The Hollywood Mythos of Hollywood Forever Cemetery

by M-Gillies

The Hollywood Forever Cemetery has survived everything from felons to earthquakes and today continues to be restored to its former grandeur.

Boasting old-fashioned upright headstones, monuments and statues, this large cemetery with two huge indoor mausoleums and countless outdoor graves is the home to many of Hollywood’s founders and stars. Like an iconic backdrop, the Hollywood sign can be seen in the distance, atop the Hollywood Hills. To the south, the historic back lot of the famous Paramount Studios sits, its water tower looming over head − an effigy to the former stars who now reside in the property.

Built in 1899, the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery was the first cemetery in Hollywood, paralleling the rise of the film industry, and soon becoming known for its disparate throng of movie stars, pioneer settlers, exiles from czarist Russia, Confederate soldiers and titans of the film industry. From Rudolph Valentino to Mel Blanc; Douglas Fairbanks Sr. to Jr.; Virginia Rappe to Jayne Mansfield, Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery is home to many of the famous, however, something happened or rather someone happened to shroud the celebrity resting place with old Hollywood mythos.

His name was Jules A. Hine Frederick Roth − born July 23, 1900 − and like a character right out of a Hollywood screenplay, the man was good-looking, smartly dressed and held the  reputation for being a wealthy mogul. But as history will see it, the man who ran Hollywood’s Memorial Park was nothing more than a thief, convicted felon, and a natural swindler who embezzled millions of dollars from the cemetery that catered to the iconic stars of Hollywood.

It was in his early twenties when Roth met a silver-tongued con artist named C. C. Julian − a man who had been taking advantage of the tremendous oil boom occurring in Southern California. By using an innovative newspaper advertising style, Julian had earned millions of dollars in a pyramid scheme, allowing him the ability to set-up a profusion of oil derricks and gas stations across the region.

It wasn’t long before things began to fall apart with the Julian Petroleum Company. With Roth acting as vice-president of the company and enormous fraudulent maneuverings, the ledgers a mess and the stock watered down, suspicions quickly grew. However, it was only after Julian had sold his shares of the company to a businessman named Sheridan C. Lewis that the shady investment operation, which continued to grow to 1927, finally imploded.

A number of men went to jail, while both Roth and Julian fled from authorities, who faced mail-fraud charges. Though Julian made it to Shanghai, it was there were he burned through his remaining funds before committing suicide in 1934. Meanwhile, Roth, wanted on 39 counts, including grand theft and securities violations, retreated back to his homeland of Canada. But his freedom was short lived after he was apprehended in Winnipeg, Manitoba. However, after a court hearing, Roth managed to sneak through a door reserved for jurors before disappearing to New York, where again he was arrested and soon extradited to Los Angeles.

Convicted on 21 counts during his month long trial, Roth was sentenced to nine-to-95 years incarceration in San Quentin. However, as luck would have it, his stint was short-lived when he won parole in 1937 after serving only 5 years.

At the age of 36, Roth was an ex-con with a shady reputation but despite his only criminal past, he bounded back on his feet once again. It was only after he bought out the investors of Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery (a cemetery in which both his parents were buried) and one which had been the preferred final resting place for the early stars and moguls of the silent era in 1939. His procurement was further made easier in part because of the advent of Forest Lawn (built in 1906). While the older cemetery lost much of its cachet, it soon declined into the cliched relic of former Tinseltown glamour, but its decline was further cemented under Roth’s ownership.

It wasn’t enough that the cemetery’s desirable location and large roster of prominent early movie stars, such as Rudolph Valentino, Peter Lorre and Cecil B. DeMille had been buried there − Roth paid minimal attention to the property’s upkeep. As the cemetery fell into disrepair, headstones and crypts crumbling and the grounds going untended, questions soon grew as to where the cemetery’s endowment funds went. In fact, Roth, who had been siphoning money from its operations to pay for luxuries, including a yacht which he had argued was for scattering the ashes of clients (further claiming it as a tax deduction), but which had mostly been used to entertain himself and various women.

It wasn’t long until an employee of Roth’s reported his yacht scam to the IRS, resulting in the owner being forced to sell off portions of the cemetery’s buildings along Santa Monica Boulevard to settle the resultant tax bill. After nearly a century and as old as the cemetery itself, Roth, was bankrupt by 1997 and died the following year, leaving the cemetery void of 9 million dollars, property that had never been connected to the city water and crypts suffering severe roof damage caused by earthquakes.

The cemetery is situated adjacent to Paramount Studios in the heart of the Hollywood Hills.

With the cemetery on the verge of closure in the bankruptcy proceedings, along came 28-year-old Tyler Cassity of a family-owned Missouri-based Forever Enterprises. Partnered with his brother, Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery was purchased in 1998 for $375,000, renamed Hollywood Forever and soon restored, refurbished and revitalized for the new millennium.

For the next 12 years Hollywood Forever saw a resurgence in its popularity, particularly with the introduction of Cinespia, an event which allowed people to visit the cemetery, bringing blankets, pillows and picnic dinners to watch digitally projected films, both contemporary and canonical, against the west wall of the Cathedral Mausoleum, which houses the crypt of Rudolph Valentino. It was in 2002 when one of the co-creators of Cinespia, John Wyatt introduced the idea to Cassity, with money from the event being used to restore the cemetery property after its years of significant disrepair.


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