Everybody Wants a Star-Studded Funeral, But Nobody Wants to Die
When I worked at a mortuary, I met people who’d get excited and want to hear all about it. So, I’d tell them a story, and pretty soon, they’d move away and not want to talk to me again. I never told the gruesome stuff; a lot of times, I was just answering their questions. Perhaps the conversation triggered feelings about their own mortality. Who knows? Most people don't like to think about funerals. But people do like Hollywood stories. So, this following story was one of the exceptions.
Maybe it was in the movie “Singing in the Rain.” One of the scenes took place at a big Hollywood premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater; a guy in a tuxedo said, “Folks, there are more stars here than in the heavens!” The guy could barely contain his excitement, just like the reporters you see gushing and fawning over actors on the red carpet just before the Oscars. Celebrity funerals were very similar.
Vincent Minnelli was a director of classic movie musicals Meet Me in St.Louis, The Band Wagon, and the Best Picture Oscar Winners, Gigi and An American in Paris. He was father to Liza Minnelli from his marriage to Judy Garland. He died in Beverly Hills on July 25, 1986. His funeral was held at Forest Lawn Cemetery a few days later on a swelting day in Los Angeles.
The lush green hills of Forest Lawn with its quaint storybook churches nestled throughout the park and a large mausoleum that resembled a movie set cathedral were separated into sections with names like Hills of Everlasting Peace, Sunset Valley, and Slumberland. Some of the older guys working there nicknamed it Disneyland for the dead.
I’d only been working there for a few weeks, so I was still learning the ins and outs of being one of their new Flower Attendants. Flower Attendant was an entry-level position for guys who were desperate for a job and didn’t really have any experience at anything else (after high school, I put my bets down on becoming an actor and writer. At 24 years old, I discovered that my rise to fame and financial security was a slow climb rather than a rocket ride.) The Flower Attendant’s job was to get the flowers to the graveside once the funeral was over at the church.
Minnelli’s funeral was held at a church on the grounds of Forest Lawn. My supervisor handed me a pair of white gloves and directed me to stand in the street and open the doors of limousines as they drove up. So, I stood at the curb in my black polyester pants, hunter green polyester jacket, and white gloves and opened doors to limousines. I guided actress Lorna Luft from her car, Liza Minnelli, and her escort, Micheal Jackson, from their vehicle. Saying anything to these people was strictly a no-no. And you couldn’t greet them with a big, staring-eyed smile. It was a funeral, after all. A simple stoic nod was it. But nobody was looking at me anyway. The gang of reporters roped off just outside the church shouted at the stars walking in. One reporter yelled at me to “Get the F*** out of the way!” because I stood between him and Bob Hope. Once again, this was a funeral.
My supervisor directed me to a room no bigger than a freight elevator behind the church and instructed me to wait there. “I will bring the pallbearers in, and you just wait in here with them,” he said.
I stood there and waited. Then the pallbearers entered. Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Ricardo Montalban, Jack Haley Jr., and Kenny Rogers. The seven of us stood in the little room. Jimmy Stewart shook Gregory Peck’s hand and said, “That was a lovely eulogy, Greg.” Micheal Jackson donned in a black suit, black fedora, and one white glove, suddenly appeared at the entry door and asked the men if they knew the way to the restroom. I pointed in the direction, and he quickly disappeared. The men looked toward Kenny Rogers, who shrugged.
I thought to myself, “These men are giants in the entertainment industry, and here I am, some idiot kid making $7 an hour. I could reach out and touch each of them if I didn’t need this job.” I took a deep breath and did my best stone-face. I felt small and insignificant until my ego kicked in.
I glanced at Ricardo Montalban and considered how small he was. Just five years earlier, he was all over movie screens as Kahn in a blockbuster Star Trek movie, and he looked huge and intimidating, but here he looked small and old, as did Kirk Douglas. Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck were very old men who wore very old suits. Suits that were probably in style in 1975, but not 1986. I thought, wait a minute, I’ve seen Jimmy wearing that same suit on the Tonight Show. Jack Haley Jr. was the son of Jack Haley, the Tinman in the Wizard of Oz, so there was that. And Kenny Rogers, I was never a fan of country music, so in my book, he was a one-hit-wonder with “I just stopped in to see what condition my condition was in.” Micheal Jackson had to pee so bad he used a public restroom, just like the rest of us slobs.
These people were just people who would end up like the guy they were there for one day. Pretty soon, the casket was rolled into the room. Each of the men grabbed a handle and proceeded to move it forward, out of the room, down a narrow pathway lined with screaming paparazzi, and to the funeral coach (Hearse. There were certain words we were not allowed to use. Hearse, coffin, corpse, and grave were a few). I followed behind.
Afterward, Jimmy Stewart walked past me, smiled, and patted me on the shoulder. “Thanks for your help,” he said. And that’s the story about the time I met the great Jimmy Stewart!
A mortuary/cemetery called Slumberland is one of the settings in my new novel, Last Stop Slumberland. It’s a suspense thriller where I tip my hat to many films by Alfred Hitchcock. Jimmy Stewart isn’t in it.