Hillside Memorial Park: A Jewish Modernist Masterpiece in the Midst of the City | KCET
Hillside Memorial Park: A Jewish Modernist Masterpiece in the Midst of the City
If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Los Angeles is the city that never stops. Nowhere is this more evident than when you are standing atop the spectacular Al Jolson Memorial in the bubble of peace that is Hillside Memorial Park. The park is lush and ordered, with perfectly maintained green lawns, elegant mid-century modern mausoleums, and solemn shrines. But encircling the perimeters of this sophisticated oasis are office towers, malls, apartment buildings and the throbbing 405 freeway. The noise of cars is ever present, but if you pause, you can hear the sound of water pouring from the Jolson Memorial's lovely 120-ft waterfall into a shimmering reflecting pool below.
In all my visits to the graveyards of Los Angeles, I have never seen a more comfortable or well-maintained cemetery than Hillside Memorial. Complimentary water bottles, with the "Hillside Memorial" logo, have been placed on a tray for mourners attending an upcoming service. In the chic Paul Williams-designed main mausoleum, there are deep couches and perfectly polished stone walls that remind me of the old department stores and cafeterias my grandmother took me to in my youth. The walls are lined with urns containing the ashes of departed loved ones, with cheerful and poignant family snapshots and mementoes placed next to the urns. Large stained glass windows, featuring scenes from nature or abstract shapes, filter in colored light.
Outside, under the bright blue sky, we walk along paths featuring sleek family pavilions, and four fascinating bas relief sculptures by Mary Ann Devine, representing Bible passages with special meaning to the Jewish people. Everything feels familiar; everything feels like Los Angeles. Like the best of Los Angeles. It seems fitting that no matter how deep you walk into the grounds, you can never quite escape the sights and sounds of the surrounding city. It is fitting because scores of the women and men who created this busy city, who built the movie studios, the hospitals, the charities, the schools, and the industries that make Los Angeles great, are buried in these gently sloping hills.
The Family Business
In 1929, the first licensed Jewish mortuary west of Chicago was formed by Charles Groman and Louis Glasband. Called Glasband-Groman-Glasband, it serviced the needs of Los Angeles' expanding Jewish population. The mortuary owners had strong ties to the Jewish community from the beginning, and were known for numerous charitable endeavors. According to Hillside Memorial's Distinctive Residents Book:
Charles' sons Harry and Robert grew up in the heart of Los Angeles, and attended high school in downtown L.A. Harry graduated from law school and soon became an investigator with the District Attorney's office, working for a time in the office of the legendarily corrupt Asa Keyes. Robert became a mortician. The brothers were involved in many civic, religious and business ventures. In 1936, four years after their father Charles died, they opened Groman Mortuaries together.
By the early '40s, there was a need for a new Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles. The old Jewish burial grounds in Boyle Heights were filling up and had gone out of style. Beth Olam in Hollywood, where many early movie moguls lay, was also getting crowded. More and more Jewish families were moving to Westside enclaves like Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades. On May 23, 1941, B'nai B'rith Memorial Park was incorporated as a for profit venture. Harry, Robert, and lawyer Bernard Lazare were its directors. They bought 35 acres of rolling hills in an undeveloped area near Inglewood. However, plans were stalled when the Board of Supervisors initially rejected their request for a permit, due to the objections of the Inglewood Chamber of Commerce. In July, 1943, after a 14-month fight, the cemetery, now called Hillside Memorial Park, was given a permit to operate. Harry was listed as president, with Robert as secretary. Lazare was no longer a director (though he is buried at Hillside).
The early years at Hillside were peaceful and profitable. Most of those interred at Hillside were also prepared for burial by Groman Mortuary. Hillside quickly became a popular burial spot for entertainment industry executives. The brothers continued their ascent in Los Angeles society, endorsing candidates who displayed "fair mindedness to all groups and creeds," raising money for Cedars Sinai with Jimmy Durante at the Biltmore, and going on fishing trips with the mayor. 1 In 1949, Harry was named vice president of the Jewish Funeral Directors of America. It seemed Hillside would continue to grow quietly and unostentatiously. But a 25-year old widow and one of the preeminent architects in the country were about to change all that.
In October of 1950, 64 year old entertainer Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania) was playing cards with friends in a San Francisco hotel room. Minutes later he was dead of a massive heart attack, his last words: "Boys, I'm going." Though a highly polarizing figure today due to his use of blackface, Jolson, star of "The Jazz Singer," was one of the most popular and influential singers of the first half of the 20th century.
Jolson's fourth wife Erle, a young beauty he had met while he was performing in a military hospital in Arkansas, was devastated by his death. Jolson's funeral was attended by thousands of people, and he was temporarily buried, draped in a white tallit at Beth Olam in Hollywood. But Erle had bigger plans. In 1951, she purchased a $9000 plot on top of a hill near the entrance of Hillside. Here she planned to build a $75,000 monument to her beloved husband. So extravagant was the expenditure, which would be paid for with money from Jolson's four million dollar estate, that the estate went to court to secure the project. It was approved by the judge, and construction on the monument, with its cascading waterfall (which would be paid for by Hillside), and an adjacent mausoleum began.
The entire project was designed by Paul R. Williams, "architect to the stars," and the most well-known African-American architect of his day. The gleaming, two-story mausoleum was designed in a late art moderne style, its exterior reminiscent of many of the sleek mansions he built for golden age stars like Barbara Stanwyck, Frank Sinatra and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson. The Jolson Memorial sits in front of the mausoleum and features Jolson's sarcophagus, which is covered by a pillared dome 75-feet in the sky. At the top of the dome is a mosaic of Moses with The Ten Commandments, encircled with the inscription "The sweet singer of Israel, The Man Raised Up High," from the Book of Samuel. Nearby there is a statue of Jolson in his famed "Jazz Singer" pose, with arms outstretched.
The dedication of the memorial was a spectacle like Hillside had never seen before. On September 23, 1951, thousands gathered, including many of LA's most prominent rabbis. According to the L.A. Times:
But all was not well at Hillside. The brothers appear to have become entangled in a feud over ownership, which culminated in 1955 when Robert sued to "force his brother and business partner, Harry, to sell certain partnership assets to him for $1,050,000." Robert based this on a previous agreement, which Harry claimed "had been given by mistake and obtained through duress." 3 Harry eventually bought Robert out and became majority shareholder of the cemetery. Two years later Robert died and was buried at Hillside. In August, 1957 Hillside was bought by Temple Israel of Hollywood and became a community service of the influential institution.
Culver City Comes Calling
In 1964, after a bitter fight waged by nearby residents, Hillside Memorial and the area around it were incorporated into Culver City. Foreseeing the future, opponents claimed that Culver City planned massive commercial development of the area. Their fears quickly proved correct, and Hillside, which had once been near the lush Fox Hills Country Club, was quickly surrounded by the development we see today.
During the late '60s and '70s, large funerals became more and more common as the founding generation of modern Los Angeles began to pass away. A staggering number of entertainment execs, hostesses, writers, musicians, and comedians, many originally from other countries and humble beginnings, are buried at the cemetery. In time, Hillside would become the resting place of Jack Benny, Aaron Spelling, Shelley Winters, Irene Selznick, William and Edie Goetz, Neil Bogart, Moe Howard, Sam Zimbalist, Jeff Chandler, Michael Landon, Cyd Charisse, Julia Miller Phillips, Vic Morrow, Milton Berle, Suzanne Pleshette, Tom Poston, Ronnie Chasen, Nell Carter, Max Factor, Arthur Freed, Phil Gersh, Stan Winston, Lawrence Lipton, Edith and Lew Wasserman, Jerry Leiber, Bernie Brillstein, Sheldon Leonard, and Dinah Shore, whose epitaph reads "Loved by all who knew her and millions who never did."
Those famous for less savory careers, including several gamblers, horse racers, and the notorious gangster Mickey Cohen, who somehow died in his bed at an old age, are also buried at Hillside. And then there are those who served the rich and powerful, like "Jack the Doorman," who greeted stars at The Beverly Hills Hotel, and "Sam the Barber," who cut the hair of politicians and attorneys at the Civic Center and "knew where all the bodies were buried".
Major figures in the worlds of philanthropy, women's rights, law, education, medicine and religion are at Hillside. Rabbi Max Nussbaum, who in 1940 was the last rabbi to leave Berlin, is buried here. Survivors of the Holocaust rest at Hillside, including Dr. Israel Blumfield, who was the inspiration for the novel "Mila 18." Hillside is the resting place of Leopold Page, who was one of the people saved by Oskar Schindler. It was he who persuaded Thomas Keneally to write "Schindler's List," which would later be adapted to the screen by Steven Spielberg.
In 1979, Temple Israel built its own mortuary at Hillside to better serve their clients. Hillside Memorial's main mission today is "...serving the entire Southern California Jewish community. We understand Jewish families observe their faith in many ways. From Reconstructionist and Reform to Conservative and Orthodox. From blended to intercultural to inter-faith." 6 According to the director of community outreach, Jill Glasband, public service is also a very big part of Hillside's mission:
Perhaps this is why Hillside Memorial feels so comfortable. In the city that never stops, it feels cared for and -- caring.
Special thanks to Hillside Memorial Park for their assistance.
Photos By: Hadley Meares
1 "Candidacy endorsed" Los Angeles Times, 1944
2 "Thousands gather to see Jolson memorial unveiled" Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1951
3 "Two brothers in suit to sell partnership" Los Angeles Times, July 15, 1955
4 "Rabbi greets coming of his death with curiosity" Los Angeles Times, January 11, 1964
5 "Stars preside over rites for 'Toastmaster General' Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1981
6 Forward from the first edition of "Hillside's Distinguished Residents" book, published in 2004