It's a chilly winter morning at the Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood, and a dozen people arrive to attend a ceremony for someone they never met, who died more than 30 years ago.
A small red flag marks where Thelma Pelish, a larger-than-life actress best known as May in the stage and screen versions of The Pajama Game, was buried in 1983, though you wouldn't have known it until today — because she had no headstone to tell her life story.
Located in block B, lot 247, space 3 in the Restland section of the cemetery — an area once planned for the elaborate resting place of 1930s evangelist and media celeb Aimee Semple McPherson — Pelish isn't the only actor who entered the afterlife in an unmarked grave. The Motion Picture & Television Fund will pay for an actor's plot. Legal issues, financial woes or an uncaring family can mean the place of burial stays bare.
But Scott Michaels, owner of Dearly Departed Tours and Gallery, was determined that this year Pelish would be the latest actor he and others helped give one last curtain call.
"Most of these people are without children or family," says Michaels, recalling that at one time he wanted to honor Harold and Maude screenwriter Colin Higgins, who died of AIDS at 47, but, he says, Higgins' family said no.
Michaels, 52, is an informed and amusing historian specializing in the dark side of Hollywood. He launched his company years ago in Chicago, as a mecca of dead-celebrity memorabilia. Then Hollywood beckoned and he became a guide for the now-defunct Grave Line Tours, which was notorious for hauling tourists around in funky old hearses.
"When I started doing the Dearly Departed bus tours, people looked down their noses at me," Michaels recalls. "Now there's not a single tour company that doesn't go past the house where Michael Jackson died."
Hugely active online and a kind of go-to guy for TV researchers and journalists, his Dearly Departed tour buses are a familiar sight around town.
But this particular dedication to remembering dead celebrities is different — and something he rarely talks about.
His first such project involved marking the grave of Schlitzie, who played Pinhead in the controversial 1932 movie Freaks and seemingly was the inspiration for the character Pepper in the current FX show American Horror Story: Asylum.
The tall, bearded Michaels got a Schlitzie tattoo for his 40th birthday, because he "always felt an affinity" with the actor. Then, when members of the online forum at Michaels' website suggested that Schlitzie deserved a decent headstone, he was happy to contribute financially. "That, and some money for a marker for Peg Entwistle, the chick that jumped off the Hollywood Sign," he adds.
He and his "death hags" have since installed grave markers for Jonathan Hale (Mr. Dithers from the Blondie movies), Manson victim Donald "Shorty" Shea, Wasp Woman Susan Cabot (who was murdered by her son) and Johnny Arthur, an actor best known for playing comedic, effeminate roles in the early talkies.
Arthur "took the hit for gay people, I think," Michaels says, adding, "and Troy and I got married that year, so it was important to me." His husband, Troy Musgrave, is the man in the shadows, who Michaels admits "kicks me in the ass to get things done but never gets any acknowledgement. He loves it just as much as I do."
Musgrave suggested Thelma Pelish, in fact, thinking she'd be an ideal honoree when he found out that she'd appeared in Valley of the Dolls.
Three years ago Michaels created his current approach, which includes an annual grave-marker fundraiser that he calls a chance to "get together, have fun and tell stories" with past Dearly Departed tour guests, historians, researchers, photographers, authors, the odd celeb and other fans of Hollywood.
His fundraiser and ceremonies now draw attendees from across the country — and even further afield.
Over one weekend, a group of death hags will visit museums, the coroner's or other government offices, cemeteries and notable restaurants for demonstrations, lectures, raffles and gossip — with all profits going to that year's chosen decedent.
It's a labor of love for Michaels, who often dips into his own pocket at other times of the year when he's called by the families of recently departed actors.
Well in advance of each event, Michaels does initial research on Findagrave.com in search of someone who "strikes a chord and has some emotional attachment," and then liaises with Valhalla, which is more open than other Los Angeles–area cemeteries to allowing non-relatives to donate grave markers and headstones. "I think they appreciate what we're doing, and that it's done without much fanfare," he says of Valhalla.
His interest in death began way back for Michaels, who grew up in Detroit. He saw a tented graveside setup at a family funeral and asked his mom, "Are we going to the circus?" He was 3. The family home sat at one of the most dangerous intersections in Detroit, where a young Michaels heard — and saw — so many car accidents that death no longer shocked him.
"In a sense, my tours take advantage of people, so this was my way of giving back — earning some karma for doing a good thing," Michaels says. "These people spent their lives yearning to be recognized, and to end up in an unmarked hole in North Hollywood is a shame."
He also donates a portion of the proceeds from his popular Helter Skelter-themed tour to iCAN, a nonprofit crime-victims assistance network that helps people cope and seek justice in the aftermath of violent crime.
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At the Pelish dedication, held in December, Michaels offers a few kind words. He notes that Pelish and the others whose headstones the group has installed "didn't win Oscars or change the world, but they played a part in television shows and movies that we've all enjoyed over the years. They don't deserve to spend eternity anonymously."
A few minutes later, he pulls back a shroud to reveal a shiny, gray headstone engraved with Pelish's name and birth and death dates, plus the legend "We Remembered You." After a toast with glasses of sparkling wine, Michaels explains how he tried to track down a contact person listed on Pelish's death certificate.
"I talked to the building manager at the address," he tells the small group, "and he said that though the lady had lived there for over 30 years, she had recently died." He pauses and adds, "So there's no way for us to find someone who actually knew Thelma. But at least now the entire world knows where she is."
As for Michaels' own plans for eternity, he already has what he calls "a snazzy niche" at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. "Two niches above me is David White, the actor who played Darrin's boss in Bewitched," he laughs. The end of that row of niches is already occupied by an old drinking buddy, Larry. "We had a love-hate friendship, and always joked we'd both die single and alone," Michaels explains, "so when he died I bought a plot nearby. Luckily I haven't needed mine yet."