23 Aug 2002 – 75th Anniversary of Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service

Seventy-five years later, at least one mystery remains: the identity of the original Lady in Black, who arrived each year on Aug. 23 at 12:10 p.m.–her face obscured by a veil–to silently lay roses at Rudolph Valentino’s crypt. Today, as every year, this question arises as fans, freaks, collectors, an octogenarian silent movie organist–and perhaps a new Lady in Black–gather in the main alcove of the Cathedral Mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery to mourn the silent screen’s “Great Lover” on the anniversary of his death. The Valentino Memorial Service is part reverence, part cheese. Over the decades, this classic example of Hollywood self-memorialization has evolved a culture of its own, luring cultists, the curious and even the lunatic fringe, eliciting from attendees an almost religious fervor. The spectacle of the memorial service has become outrageous over the years, said Valentino memorabilia collector Tracy Terhune, 44. “It became like a circus,” said Terhune, who works in the accounting department of Universal Studios. People were drinking water out of the wall-mounted vases used for flowers, he said, burning incense and conducting seances. “People were saying they were carrying Valentino’s child, even though he had been dead for 20 years.”  The annual ritual–performed at 10 minutes past noon, the exact moment of Valentino’s death from natural causes in 1926 at age 31– is one of Hollywood’s oldest and most famous. The event has continued in one form or another at the cemetery for the last 75 years (only once, when the cemetery was crumbling and close to closing, did the memorial migrate to the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Avenue.) Today, in the mausoleum, the ceremony is to include talks by Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker and Carrie Bible, a film buff and voluntary Lady in Black, who will talk about her predecessors. Eighty-nine-year-old Bob Mitchell, who claims to be the only silent-movie organist still alive, will accompany a compilation of romantic clips from Valentino films. Then, the Valentino pilgrims will walk down the echoing marble hallways to lay flowers and plant lipstick kisses on the crypt of the world’s first celluloid heartthrob.  At dusk, which falls at about 8 p.m., visitors will spread their blankets on the lawn to watch the Valentino movie “Monsieur Beaucaire,” projected on the side of the mausoleum. Mitchell will play a generator-fueled Hammond organ, with a special speaker that will imitate the sound of the Wurlitzer pipe organ once used at all the silent-movie houses in Southern California. Just a few years ago, when the old cemetery was crumbling and close to bankrupt, it looked like the long-running memorial service was nearly dead. But in 1998, a new, publicity-savvy owner gave the cemetery–and the event–a new lease on life.  Tyler Cassidy, a Midwesterner from a family in the “pre-need” funeral business, bought the place for $375,000. He saw the potential of the 62 green acres abutting Paramount Studios, and of a place with more dead movie stars than any other spot on the face of the Earth. Interred in its cool mausoleums and smooth lawns are celluloid greats such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Cecil B. DeMille, Tyrone Power–and, of course, Valentino.  Cassidy had heard tales of the service and the mysterious ladies in black. Still, he was surprised when an old man turned up at his door one day, saying he ran the memorial service, and would like to do it again for a fee. He gave Cassidy his program, which appeared to have remained constant since the 1950s.  The man’s name was Bud Testa. “I was very happy to see him,” Cassidy said. “He was such a character. He was definitely old Hollywood, even in his speech and his dress you could tell he was from the Golden Era. He was still charging 1950s prices.” Cassidy listened to the old PR man and decided to take him up on his offer. (Testa lives in a Glendale rest home; he was unable to give an interview.)  Cassidy was taken aback the first time he witnessed the event. “It was out there,” he recalled. “I didn’t know what to think. I was new to Hollywood. I didn’t have a sense for that kind of flavor. It seemed like the event had so little to do with Valentino. But it definitely it had its own culture. “Rather than judge it, however, Cassidy decided to respect it.  Mitchell has played at the service for two decades, and still plays several times a week at the Silent Movie Theater. In his youth, he played silent films four to five times a week for four years, including for two Valentino films, “The Eagle” and “The Cobra.” That career ended in 1929, the year the last silent were made. Mitchell believes the service, and especially the ladies in black, was always a publicity stunt.  “The cemetery wanted to sell graves,” he said. “They hired a woman to be the Lady in Black, to keep the tradition up. Soon there were two women in black. Last year there was a black woman who came dressed all in white.”  The genesis of the tradition is almost irrelevant now. The event has taken on a life of its own, with intrigues, legends and rivalries. “There were antics, fainting’s, ripping off of veils,” said Terhune, who is hoping to publish a book on the topic.  At the center of the service’s mystique, Terhune explained in a room of his house crammed with Valentino memorabilia, were the various ladies in black.  Though it is said the first Lady in Black visited the crypt the year after Valentino died, all through the 1930s the black-clad mourners multiplied–and refused to identify themselves. Mitchell, the organist, says silent-screen star Pola Negri, who claimed to have been engaged to Valentino, was the first. (Cassidy had heard that one owner of the cemetery hired his own daughter to be the Lady in Black.) By the 1950s, when Testa began organizing the event, the bizarreness seemed to reach its zenith. An offended member of the Valentino family even threatened legal action to stop it. (“The morbidly emotional gags and sideshow antics that take place annually at the grave of Rudolph Valentino in the Hollywood Cemetery may be halted by legal action,” one newspaper reported in 1951.)  “The family not only weren’t involved, but didn’t support the service,” said Jeanine Villalobos, 32, Valentino’s great-great-niece. Villalobos, a doctoral student at UC Irvine, is working on a dissertation about her great-great-uncle, based on newly discovered personal documents. “They felt it was disrespectful and very theatrical. That people were using it for cheap publicity.” She said the family was especially put off by a publicity stunt for a 1951 movie about Valentino, in which actor Anthony Dexter showed up at the crypt in costume with a publicist at his side.  Eventually, numerous ladies in black–from starlets to matrons– were turning up on Aug. 23, vying for fame and newspaper coverage. There were so many that they began giving their names, pretending to faint, ripping each other’s veils off, and throwing flowers at each other, each claiming to be the real Lady in Black.  “A lot of it actually became humdrum,” Terhune said. “Except for the drama of ‘Would she appear?’ And if she does, what would she do? Faint? Sing? Cry?’ And there was always the hope that two ladies in black would face off.” The names of many of the ladies in black have faded with time. But two of the most ambitious, hard-core mourners’ names have stuck. One is Ditra Flame, who claimed she met Valentino as a teen in a boarding house in Los Angeles before he became famous. He visited her when she was sick in the hospital, she said, and they both pledged that whoever died first would bring flowers to the other’s grave. Flame’s last visit was in 1954. After that, she turned to missionary work, dedicating herself to Jesus, rather than Valentino. The other legendary Lady in Black was Estrellita Del Regil, a movie extra who appeared in hundreds of films. She died last year. She claimed her mother was the original Lady in Black.  Several years ago, Terhune obtained the meticulous records of Flame, who kept copies of every letter she sent and received (including those to rival ladies in black), newspaper clippings with personal commentary scribbled in the margins. “J. Edgar Hoover had nothing on her,” said Terhune. “She was going to write a book. “With the passing of Del Regil things have grown tamer. Cassidy says he has tried to put the spotlight back on Valentino. Today’s service, he said, is no longer a publicity stunt, but an effort to keep a tradition alive. Cassidy has even tried to build bridges with the long-alienated Valentino family. Villalobos said that after years of hearing how tacky the event was, she checked it out two years ago. “There was some goofiness,” she said. “But I was impressed that there was still the active fan base, most of whom really do respect him, and really do respect his work.”  Still, Cassidy confessed earlier this week, “I’m afraid it might become too sanitized, that we might be removing the fundamental character by making it too tame. At the same time, we must be somewhat respectful to the man who is interred there.”

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