Beneath the rolling green acres, sparkling granite headstones and abundance of flower vases that characterize Holy Cross Cemetery and Mortuary lie the stories of buried Hollywood starlets and a rich lore that makes it one of Culver City's top historical locations—and the final resting place of more than 160,000 people.
Holy Cross Cemetery's 200 acres once belonged to the Rancho La Ballona, the plot of land that Agustin Machado claimed during his legendary dusk to dawn ride in 1819. Family lore and the city of Culver City have it that Machado was chosen of the four original settlers to claim the rights to graze their cattle on the land because of his skill as a horseman.
Juan Alvarado, the governor of California during Mexican rule, then confirmed their land grant in 1839 by the California Land Act. Much of modern Culver City is built on that 14,000-acre rancho.
In 1939—one hundred years later—the Archdiocese of Los Angeles purchased 200 acres of that land to create a new cemetery. That plot of land was chosen for its "rolling hills, peaks and valleys," said the Archdiocese's website.
The Archdiocese's decision fell just three years after the final alterations were made to separate the Archdioceses of Los Angeles and San Diego. It was a late start for Holy Cross, as many of the archdiocese's cemeteries were founded in the preceding century.
Attempts by this reporter to contact the Archdiocese and Deacon Sam Frias via email and phone were unsuccessful.
Although Culver City historian Julie Lugo Cerra's family has been in the area for more than five generations, she said that due to Holy Cross' late acquisition, her family is buried in the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica, which was established in 1897 by the City of Santa Monica.
"You don't find too many early families there," Cerra said of Holy Cross.
Despite its ill timing for the early families of Culver City, Holy Cross' opening seemed perfectly timed with the boom in the movie industry. Culver City's motto the "Heart of Screenland" was beginning its full swing; that year, both "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz" were filmed just a few miles from the cemetery's gates.
Three actors from "The Wizard of Oz" are buried at Holy Cross, including Jack Haley who was cast as the "Tin Man" and Ray Bolger, who played "the Scarecrow."
Other celebrities buried at Holy Cross include actress Rita Hayworth, musician Harry "Bing" Crosby and Sharon Tate and her unborn child—the victims of Charles Manson's murderous sprees.
Actor John Candy, who was featured in films such as "Uncle Buck" and "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," lies within the Holy Cross mausoleum, which opened on April 8,1961. Cerra said the mausoleum is made up of concrete—part of which was imported from Paris—and Los Angeles artist Isabel Piczek painted three murals on its walls. Piczek is most known for winning the International Grand Award for painting in Rome at the age of 14.
An estimated 6,500 people are entombed in the mausoleum, Cerra said.
But the most renowned—and controversial—of Holy Cross's internees is Bela Lugosi, the original Count Dracula.
Lugosi found his fame playing the title role in the 1931 film "Dracula." He died on Aug. 16, 1956 and was buried wearing a Dracula cape. Lugosi's legacy, however, continued long after his death.
In 1979, the Lugosi v. Universal Pictures lawsuit concluded that Lugosi's personality rights—or the right to control the commercial use of his name or likeness—could not extend to his heirs. Generally, the rights to publicity or image terminate with death.
The Lugosi family also decided to protect the image of Bela at Holy Cross, complaining about photographers snapping photos of his gravesite. As a result, photography is banned from Holy Cross Cemetery grounds.
Through the years, a number of land use issues have surfaced that affected the cemetery that houses many of Hollywood's deceased elite. Fox Hills, the neighborhood in which Holy Cross is located, was annexed to the city of Culver City in 1964. However, only part of Holy Cross went with it.
"That since has been rectified," said Cerra, explaining that the entire cemetery is now located in Culver City.
Today, Holy Cross remains the "largest and most beautiful cemetery in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles," according the archdiocese's website. Like the gravestones that mark the final resting places of its thousands of internees, Holy Cross Cemetery serves as a marker of the history of Culver City.