Below and above the stars

Sunday, August 22, 2004

LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Amid the mausoleums and headstones at Hollywood Forever Cemetery about 1,700 living guests have unfurled picnic blankets and set up beach chairs, erected makeshift coffee tables with flowers and candles, and unpacked dinners.

They're here for cinema cemetery-style, an experience shared with the graveyard's 88,000 long-term residents. Later, the night's film will start, projected on a mausoleum wall.

"It's the ultimate L.A. experience," film fan Mark Koberg said between mouthfuls of smoked turkey and arugula sandwiches, washed down with wine.

Six years ago the cemetery, which adjoins Paramount Studios' backlot, wouldn't have been as inviting.

Though at least a hundred Hollywood icons are laid to rest there -- including actor Rudolph Valentino, "Ten Commandments" producer Cecil B. DeMille and Bugs Bunny voice Mel Blanc -- the cemetery's own fame had faded. Its previous owners had run it into bankruptcy, and a 1994 earthquake left tombstones tilted and cracked, while El Nino rains flooded its lake.

Then in 1998, St. Louis native Tyler Cassity, a cemetery entrepreneur, bought the century-old graveyard for $375,000. He operates seven cemeteries in California, Illinois and Missouri. His first charge in Hollywood, however, was revitalizing the cemetery.

Starting with ValentinoHe also began showing movies. And he believes he's the only person in the country to combine classic movies and mausoleums.

Cassity began by showing a Valentino film on the anniversary of the romantic hero's death, when 200 to 300 fans would come by to pay their respects. Then he was approached by John Wyatt, the founder of Cinespia, a Los Angeles film society dedicated to screening and preserving classic films. The society was growing too large to go to screenings as a group and was looking for a new home, one with history, Wyatt said.

Cassity said the partnership felt right: historic movies in a historic setting. Since then, Cinespia has made the 620-acre park its movie theater on summer weekends, and next year's season is already being planned.

Growing mainly via e-mail and word of mouth, the event (billed as an evening "below and above the stars") has been surprisingly successful, and even as it has grown it has retained a small-group feel -- visitors making friends and sharing food with their neighbors.

Visitors do keep some distance during the evening events. They don't actually sit on graves, though a few family mausoleums ring the perimeter of the lawn where movies are shown, including those of actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and his father, who helped co-found United Artists.

The crowd of mostly 20- and 30-somethings, some in the movie and public relations industry themselves, seem to recognize they're in a special place. They pick up after themselves, and that's helped keep complaints to a minimum -- only two so far.

Some guests acknowledged being a little "creeped out" by the cemetery. But, the time and the location didn't bother Russell Rabichev, who watched a movie one recent weekend.

"After two minutes you forget it's a cemetery," he said.

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