Monday, September 27, 2010

The Ramones and Hollywood Forever

In 1998, I had a teaching engagement in Los Angeles. I took my daughter with me, who was fourteen at the time. We got to California a day early so we could photograph in a few cemeteries. One of these was the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.

The cemetery was at that time kind of overgrown with weeds and not tended to very well. It also seemed to parallel the shabby look and feel of Hollywood itself--a shanty town. Supposedly the owner (who died in 1997) embezzled most of the endowment funds (which is a cemetery's main source of income to pay for upkeep). New ownership in 1998 has turned things around and the place is currently a very lively memorial park that hosts tours, movie screenings (picture George Romero's 1968 cult classic, Night Of The Living Dead projected on a mausoleum wall!) and the Ramones annual memorial concert (see link below).

As the Hollywood Forever website says, "Founded in 1899, the cemetery was an integral part of the growth of early Hollywood. Paramount Studios was built on the back half of the original Hollywood Cemetery, where the studio is still in operation today." To paraphrase Mark Twain, you can't swing a cat without hitting a movie star's grave in this place. I don't usually take snapshots of such things, as I strive for a more abstract, fine art type of photography. The image you see above is one of the most memorable I made that day. The sculpture rests on a monument at the main entrance and is a knock-off of the famous Cupid and Psyche masterpiece "Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss" created by Antonia Canova in 1787 (original in the Louvre). I prefer the knock-off; it has more character!

Photo by Mike Spak
Jayne Mansfield, Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, and those Little Rascals, Alfalfa and Darla, are all buried here. But the list goes on, as the cemetery continues to host active burials. Since I've been there, two of the Ramones, Johnny and Dee Dee have died (2004 and 2002 respectively) and are both buried there. The photo at right of Dee Dee's headstone was taken by my friend Mike, who visited the cemetery in 2009.

Many of my friends have seen my cemetery photography over the years, and some have become interested in the subject themselves. I've had people send me photos of fabulous graves from all over the world, places I'll probably never get to. It's a nice feeling to know that I've kindled this interest in others, and its fun to hear their stories. Mike, for instance, refused to photograph Johnny Ramone's monument, which is near Dee Dee's. Why? Because it had an inscription carved into it from that poser Eddie Vedder! I mean, Johnny paid for the monument himself! What could Pearl Jam's radio-friendly MOR music have to do with the Ramones' innovative punk? Takes some chutzpah (Johnny was Jewish)  to have your own name carved on someone else's monument.

Another thing that made my visit to the cemetery memorable was an interaction I had with my daughter. As we walked around the grounds, we came to a grove with childrens' graves. Many of the small stones had "Born" and "Died" dates that were very close, often less than a year apart. Being in the health care business, I was fully aware of the high mortality rate among children prior to the 1950s. My daughter, however, was not. They might mention this stuff in school, but it doesn't really hit home until the proof stares you in the face. She was shocked.

In 1900, 10% of U.S.-born children died before they were a year old (now its far less, below 0.03% thanks to vaccines for measles, rubella, and polio, as well as better prenatal care for moms). Large family plots in cemeteries would seem to feed into the stereotype of families being larger in the olden days. But if you scrutinize the dates on the headstones, you'll see that many children didn't make it past their 5th birthday. Parents would in many cases continue to produce children to make up for ones who died. A sobering revelation--I could tell her eyes were opened. Kind of like when I introduced her to the music of Alice Cooper. Nothing you do for a child is ever wasted!

I think I've reached the end of my broadcast day. Since I spent so much of this blog talking about life, death, and creativity, let me leave you with this lovely quote:

"Creation is a drug I can't do without." - Cecil B. DeMille

Some links to peruse:

Hollywood Forever Cemetery Website
Video tour of the cemetery
Ramones annual memorial concert
Johnny Ramone Monument on YouTube
Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss