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Touring Hollywood the morbid way

Published: 9:36PM Tuesday August 16, 2005 Source: AAP

Hollywood, they say, is not just a town but a way of life. It's a way of death, too.

Some of the most publicised celebrities in the world have made unwanted headlines with some of the most sensational and bizarre deaths and scandals here in Tinseltown.

One perhaps inevitable outcome is Dearly Departed Tours, run by Scott Michaels, who has built a successful career out of such events and the public's morbid interest in them.

Unlike the popular rubber-necking coach tours of movie and TV stars' $10 million homes in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, this is one where it's pointless to try and catch a glimpse of your favourite actor.

Here, most of them are dead.

Scott Michaels, the tour's "Director of Undertakings," has no office

Customers book by phone and find Scott and his Dearly Departed Tomb Buggy (a minibus) parked outside the Erotic Museum on Hollywood Boulevard on four days a week at 1pm.

They hand over their $US35 - credit cards accepted - and for the next three hours wallow in Hollywood death and scandal, with Scott as commentator assisted by audio tapes and photo albums.

Take Charles Manson. We pass by the Los Feliz home where the Manson Family murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and the Benedict Canyon property where actress Sharon Tate and four others were slain, in 1969.

"Manson always wanted to be a rock star and at one time was close to Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys," says Scott, who then turns on his CD player and we hear the killer's voice in song.

A modernistic, white three-storey home on Normandie Avenue was the scene of the bizarre 1968 death of actor Albert Dekker, 62 - his film credits included Dr Cyclops and East of Eden.

Not having heard from him for three days, his longtime fiancee Geraldine Saunders went to the house and found him dead in the bathroom: he was kneeling nude in the bath, a scarf over his eyes, a horse's bit in his mouth, belts around various parts of his body and handcuffs on his wrists.

Scrawled in red lipstick on his right buttock was the word "whip," obscenities were written on his chest and sunrays had been drawn around his nipples.

His death from autoerotic asphyxiation was ruled accidental.

The house in Brentwood where Marilyn Monroe died in 1962 was outside the tour's territory, but among the scores of other features on the tour were:

  • . The cafe where singer Janis Joplin carved her name in a table hours before she was found dead of an heroin overdose - "accidental," says Scott - in a motel room in 1970.
  • . Chateau Mormont, scene of comedian John Belushi's final party in 1982 before he died of a drug overdose.
  • . The Beverly Hills houses struck by Howard Hughes' experimental X-11 plane in a 1946 crash that almost killed him (see the recent movie The Aviator).
  • . In the same area, the house where Cheryl Crane, 14-year-old daughter of screen star Lana Turner, knifed to death her mother's bullying gangster lover Johnny Stompanato in 1958.
  • . The public toilet in a Beverley Hills park where British singer George Michael was arrested for "lewd conduct" in 1998; he was fined $US810 (now worth $A1,060) - Scott hands out copies of the LAPD arrest report.
  • . The Sunset Strip parking spot where British actor Hugh Grant was arrested in a car with street prostitute Divine Brown in 1995; he was fined $US1,180 ($A1,540) for lewd conduct and placed on two years' probation .
  • . The home where "blonde bombshell" actress Jean Harlow died in 1937 while making the film Saratoga.
  • . The service station where James Dean picked up his Porsche less than 12 hours before the crash that killed him in 1955.
  • . The hilltop HOLLYWOOD sign from which two suicides have thrown themselves to their deaths.
  • . The Ambassador Hotel, soon to be demolished and replaced by a new school - where presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.
  • . Cedar-Sinai Hospital, where among the dozens of celebrities who breathed their last were Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx and Lucille Ball; on the brighter side, Julia Roberts gave birth to her twins there.
  • . The mansion where mobster Bugsy Siegel was shot dead in 1947, another mansion where the young Menendez brothers killed their parents in 1989 and the Viper Room where actor River Phoenix overdosed in 1993 - Scott points out the phone on which River's brother Joaquin made an emergency call.

Also on view are the last-gasp locations of Dan Blocker from TV western Bonanza; the screen's definative Dracula, Bela Lugosi, and Alan Hale Junior, the skipper on TV's Gilligan's Island.

But it's not all death and misery on Hollywood's Dearly Departed Tours.

Operator Scott Michaels tells some happier, even comical stories too.

During the tour, for example, he points out the three-storey Las Palmas Hotel in Hollywood, which film fans should recognise immediately.

It's the hotel from which Richard Gere rescued Julia Roberts at the end of the classic comedy Pretty Woman.

Among homes on the tour itinerary is one which was the setting for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, starring where Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

Michaels told how Joan Crawford befriended him and gave him a set of her famous false eyelashes.

Name-dropping again, he said the late singer Dean Martin once bought him a beer at Hollywood's Hamburger Hamlet, popular with showbiz people, in 1994.

Another story: when singer Nat King Cole moved into a previously all-white area of Hollywood, neighbours called on him and said: "We don't want any undesirables living here".

The black singer replied: "If I see any undesirables, I'll let you know."

Another neighbourhood row was in the Hancock Park Area where a new owner outraged others in the street by erecting a nude statue on his front lawn; he replied by erecting 19 more!

Beatle Paul McCartney's first wife Linda used to join in backing vocals for her husband's hits but had a "terrible" voice, Michaels said.

"She just used to shout `na-na-na-na' - totally out of tune. People didn't realise how bad her voice was until a technician isolated it."

Judy Garland, on a TV talk show, told how she was chatting with Noel Coward and others in Paris when Marlene Dietrich walked in the room and asked: "Who'd like to hear my new record?"

The group agreed - but the record comprised only the sound of applause - no music or singing.

Noel Coward remarked "I hope there's not another side." But there was.

One of Michaels' tapes was a rarity: an interview with Harpo Marx, who never uttered a word in any of the Marx brothers films.

Harpo said he was once playing piano in a brothel when he fell sick with measles.

He had to leave - "The madame said `We don't want any sick Jews around here!"

The tour also passed by a home which TV's Osbourne family was trying to sell, for $US11.5 million.

A sign outside the house read: "Never mind the dog - watch out for the owners!"