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E.J. Stephens: Cinema history ‘lives on’ at Eternal Valley

Posted: April 5, 2009 12:12 a.m.
Updated: April 5, 2009 4:30 a.m.
 
From the earliest days of European exploration, the area that today is the Eternal Valley Cemetery in Newhall, has been a site rich with history. In 1769, an expedition sent out by Father Junipero Serra to find the Bay of Monterey, passed through the area. In 1847, American troops under the command of John C. Fremont reportedly camped at the site. A few years later, Sanford Lyon took over a stagecoach station that was on or near the property. A small cemetery was created at that time, which today is preserved in Eternal Valley as the Garden of the Pioneers.

Since 1958, when the current cemetery was created, some of the 27,000 new residents have been people who made their mark on Hollywood history as well.

One of them resides in the Golden Oaks Mausoleum on the cemetery’s north side. Inside the glass doors on the left wall is the crypt of Robert Bice. Bice was a western character actor who had nearly 200 screen and television credits from the 1940s through the ’60s. For years his was a familiar face on shows like “The Lone Ranger,” “The Roy Rogers Show,” “Wagon Train,” “The Rifleman,” and “Perry Mason.” He also made an appearance alongside Elvis Presley in “Jailhouse Rock.” He died in 1968 at the age of 53.

Outside, and a few steps across the street in the Garden of Whispering Pines, are the final resting places of some other film actors, including one of the most recognizable faces from the horror genre.

Swedish-born actor and wrestler Tor Johnson rests in plot 177. Johnson had a three-decade career in films, beginning in 1933. He appeared on screen with several of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Eddie Cantor, Abbott & Costello, and W.C. Fields. He was featured in several A-list productions, including “Shadow of the Thin Man” with William Powell and Myrna Loy, “The Canterville Ghost” with Charles Laughton, “State of the Union” with Kathryn Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and “Road To Rio” with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour.

But it was an appearance in a less than stellar production for which Johnson is best remembered. In 1959, Johnson played a zombie, alongside Bela Lugosi and Vampira, in cross-dressing director Ed Wood’s magnum-opus of schlock, “Plan Nine From Outer Space” — a film widely regarded as the worst ever made. Four-hundred pound Johnson’s face was later immortalized as a best-selling Halloween mask. Johnson died in 1971.

Several steps down the hill in the same section is the simple marker for George Spahn. Spahn figured into Hollywood film and criminal history as the owner of the Spahn Movie Ranch in Chatsworth. The movie ranch, which was once owned by Newhall resident William S. Hart, was often used as a location for “Bonanza” and “The Lone Ranger.” Charles Manson’s Family lived at the ranch while carrying out the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969. It was rumored that the 80-year-old Spahn let the group stay at the ranch in exchange for keeping company with the girls in Manson’s group.

Nearby, in plot 314 in an unmarked grave, rests Ace Cain. Cain was a gambler and bootlegger during prohibition and played the “bad guy” in a series of 1930s B-Westerns. In his declining years, he was rumored to operate a house of ill-repute in Saugus.
Back across the street and to the west of the mausoleum is the Zane Grey Garden. At the far end along a line of shrubs is the grave of Tex Williams. Williams, who was born Sollie Paul Williams in Illinois, had a long career as a country singer/songwriter. During the 1940s and ’50s he also starred in a series of low-budget western musicals for Universal, known as “oaters.”

Williams first struck musical gold as the lead singer of the Spade Cooley Orchestra. In 1945, their single “Shame On You” became a smash hit and stayed on the country charts for 31 weeks. Later, Eternal Valley neighbor Cliffie Stone offered Williams his own recording contract and he left Cooley to form “Tex Williams and His Western Caravan.” In 1947, their single “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” topped both the country and the pop charts, and became Capitol Records’ first million-selling record. Not surprisingly, the singer would succumb to lung cancer in his Newhall home in 1985.

One hundred yards further up the hill is the grave of Henry Wills, who died in 1994 on the day following his 73rd birthday. Wills’s face was not well-known, but his work as a stuntman in countless westerns made lots of stars look more heroic. He set a cinematic record with over 1,500 horse falls in his long career, and doubled for some of the biggest western stars, including Alan Ladd and Roy Rogers. His grave is in the Will Rogers Garden, plot 132.

Towards the top of the hill at the upper end of the Garden of Prayer rests another musical legend. Cliffie Stone, born Clifford Snyder, was a country singer, musician, disk jockey, record producer, author, and music publisher. As the host of the “Hometown Jamboree” radio program from 1946-1960, he helped launch the careers of dozens of country musicians. The multi-tasking Stone was signed by Capitol Records in Hollywood as both an artist and as head of their country/western department. (It was in this role that he was able to offer a contract to Tex Williams.) Towards the end of his life, he kept busy as the director of Gene Autry’s vast publishing empire. He was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at the corner of Sunset and Vine, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989.

He rests in plot 334 next to the grave of his first wife. There is an additional memorial below his plaque placed by his second wife, engraved with a message that ends with the words, “I thank God for giving me the gift of you!”

On the far south side of the cemetery in the Garden of Meditation rests singer Roy Brown. Roy James Brown was born in New Orleans in 1925. He began his career as a gospel singer, but later switched to the blues, and is now considered to be a pioneer voice in rock and roll history.

He recorded his most famous song, “Good Rocking Tonight,” in 1947. The song was later covered by Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, and a host of other performers. A dazzling showman, Brown helped pave the way for later performers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. His fortunes declined during the 1960s to the point that he was forced to sell encyclopedias to make ends meet. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981, the same year that he died.

In the Garden of Liberty plot 218 is the grave of Edmund Gilbert. Gilbert, who died of lung cancer in 1999 at the age of 67, acted in several television series in the 1960s and ’70s, but was better known for his voice. He mouthed the voices of several animated characters, including Baloo the Bear in the Disney animated series “TaleSpin.”

Towards the center of the cemetery in the Garden of Peace plot 270, is the grave of Noble Johnson. Johnson, whose grave is marked with his real name — Mark Noble — was a character actor and producer, who had a career in films that lasted from the early silent era until 1950. As an African-American, he was often cast in black, Latino, Native-American, Arab, and “exotic” roles. He played alongside Rudolph Valentino in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” and with Douglas Fairbanks in “The Thief of Bagdad.” When talkies came about, Johnson easily made the transition. He appeared as the tribal leader of Skull Island in both “King Kong” and its sequel “Son of Kong.” He died of natural causes in 1978.

Down the hill in plot 91 of the Garden of Repose rests Eternal Valley’s most famous resident, rocker Gene Vincent. Eugene Vincent Craddock was born in Virginia in 1935. He got his first guitar at the age of 12 and dropped out of school to join the navy a few years later. While in the navy, he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. While recuperating, he wrote the classic rock and roll song “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” This song, which was later covered by everyone from Queen to John Lennon, quickly went gold and led to Vincent and his band, The Blue Caps, earning a spot in the epic rock and roll film “The Girl Can’t Help It,” starring Jayne Mansfield.

Vincent continued to perform until his death, but never equaled the success of “Be-Bop.” He died from the effects of alcoholism in 1971, and was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

Eternal Valley Memorial Park and Mortuary is located at 23287 North Sierra Highway in Newhall. The Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society will present “Plan Nine From Outer Space” this year as part of the “Flickers at the Junction” film series. For details, call (661) 254-1275, or visit www.scvhs.org.

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