show business in the late 1960s and spent his final years on a farm in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, about an hours drive from Oklahoma City.  He passed away in 1979 and his owner buried him in the backyard.  For more than a decade, the grave remained unmarked.  Then in the the early 1990s, a local radio station got wind of the story and bought the farmer a five-foot granite headstone.  Despite being on private property, it attracts tourists to this day.  I knew I had to see it.

I planned my trip for Memorial Day weekend and caught a Southwest flight from Baltimore.  We had beautiful weather that day and our flying time was a comfortable three hours.  

With less than thirty minutes to go, we started hitting severe turbulence.  As many times as I had flown, I had never felt anything this bad.  We made a very sudden drop and my stomach felt like I had just taken the first loop on a roller coaster.  This wasn't simple turbulence I thought, and my fears were confirmed when the oxygen masks were deployed.  As I put mine on, I noticed the woman in the seat in front of me holding her phone above her head as she recorded a goodbye message to her family.  

The cockpit informed us that they were attempting to make an emergency landing.  I remember thinking to myself wow, this is how I'm gonna go out.  Visiting the grave of a talking horse.  How appropriate.

To my great relief, we landed safely at a general aviation airport outside Branson, Missouri.  One passenger had to be removed by ambulance, but the rest of us were able to walk off the plane.  

Unfortunately, the airport was so small that it had already closed for the day at 6:00 p.m.  Even worse, it was in the path of an approaching tornado.  How much worse could this situation get?  We sheltered in place while the storm passed, then waited for Southwest to send us a replacement plane.  In the interim, I was interviewed by the local ABC affiliate and the story went national.  We didn't take off until midnight.

The next day, I drove out to the farm where Ed is buried.  There were no cars in the driveway, but I knocked on the door anyway.  No answer.  I walked around to the garage and noticed a real estate lock box on the door.  Assuming that the property was up for sale, I figured it would be ok to walk out to the backyard and visit the headstone.  Right or wrong, I felt that I had earned this after the night before.

When I saw the headstone, it felt like all this had been worth it.  It was magnificent.  I couldn't believe the detail and knew it was one of the most unique I had ever seen.  

As I began snapping photos, I heard a vehicle approach from behind.  I turned and saw a pick-up truck stop on a gravel driveway behind the house.  A farmer got out of the driver's seat and began to approach me while his wife went into the house.  I was busted.  There was no denying it.  I feared she was inside calling the police to report a trespasser.

I immediately apologized and began telling my story.  The owner, Mr. Leonard Walker, was a very kind gentleman who had bought the house from the original owner, knowing full well that it was a tourist attraction.  I was not the first person he had ever caught on his property, and fortunately he's very accommodating to his visitors.  He told me second-hand stories of Ed's final days and snapped a photo for me.  Thank you again, Mr. Walker.

Don Rickles.  Mr. Warmth is another celebrity I haven't profiled here on the blog, but I'll never forget my visit to his grave.  It was December 2018 on another trip to Los Angeles.  This time, we were walking around Mt. Sinai Cemetery in Burbank, just a stone's throw from Warner Brothers Studios. 

As we stood at Don's headstone, another visitor approached the grave.  He was an older gentleman who looked familiar but not someone I could readily identify.  We said hello and explained to him that we were Don's fans and that we had come out to pay our respects.  He appreciated that, because as it turned out, he was Don's manager, Tony Oppedisano.  I couldn't believe how lucky we were to meet someone who not only knew Don but had worked so closely with him.  So of course we peppered him with questions about their many years together.  He enjoyed sharing those stories and was glad that Don's fans haven't forgotten him.  To that end, he created a Don Rickles Youtube Channel, which you can visit here.

Whitney Houston.  When "The Voice" was silenced in 2012, the media went out of its way to report that she was buried wearing $500,000 in jewelry.  When the news got out, her family became concerned that grave robbers would attempt to unearth her for a quick pay day.  So they hired a private security detail to stand watch over her grave in the town of Wakefield, New Jersey. 

I must stress that she's buried in a public cemetery.  You won't see the locked gates of Forest Lawn Glendale that many of Hollywood's elite employ for their final arrangements.  This park is open to everyone.  Or so I thought.

I entered the gates of Fairview Cemetery and quickly found her grave.  I parked my car on a side road, taking note of a black truck parked near the grave.  As I made my way on foot, the driver emerged from it and asked me what I was doing there.  When I told him I had come to pay my respects to Whitney Houston, he told me that her grave was for family only and that I'd have to move along.  I jokingly replied "OK, I'm here to see the guy next to her."  Humor wasn't his thing.

I was denied my visit on that trip, but after some time, the family decided it could no longer pay for 24/7 surveillance and the security detail was let go.  I finally got to visit Whitney's grave in 2015, and sadly, by that time, her daughter Bobbi Kristina had passed as well, and was buried in the plot next to her mom.  You can read my blog post here.

Texas Space Alien.  This was one of the most bizarre graves I've ever had the pleasure of visiting.  It's in the town of Aurora, Texas, about an hour's drive from Dallas.

There in 1897, residents claim that a UFO crashed into a windmill and killed the pilot.  The good people of Aurora felt that their un-Earthly visitor deserved a decent Christian burial, so they conducted a funeral at Aurora Cemetery under a large tree.

Over the years, a number of headstones have been placed at the site honoring this unusual grave, but they tend to disappear as soon as they are put in place.  For now, this tree is all you have to go by.  You can read about my visit here.  Believe it.....or Not!

Specimens!  Finally, on a visit to Ohio, my friend Brian told me about a local cemetery where the victims of an insane asylum fire had all been laid to rest.  That was all it took.  I knew I had to visit the redundantly named State of Ohio State Old Insane and Penal Cemetery.  I was not disappointed.

Most of the deceased had been inmates at the Central Ohio Lunatic Asylum, which burned to the ground in 1868.  Rather than being identified by name, their markers bear their asylum inmate number, so it's really hard to tell who's buried where.  The crown jewel of this cemetery however, are the two stones merely marked "Specimens," giving visitors no hint as to what secrets they hold.  

You can read about my visit here.

Thanks for reading my blog - this week and every week.  Let's see what - or who - the next ten years provide.

Next week:  The 100th blog!  Who will it be?  Submit your guess in the comments below.

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