"You'll recall how Jack Haley got a heart as the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz ," our tour guide says as the long, gray funeral car approaches his old Beverly Hills home. "Well, here's where it suddenly stopped ticking on June 6, 1979."
Hey, any Hollywood tourist can buy a map off a street corner and see where the stars live. It's much more fun, in a morbid sense, to see where they died. Especially if they went out in a sizzling blaze of embarrassment.Grave Line Tours is a gleefully ghoulish alternative to the countless sightseeing charters that herd tourists into buses and vans in front of the famed Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Passengers with a taste for the macabre pay $44 to pile into a 1969 Cadillac hearse for a 2-hour trip through Tinseltown's scandal-ridden past.
The 80 "kooky and spooky attractions" visited include the high-priced digs where Sal Mineo and Bugsy Siegel were murdered; the "suicites" where Freddie Prinze, Alan Ladd and Superman's George Reeves took their own lives; the hotels and nightspots where Janis Joplin, John Belushi and River Phoenix died of overdoses; and the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Courtney Street. "Hugh Grant made history here," tour guide Ray Savage says with a snicker.
Just added are Frank Sinatra's home and the public restroom where singer George Michael gave his infamous solo performance.
"It's like watching the news at night," said Greg Smith, Grave Line's director of undertakings. "Instead of taking the news to the people, we take the people to the news. We just kind of do it in reverse - to see where the real `Dead Man's Curve' was, or if you go to England, to stand on the spot where Anne Boleyn lost her head. To look around and think, `Ew, this is the last view she had.' "
Smith, a student of Hollyweird history, founded Grave Line Tours in October 1988. The service has since become one of the town's most popular offbeat attractions, as well as a featured answer in Trivial Pursuit and on Jeopardy!
Smith plans to open similarly irreverent tours of Chicago and Kansas City, Mo., this year, along with a crawl through New York City's seedy underbelly in 1999 and London in 2000.
Grave Line draws locals and tourists alike. "This goes back to Shakespeare: `Tell sad stories about the death of kings,' " said Ardis Moe, an L.A. AIDS researcher taking the tour with her friend Jim Menard, a wildlife official visiting from Alaska.
Each passenger receives a celebrity death certificate - we opted for "probable suicide" Marilyn Monroe - along with maps of Westwood and Hollywood Memorial Parks and directions to sites not on the tour route, such as Nicole Brown Simpson's former condo.