When Rudolph Valentino died in 1926 at the age of 31, he left in his wake a massive audience of heartbroken fans—and one of those tragic, inherently private situations that the Hollywood spectacle machine enjoys stoking the most. For days before the final report of his passing, newspapers had offered conflicting, yet (they swore) definitive accounts of his health status, and even today, rumors abound about the circumstances that led to his death. Of course, many of these stories were simply the result of creative gossipmongers and purposeful misinformation, but the questions surrounding his demise contributed to a legendary air of mystique… one that now, sadly, often seems to overshadow his life of work.
So, it was with a bit of trepidation that I attended this year’s annual Valentino Memorial Service, which has been held at the Cathedral Mausoleum in Hollywood Forever Cemetery (where Valentino was interred) since 1927—making it “the longest running event in Hollywood,” according to organizers. Its original purpose was basically a publicity event designed to keep him in public memory, and ensure his films would continue earning enough money to help his estate pay the sizable bills. By the 1940s and into the following decades, the event had transformed into a more circus-like atmosphere, largely propelled by the spectacle of the mysterious Lady in Black, a traditionally unknown, veiled mourner who arrived annually to place a rose at Valentino’s entombment. Over the years, the “Lady in Black” mantle was claimed by a wide range of often… eccentric women, and of course, as the decades passed it became decreasingly unlikely that they had any true connection to Valentino himself. It was during this time that the event was disavowed by Valentino’s brother, Alberto, and nephew(/rumored son), Jean, though it mustered on through their objections.
Given the length of its run, I was surprised that there was relatively little information on what the ceremony itself would entail available online, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The cemetery is well known for drawing large crowds of hip, not particularly solemn folks in the summertime due to their movie screening series on the mausoleum lawn. But the service itself wasn’t even listed on Hollywood Forever’s events page, and save for one retweet earlier that day (linking to Allan Ellenberger’s invaluable site), they didn’t seem to feel the need to advertise it at all—which I hoped meant that the crowd would largely be comprised of respectful people devoted to maintaining the experience.
When I arrived shortly before noon, Cinespia crews were already setting up for the There’s Something About Mary screening to be held on the lawn later that evening, and a group of colorful punk rockers were paying homage to Johnny Ramone at his memorial statue nearby. There was a small crowd lingering outside the mausoleum, and many people already seated inside the narrow lobby, which is flanked with gorgeously ornate marble statues of the twelve apostles. Some of Valentino’s personal effects were placed in glass boxes at the front of the room, as well as photos and some artwork of the actor. There was a wide range of attendees there, from an adorable group of older ladies dressed in black who had clearly been coming to these services for years, to those dressed in California “formal wear” (shorts and sandals, of course). When asked who was attending for the first time, I’d estimate that, at least from my vantage point, about 40% of people raised their hands.
Overall though, the mood was largely quiet, respectful, and reverential; I wouldn’t be surprised if an unaware passerby mistook the event as the funeral of a beloved, recently deceased patriarch. The ceremony began promptly at 12:10—Valentino’s official time of death—and began with an introduction about the history of the event. Every year has a distinct theme, and this year’s was on Valentino’s homes, so speakers included someone who had visited his birthplace in Castallenata, Italy, and a former resident of Falcon Lair, the Hollywood Hills home that was Valentino’s final residence. Sadly, it seems that the current owner of Falcon Lair has decided to completely renovate the home, and now much of the original structure and architectural elements from Valentino’s era are lost. The service also included two original, Valentino-themed songs from the Wincomb family, a reading from Valentino’s book of poetry, Day Dreams, and a recitation of Psalm 23. The whole ceremony lasted about an hour, after which guests were invited to view the personal items at the front of the room, and pay their respects at Valentino’s tomb—where there was actually a line of people, waiting for their chance to have a moment with the actor.
By the way, the ripple effect of Marvin Paige’s death last November is still making waves in the classic film community in Hollywood, as he was one of the longtime organizers of this event. His friends paid their respects by saving him his customary aisle seat with a rose, as well as playing a short video about his life during the ceremony. Paige was a giant on the Old Hollywood scene, and his presence is sorely missed at events like these.
Despite its start as a plea for publicity, and its ensuing reputation as a kind of circus, today the Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service is a unique opportunity to be a part of a longstanding Hollywood tradition. Though I’d have to wager that none of this year’s attendees went to the original ceremony—and that most of us present weren’t even close to being alive in 1926—there was a certain camaraderie among being in a crowd of people who had chosen to spend their Saturday afternoon celebrating a silent film star with whom they have no personal connection. It was a testament to the power of movies, or maybe more accurately, to the power of celebrity, which truly has the ability to make people immortal—at least in the memories of those who live on, decades later.