Pre- or Post-Cruise: L.A.'s Death Tour

| Wednesday, 05 Mar. 2003

Let's say before or after your cruise, you have a day to spend in Los Angeles to soak up some of sights. Longing for a taste of Tinseltown, you head to Hollywood to walk in the steps of the stars, but you want something more, something different, something … well, even sordid.

The newest Hollywood excursion may be the best way to (pardon the pun) kill some time, for visitors can now experience the quirky Dearly Departed Tour. Unveiled in January, the new excursion is billed as "The Tragical History Tour" of Hollywood.

The three-hour outing showcases sights that other tours won't mention. For example, you will see where William Frawley of "I Love Lucy" fame dropped dead on a Hollywood corner after attending a movie; the apartment where Dracula's Bela Lugosi died after years of morphine addiction; and the place where James Dean picked up his silver Porsche before heading north to his death in a fiery crash.

In between those places, other well-known – albeit infamous – sights are showcased, including the spot where Zsa Zsa Gabor slapped a cop, the place where actor Hugh Grant was arrested in the company of a prostitute, and the restaurant where actress Sharon Tate had her last meal before being murdered by the Manson Family.

As creator and owner Scott Michaels told the L.A. Times, he "knows where the bodies are buried" in Hollywood. He is no newcomer to touring the seemier side of La La Land. Until the early ‘90s, he ran the well-known Graveline Tours, which chauffeured its customers about in a gray hearse. After leaving the U.S. for a five-year stint in Britain and penning a popular guide to the cult movie classic "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," Michaels returned to his roots – spotlighting the infamous, tawdry and scandalous side of Hollywood.

On a recent Sunday, a group of 12 – yours truly included -- gathered on a side street just off Hollywood Boulevard and stepped aboard Dearly Departed's white van. We were off to see the sights other tourists might miss, riding in Michaels' "Tomb Buggy," complete with a black wreath on the front grill.

Pausing outside the Knickerbocker Hotel, Michaels explains that this is where single-named costume designer Irene committed suicide by jumping from her room, landing on the awning above the hotel's entrance. This was also where troubled actress Frances Farmer was dragged away to a future of mental institutions, and where famed silent screen director D.W. Griffith died of a heart attack in the lobby.

Driving along Hollywood's main thoroughfares, Michaels points out more innocuous sights, including the tobacco shop where Bela Lugosi stopped every day for a cigar, and the restaurant where Marilyn Monroe held her wedding dinner when she married at age 16.

Passing down the tree-lined boulevards of Beverly Hills, Michaels points out the occasional star's home before turning off on a picturesque lane. As the van's sound system plays a recording of Paul Lynde singing a tune from "Bye Bye Birdie," tourists are given a clue of what they are about to see from the song's lyrics: "What's the matter with kids today?" Then the van stops before an Italian-style manse with Palladian windows. This is the former home of Jose and Kitty Menendez, killed by their two sons, Lyle and Erik, in 1989. The heinous nature of the crime is underscored as Michaels plays a recording of Lyle's Oscar-winning performance when he called police to report the murders. Both brothers were tried, convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

Another stop in 90210 is the two-story mansion on Linden Drive where gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was gunned down while reading the newspaper in the living room. Around the corner, a pretty white colonial-style home belies its sordid past as the place where the daughter of actress Lana Turner stabbed the screen siren's boyfriend to death in the second floor master bedroom.

Off winding Benedict Canyon Drive is perhaps one of the most infamous homes of modern times – the site where actress Sharon Tate and four others were brutally killed by members of the Manson Family in 1969. The ranch-style home was razed in 1994 and replaced by a Mediterranean-style mansion, but Michaels can still point out where the killers parked their car, the telephone lines that were cut, etc.

Not all stops on the excursion relate to mayhem and murder. As fellow guest Mark Masek said, "What else can you say about a tour when one of the highlights is the restroom break?" That was the consensus among the group outside the men's room at Will Rogers Park in Beverly Hills, where singer George Michael was arrested in 1998 on charges of engaging in a lewd act before an undercover police officer. This tour "photo op" was not passed up by those on the excursion, as some took turns re-creating the less racy parts of the incident.

The tour continues past numerous film locations, including those of the horror classics "Halloween" and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" before winding up back where it started just two blocks from the famous Chinese Theater.

Passenger Jennifer Goldstein summed up the afternoon best when she said, "Unless one has absolutely no interest in Hollywood, they are going to love this tour."

The Dearly Departed Tour is offered Thursday through Sunday, at 1 p.m., and leaves from the corner of McCadden Place and Hollywood Boulevard. Tickets are $35 per person. Reservations: 323-466-3696 or www.dearlydepartedtours.com. Private tours are available.

Harry Martin is the moderator of the Mexico and G/L message boards on Cruisemates.


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