This post is part of the Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology.
It was a Monday, the 11th of November, 2002 to be exact, and I was alone, in southern California, wandering a cemetery.
I was name-hunting at Forest Lawn Memorial, Hollywood Hills; there were a few people I needed to meet one more time, before moving on. My dwindling finances had forced my hand, and – temporarily, I hoped – hit the ‘pause’ button on my pursuit of employment in the movie industry. All the ‘meetings’ today would be posthumous, but I would, in affect, be within feet of legends.
Many rest here, with pedigrees and careers once every bit as glamorous and wild as the current crop of famous and infamous. Most here are like those in any given graveyard, the you’s and me’s of generations past, forgotten; yesterday’s throngs. Because this happens to be Hollywood, some of them today still exist as the laughter and applause on old grainy kinescopes. Not only is the entire cast of I Love Lucy dead, but everyone heard in the audience is too.
My trek was not in search of Lucy, though her original final resting place is here at Forest Lawn, behind the marker named ‘Morton,’ that of her last husband, comedian Gary Morton.
No, I was here to visit my heroes; other godlings of comedy – one in particular. Ernie Kovacs rests with most of his family, in the front scape of the Court of Remembrance. Freddie Prinze, Sr. waits for the final trumpet between Charles Laughton and George Raft inside the same said Court's mausoleum enclosure.
In the short distance ahead, there is a tiny red building with a steeple, named the Old North Church, even though it’s technically at the south end of most of the rest of the cemetery. Any other day, I'd walk, but the afternoon sun was brutal, despite late Fall. I drove, and parked the car on Memory Lane, before the Court of Liberty.
I often think of this as the military section, because here centrally brood the immortals of the Revolutionary War, in larger than life stone and metal. Generals Lafayette, Green, Knox… their brows exquisitely chiseled and almost possessed of a pulse, sit and ponder the grave markers below their feet. Above them stands the father of our country, President George Washington, in full military uniform, lording over the land, in quiet contemplation.
It being Veteran’s Day was an interesting coincidence.
Washington’s left hand casually points an index finger at something. I don't believe it's merely due to his random placement atop the mighty pedestal. He was erected there in 1964, after being on display for over fifty years in a Massachusetts township. The object he points at today, was not yet in place, then.
Two years later, it was. I want to believe there was providence at work.
The Court of Liberty is gorgeous, green and blessed by a view of adjoining Mount Sinai Memorial Park’s mural of Jewish-American history. If you start at the mural, and walk toward Washington, you will cross paths with Stan Laurel and his wife Ida. Pause there, of course, then keep walking. Look up at President Washington, and follow his stern direction – the pointing finger. You will end up just beyond the courtyard wall, still with Washington in view, at the Center of the Comedy Universe.
The General, pointing directly at Buster, is what tips off your subconscious awareness that you are in the presence of a divine working.
I was here once before, about two weeks earlier, just to chart my way around and sightsee. That day there had been a General® golfball with “The” scribbled on it, sitting on Buster’s headstone – a strange memento from a fan. There were also two pennies – Lincoln added to Washington’s presence – placed each in the loops of the sixes; Buster’s death year of 1966. Like coins over the eyes of the dead – payment to Charon, to ferry the River Styx.
Today – Veteran’s Day – there was a clay pot of yellowish daisies at Buster’s grave. I read the attached card to see that The Sons of the Desert, the Laurel & Hardy group, is who had placed them.
I wondered, why daisies? Did they have some symbolic importance, regarding Buster? My knowledge of Keatondom is not quite an absolute scholar’s, but that of a well-oiled aficionado. I am not a slouch or newbie by any stretch of thinking. I could determine no 'Busterism,' offhand, regarding the daisies. Maybe they were just pretty. Just odd enough to stand apart from all the other floral arrangements out today – and therefor wonderful.
Unlike the visit previous, today I was on more than a sightseeing tour. I had a similar, yet deeper mission than just leaving flowers. I was here at Buster’s final address, with a large plastic bottle of all-purpose cleaner, and a metal scrub brush, purchased with a small portion of my last $300 at a convenience store, in town.
I was going to make Buster Keaton’s headstone look brand new again. It was my humble yet direct way of thanking The Giant of Laughter, for his talent, timing, otherworldly brilliance, athleticism, showmanship, sacrifice, storied injuries – everything ever said, written or recorded, regarding his legend – a thanks for being born!
Having peered up at Heaven for over 35 years, his stone was layered with a tinge, darkly discolored – just dirty and awful. Beneath the grime, it seemed to be akin to a bronze military plaque, like that of my own father’s gravestone. Down on all fours I went, and let the cleaning fluid pour.
I kept an eye over my back, in case cemetery personnel spotted me doing this – probably looking exactly like a vandal. I don’t imagine I’m the first person ever seen here by staff, doing volunteer fan maintenance on an old beloved star’s gravestone. Today, however, I was the only one in sight.
The crust was tenacious. Another coating of cleaning fluid and I was now working my shoulder into cramps, against the terrible patina. The new brush was getting its entire life’s workout on this one job! Finally I had ‘Buster’ glowing, catching the sunlight with a brilliant bronze sparkle. I paused for a breather, and sat there beside Mr. Keaton. I could imagine him watching, like a spectator, an owner inspecting a worker’s thoroughness.
“Yes, I’ve still got ‘Keaton’ to do, and the date… I’ll get there, don’t rush me. Just a minute longer.” I was winded just polishing his grave – unlike say, tumbling down a foothill in somersaults for Seven Chances, or standing there for a two-ton building-front to topple and – hopefully – spare my life with a calculatedly random open window, for Steamboat Bill, Jr.
I could hear Buster say, smilingly, “Pussy.”
I wished I’d bought some bottled water as well, about then. The cemetery furnishes drinking stations, with stacks of plastic cups aside the water spouts at various points on the property – but the nearest one was just a tad too far to walk. Besides, I was halfway home.
In about forty minutes more, the entire headstone was successfully polished, and shimmering. My arm felt about to fall off. The new brush looked ten years old. The cleaning fluid was half gone. But I did it – what I’d come here to make happen.
The sun was sinking. Another night approached where the stars slept.
I had nowhere to sleep that night, except my car. I had handed over to my landlord that morning, the key to my Hollywood apartment. There’d not been enough money left for another month’s rent. He’d accepted my tendering without the 30-day notice required by my rental agreement. Veteran’s Day, 2002; a day I’d never forget, on many, many levels.
I did not say goodbye to Hollywood as I got back in my car. I hoped I’d be back, in some capacity. I waved so-long to Buster Keaton, my hero, telling him how wonderful it was to finally meet him… and to do something for him.
I checked my camera, hoping to record an image of the freshly renewed headstone, but found no battery in it. I’d forgotten to buy a fresh one. It figured.
My next destination was a long, long way back up the freeway. I drove out the front gate of Forest Lawn, and in a few minutes was on my way north. And not into the sunset, even though it was indeed setting.