Hollywood Remains to Be Seen

Palm Springs Pilgramage - Jan. 23, 2010

Though a bunch of celebrities are buried in Los Angeles, there are a lot of big names out in the Palm Springs area, too. In some cases, the celebrities moved out there after retirement. Or they just prefered to live away from the Hollywood scene. Either way, the Palm Springs area became their final home and eternal resting place. So let's take a look at a few of them, shall we?

Technically, Desert Memorial Park is in Cathedral City, not Palm Springs. But it's apparently in the "Palm Springs Cemetery District." It's a municipally owned cemetery, with no mausoleums and no big upright grave markers.

In some cemeteries, over-zealous security guards aren't your biggest concern.

Most of Desert Memorial Park looks like this -- nothing but flat markers, a few wind-swept trees, and the beautiful and sometimes snow-covered mountains off in the distance.

Frank Sinatra, buried next to his parents.

Frank's father. He was born in Sicily, and came to the United States in 1903, when he was 6 years old. In New York City, he started working as a prize-fighter, calling himself Marty O'Brien, because Italians were not welcome in the fight game. After he married Natalie "Dolly" Garaventa in 1914, the couple moved to Hoboken, N.J., where their only child, Francis Albert, was born. Marty continued his boxing career, worked on the docks, and joined the Hoboken Fire Service in 1927. The couple opened a tavern called "Marty O'Brien's." He died of a heart attack at the age of 76.

Frank's mother, Natalie "Dolly" Sinatra, reportedly ran an illegal abortion business from the family home in Hoboken, N.J. She was arrested several times and convicted twice. On Jan. 6, 1977, Dolly and a friend, Anna Carbone, were on a private plane, heading from Palm Springs to Las Vegas to attend Frank's opening night performance at Caesars Palace. Shortly after take-off, the plane crashed into the side of the 11,502-foot San Gorgonio Mountain, the highest peak in Southern California. The pilot, co-pilot and both passengers were killed. Ten years later, on March 21, 1987, Dean Paul Martin, the son of entertainer and Sinatra pal Dean Martin, was killed when the California Air National Guard jet he was flying crashed into the same mountain.

A few feet away from Sinatra and his parents is the grave of Jilly Rizzo, a former New York City restaurateur who became one of Sinatra's closest friends. Rizzo owned Jilly's, a lounge in Manhattan that was a popular gathering spot for celebrities in the 1960s, including Sinatra. On May 6, 1992, Rizzo was driving alone on Gerald Ford Drive in Palm Desert when his car was hit by another vehicle and burst into flames. He died on his 75th birthday. The driver of the other car was charged with vehicular homicide and drunken driving. Two years before his death, a federal jury in New York convicted Rizzo and five other men of participating in a fraudulent loan scheme that drained $8 million from the Flushing Federal Savings and Loan Association. He was sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service by a judge who said Rizzo was too old and his health too poor to send him to prison.

Another Sinatra pal, composer Jimmy Van Heusen, is also nearby. Van Heusen wrote more songs -- 85 -- that were recorded by Sinatra than any other composer. Van Heusen wrote music for film and television, and won four Academy Awards for Best Song (he was nominated in that category a total of 14 times), and an Emmy. He was also nominated three times for a Golden Globe award, and once for a Grammy. Van Heusen won Oscars for writing "Swinging on a Star" (1944), "All the Way" (1957), "High Hopes" (1959), and "Call Me Irresponsible" (1963). Van Heusen and lyricist Sammy Cahn wrote "Love and Marriage," "(Love is) The Tender Trap," "To Love and Be Loved," "My Kind of Town," "Come Fly with Me," "Only the Lonely" and "Come Dance with Me," with many of their compositions being the title songs for Frank Sinatra's albums of the late 1950s, or sung by Sinatra in films. Sinatra was known during his concerts for crediting the composers and lyricists of the songs he sang, and he probably never did a concert without mentioning Van Heusen's name.

Buried next to Van Heusen is his wife, Bobbe Brox Van Heusen, a singer and member of the Brox Sisters trio in the 1920s and early 1930s. Born Josephine Brock, she changed her name to Bobbe when she formed a jazz-influenced singing act with her two sisters -- Kathlyn, who changed her name to Patricia, and Eunice, who changed her name to Lorayne. The sisters even changed their last name when a producer told them that "Brox" would look better on a theater marquee. The Brox Sisters performed on stage in New York, appearing with the Marx Brothers in "The Cocoanuts," and with Eddie Cantor in the "Ziegfeld Follies." When sound pictures became popular, the Brox Sisters came to Hollywood and appeared in several films. On screen, they introduced the song, "Singin' in the Rain" in "The Hollywood Review of 1929."

Bobbe's sister Lorayne is buried nearby, with her original last name. Lorayne was the oldest of the three sisters. I haven't been able to find out where Patricia, the youngest, is buried. She died in 1988.

Jolie Gabor, mother of the famous Gabor sisters -- Eva, Zsa Zsa and Madga. Born in Budapest, Hungary, on Sept. 29, 1894 (she was 102 when she died), Jolie was married "only" three times, the last time to Count Edmund de Szigethy, which explains the bad Scrabble hand on her grave marker. In contrast, her three daughters were married a total of 20 times, to 19 different men (George Sanders married both Magda and Zsa Zsa).

Magda was the oldest of the three Gabor sisters, and probably the least known. She was married six times, with five of the marriages lasting three years or less.

Perhaps the most famous film choreographer of all time, Busby Berkeley. After working as a dance director on Broadway, Berkeley came to Hollywood. At the time, dance directors in films trained the dancers and staged the dances, but the film's director directed the dance numbers. Berkeley wanted to direct the dance numbers himself, and he did. Berkeley created musical numbers for almost every great musical that Warner Brothers produced from 1933 to 1937. He was known for intricately synchronized choreography, complex geometric patterns, large numbers of dancers, and spectacular overhead shots that sometimes forced the studio to drill holes in the soundstage roof.

Actor Cameron Mitchell is perhaps best known for his Western roles, and his work on the 1960s TV series "The High Chaparral." Mitchell also appeared on numerous TV series throughout the 1980s.

Betty Hutton was best known as an energetic brassy blonde singer, dancer and actress. She appeared in "The Fleet's In" (1942), "Happy Go Lucky" (1943), "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (1944), "Incendiary Blonde" (1945), "Let's Dance" (1950), "Annie Get Your Gun" (1950) and "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952).

Sonny Bono was a singer, record producer, actor and, in his later years, a politician. While trying to open a restaurant in Palm Springs, Bono grew frustrated with the level of local government bureaucracy, so he ran for mayor of Palm Springs and won, serving from 1988 to 1992. He ran for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1992, but lost. In 1994, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing California's 44th District. On Jan. 5, 1998, Bono died after he hit a tree while skiing at the Heavenly Ski Resort near South Lake Tahoe, Calif. After his death, his widow, Mary Bono, was elected to fill the remainder of his Congressional term, and she has been re-elected to that seat ever since. After Sonny Bono's death, Mary Bono said that her husband has been abusing prescription drugs, and blamed that for his fatal accident. But an autopsy found no narcotics in his body, and only a small amount of Valium.

Actor William Powell specialized in roles as the dapper, distinguished gentleman, but always with a sense of humor. He is best known for his role as Detective Nick Charles in "The Thin Man" film series. He was nominated three times for the Academy Award as Best Actor, but never won. He was married to actress Carole Lombard for two years, and was engaged to actress Jean Harlow at the time of her death in 1937. His last film was "Mister Roberts" (1955).

Actress Diana Lewis was a contract player at MGM studios, appearing in small roles in about a dozen films in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She met William Powell in 1940, when she was 21 and he was 48. They were married three weeks later, and she retired from acting in 1943. Powell gave her the nickname "Mousie," perhaps because she was only 5-foot-1.

William David Powell was the only child of actor William Powell and his first wife, actress Eileen Wilson. His parents divorced in 1930, when William was 5 years old. He become a television writer, with credits including episodes of "Bonanza," "Death Valley," "77 Sunset Strip" and "Rawhide." He also worked as an associate producer at Warner Bros. and Universal Studios, and held an executive position at NBC. After suffering from depression, hepatitis and kidney problems that forced him to quit writing, he committed suicide at the age of 43 by stabbing himself while in the shower. He left a four-page note addressed to his father. The last two sentences of his note read: "Things aren't so good here. I'm going where it's better."

Directly across the street from Desert Memorial Park is Forest Lawn's Cathedral City location, a smallish location (by Forest Lawn standards) which has only above-ground interments in a series of open mausoleums. No one is in the ground here.

Charles "Buddy" Rogers appeared in a bunch of films in the 1920s and 1930s, including "Wings" (1927), which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. But Rogers is best known for his 42-year marriage to actress Mary Pickford. Pickford divorced actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in January 1936, and married Rogers in June 1937. They were married until her death in May 1979. Since Pickford was known as "America's Sweetheart," Rogers became known as "America's Boyfriend" -- which probably sounded better than "America's Third Husband" (Pickford was married once before Fairbanks).

Actress Jane Wyman was the first wife of actor/president Ronald Reagan. Wyman was nominated four times for the Academy Award for Best Actress, winning for "Johnny Belinda" (1948). Not only is Wyman buried at a Forest Lawn property, she was also married at one. Reagan and Wyman were married in the Wee Kirk O' the Heather chapel at Forest Lawn Glendale in 1940.

Guy Madison is best known for his role in "The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok," on both radio and TV in the 1950s. Some of the TV episodes were tied together to make feature films.

Part of singer, actress and TV host Dinah Shore. Half of her ashes are here, and the other half are at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City. In addition to being buried in two places, she also has two streets named after her. Dinah Shore Drive connects the cities of Rancho Mirage and Cathedral City, and Dinah Shore Boulevard is in her hometown of Winchester, Tenn.

John Phillips, member of "The Mamas and the Papas" singing group in the 1960s. The other members were Phillips' wife, Michelle; Denny Doherty; and Cass Elliot. Phillips had five children -- Jeffrey, Mackenzie, Chynna, Tamerlane and Bijou. In daughter Mackenzie's 2009 biography, "High on Arrival," she claimed that she and her father had a 10-year incestuous relationship. The spot next to him is reserved for his fourth wife, Farnaz.

Phil Harris was a bandleader in the 1940s, including working as Jack Benny's bandleader and co-star on Benny's radio series. He also appeared on various comedy and drama TV series through the 1950s and 1960s. And he was the voice of Baloo the Bear in Disney's "The Jungle Book" (1967). His wife, Alice Faye, was a singer and actress and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in the 1930s and early 1940s. Except for a few minor roles, she retired from acting in 1945. Harris and Faye worked together on "The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show" radio show from 1948 to 1954.

Ryan Smith was 20 years old when he was driving his red Acura Integra in Palm Desert. A drunken driver ran a red light and slammed into Ryan's car, killing him. The drunken driver was convicted of second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter, DUI with great bodily injury to multiple victims, hit and run, and driving on a suspended license, and was sentended to 27 years to life in prison. Smith's mother has become active in the Riverside County Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the car Ryan was killed in is taken to schools and other public events as an educational tool to show the dangers of drinking and driving. Ryan's picture also appears on MADD billboards throughout Riverside County.

I had long heard about this epitaph, but I had never actually seen one. Until now.

Not far from Palm Springs, in Joshua Tree, Calif., next to the Joshua Tree National Park, is the Joshua Tree Inn -- a "Cosmic American Motel." And why are we including this location? This is where musician Gram Parsons, of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, died in 1973 ...

... and the Joshua Tree Inn certainly isn't shy about letting people know it.

By the late 1960s, Parsons -- who was a heavy abuser of drugs and alcohol -- had become fascinated by Joshua Tree National Park, and he would often spend days there, searching for UFOs. During one of these outings, Parsons, 26, died in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn on Sept. 19, 1973, from an overdose of morphine and alcohol. Before his death, Parsons said he wanted to be cremated in Joshua Tree and his ashes spread over Cap Rock. His stepfather, however, made arrangements for a private memorial service in New Orleans. Parsons' body was driven to Los Angeles International Airport for the flight to New Orleans when two of his friends stole his coffin at the airport and drove it back to Joshua Tree in a borrowed hearse. To honor Parsons' request, they opened his coffin at Cap Rock, poured five gallons of gasoline inside, and tossed in a lit match. The resulting fireball attracted the attention of the police, and the two friends were arrested. Since there was no law against stealing a dead body, they were fined for stealing and destroying the coffin. The site of the attempted cremation was marked by a small concrete slab, which attracted fans who would camp at the site and scrawl graffiti in the nearby rocks. On the slab someone wrote, "Safe at Home" -- the title of one of Parsons' early recordings.

Since the cremation site was attracting so many unruly visitors to Joshua Tree National Park, the U.S. Park Service decided to have it removed, and it was brought to the Joshua Tree Inn, where it rests in an inside courtyard, just outside of Room 8. Parsons' remains were eventually shipped to Louisiana, where he's buried in the Garden of Memories, in Metairie, just outside of New Orleans.

It was a long drive out to Palm Springs and back, so I took the opportunity for a nap at the dinosaur exhibit in Cabazon.

Once in a while on these cemetery outings, you bump into a real, live, above-ground, walking-and-talking celebrity. And here's actress Liv Tyler visiting the Cabazon dinosaurs with her 5-year-old son, Milo. Honest.

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