“Sorry, my brain’s fried right now,” says Scott Michaels, founder of Dearly Departed Tours and Museum.
He’s sitting in the museum's new, larger space across the street from Hollywood Forever Cemetery amid an eclectic selection of movie posters, Hollywood souvenirs, kitschy lamps, paintings of creepy clowns, cabinets, parts of a bed, a hotel room door, old L.A. County Coroner signs and an endless array of cardboard boxes — a random one contains plastic bags of rocks.
In the corner, however, unmissable under the harsh fluorescent lights and set apart by barriers of empty glass-topped counters, is the rusted and smashed wreck of a vintage, faded-blue Buick Electra. It almost looks like an art exhibit, the roof pulled back as if it’s been attacked by the Hulk, a hood shaped like a jagged, inverted “v” that, when lifted, reveals a concertinaed engine.
This was the car that blonde bombshell actress Jayne Mansfield — and her boyfriend and the driver — were killed in on a foggy night in 1967, when they slammed at high speed into a tractor-trailer. Dimming, off-brown streaks on one passenger door are the bloody remnants of Mansfield, who, it's been reported, was virtually scalped when the roof was sheared away.
It's a particularly arresting sight, even if it’s as much as part of Hollywood history as many of the other artifacts here — and there are plenty of them, even if they’re not all on display yet.
“We’re going to keep the lights low in here,” Michaels says, pointing to the glass “viewing window” that was here when the museum arrived but seems almost purpose-built to get a glimpse at what’s going to be an exhibition on Mansfield, who was a kind of riskier, boozier Marilyn Monroe.
The “Mansfield Death Car,” as it was named long ago at the defunct Tragedy in U.S. History Museum in St. Augustine, Florida, is taking the spotlight at the 13-year-old tour company's new location, and is the culmination of phone calls, visits, fundraising, complicated insurance policies and secret nighttime transportation.
The chance to buy the car from its private owner was sudden, but Michaels had no hesitation to cross this off his bucket list, even though he knew it probably meant moving somewhere larger than his former spot on Sunset Boulevard near Amoeba Records.
“The lease was up at the end of February, and I was happy to move anyway. Honestly, it had got too dangerous around there for my staff. And to be honest, I was sick of people shitting in my doorway.”
The magnificent 1991 Cadillac hearse outside (known affectionately as “Torchy” and a throwback to the days when Michaels worked on the famous Grave Line Tours) had to be put on the block for $9,000. Modified with six seats and several sun roofs, it's still available for anyone who wants to travel in real style.
Originally from Detroit, Michaels’ family home was on a corner of a busy street, and he recalls regularly hearing the sounds — and seeing the results — of countless car accidents, though he and his siblings saw it as something normal, and almost a free show.
In 2004, he went back to visit his sister and brother-in-law, who asked what he was planning to do now that he was a tour guide in Hollywood.
Michaels had first dabbled in celebrity death, selling tombstone T-shirts and keychains when he lived in Chicago, but he told them that since he was in L.A., he wanted to start his own tour company. “In those days there were only about a dozen companies of them,” he explains. “Despite the fact we had all been drinking and I had no idea what a business plan was, nor why we ever needed one, they backed me to the hilt,” he says, seemingly still amazed at their decision.
“We’re not the Smithsonian,” he laughs, “but we are a home for the remnants of a Hollywood that’s really long gone but that people still love.”
Some of the artifacts are literally part of Hollywood history: bricks from the Tate murder house, tiles from the Ambassador Hotel kitchen where RFK was assassinated, the door of the hotel room where Divine died, the bed and blankets in which Rock Hudson spent his last night. Michaels has often jumped fences and dodged security guards to get these objects.
“I was always picking up rocks and stuff from places I've visited since I was a kid. Only now it’s more contrived,” he says with a laugh.
Fans donate souvenirs to him, too. He recently received Lana Turner’s director’s chair to go with her cigarette lighter and a perfume bottle. He also buys from thrift stores, yard sales, collectors and auction houses.
Mae West’s false teeth, which are displayed here in a rotating glass case, were rejected by one of those houses, and he’s had Mansfield’s pink suitcase — taken directly from the trunk that fateful night — for years, though the car was always “the big plan” to make Dearly Departed a destination, not just where you come to catch the Helter Skelter or Tragical History tours.
Finding an address that’s basically right across the street from Hollywood Forever was a lucky coincidence, too (believe it or not), and Michaels often strolls through the tourist-friendly resting place of stars including Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Mickey Rooney, Tyrone Power, Mel Blanc, Dee Dee Ramone, Anton Yelchin and Judy Garland, among countless others.
On this particular day, though, an exhausted Michaels, his husband, Troy Musgrave, and his loyal staff are rushing to get the newly christened Dearly Departed Tours & Artifact Museum ready for the “Death Hags” who love the dark underbelly of Tinsel Town, and who will be unleashed at the grand opening this Sunday.
Michaels thrives on a deadline but admits that he’s sweating a couple of last-minute deliveries: a new sign and the huge gates from Jayne Mansfield’s old house. “They’ll set off her exhibit perfectly,” he says.
Visitors can look at West’s teeth, celebrity funeral programs, a drawing by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and many other oddities just by visiting the museum, but to get up close and personal with the Mansfield Death Car is $8.
The Museum opens on Sunday, April 23, at 11 a.m., and daily thereafter.
5901 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. (855) 600-DEAD dearlydepartedtours.com.
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