Every August 23, on the date of his untimely death in 1926, a memorial service is held for silent screen icon Rudolf Valentino.
It takes place in the foyer of the Cathedral Mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in the heart of Hollywood. When the 85th annual remembrance arrives later this year, one would think it would be well publicized locally and well attended.
Well, no and yes—or, more nearly, no and sort of.
Although attendance at the service is free, on a first come first seated basis; and although the well-planned and managed schedule of events (complete with a beautifully designed and printed souvenir program) is a feast of old Hollywood nostalgia for all present, it has apparently been a longstanding policy of the cemetery (originally called Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, and located on Santa Monica Boulevard adjacent to the north wall of Paramount Studios) not to advertise the event. If you know, you go; if you don’t, it goes by once again without you, although you may notice, tucked away unobtrusively in a section of the L.A. Times the next day, a short piece on the ceremony.
By the way, who else resides at Hollywood Forever? What plaques and headstones might you notice if you arrive early and wander around before the noon ceremony for Valentino, or linger later, after the hour-long program concludes? Only the likes of old-time acting legends like Douglas Fairbanks and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Paul Muni, Adolphe Menjou, Renee Adoree, Janet Gaynor, Marion Davies, and Tyrone Power; then there’s King Kong dangling victim Fay Wray, and the inimitable Peter Lorre; there are giants of directing such as Cecil B. DeMille, Victor Fleming, and John Huston; along with more recent notables like Jayne Mansfield, Darren McGavin, Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone; and scores of others. The headstone for genius voice actor Mel Blanc appropriately proclaims “That’s all, folks.” His Porky Pig could not have said it better.
And the Valentino program itself? Always some traditional offerings, and always a new twist or two. His life and career are memorialized in both words and song by a succession of presenters, some of whom we know, and some we should have been aware of. A highlight is always current “Lady in Black,” the lovely Kari Bible, recounting for all present the history of controversial Ditra Flame, the original Lady in Black. The seated audience (about 75) as well as a smattering of eager onlookers at the entrance are likewise treated to words both written about and by the legendary Valentino, both in prose and poetry. The house comes down when late in the program Ian and Regina Whitcomb—he of the 1960s novelty hit song “You Turn Me On”-- give their rendition first of “There’s a New Star in Heaven Tonight,” and then a rousing version of “The Sheik of Araby.”
The proceedings conclude, however, on the solemnest of notes as the audience is led to participate in a unison reading of the 23rd Psalm. The ambience in the high-arched cathedral hall is then not unlike that of the rather dazed but somehow life-affirming and invigorating catharsis Aristotle promised we would experience at the end of a classical Greek tragic drama. We slowly file out, and the heat and bright sunlight of an early Southern California August afternoon remind us that, somehow, nearly 100 years have passed since Rudolph Valentino left us, and that we now have real lives to continue living.