The Dearly Departed Museum, Los Angeles

Geek Road Trip: L.A.'s Dearly Departed Museum is a tribute to movie stars' deaths

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Jun 22, 2018

Los Angeles is a city that defines the term "tourist trap." There are so many places that cater to the average vacationer who doesn't know what they want or want a basic "behind the scenes" experience. But often the hardest thing to find in the City of Angels is a place that celebrates the reason we all love L.A. in the first place: movie stars.

Finding a location that actually honors Hollywood history is difficult, though the city is rectifying that with the still-in-progress Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences museum. But, whether we admit it or not, what we love about cinema, and Hollywood in general, is the darkness; the interplay between the glitzy dream factory and the painful truths that are often ignored.

This brings us to a place any fan of movies needs to check out: Los Angeles' Dearly Departed Museum. Run by Scott Michaels — whose FindADeath website is a haven for weirdos like me who read up about celebs who now reside in the afterlife — is a place of Hollywood worship. The outside lives up to the term "hole in the wall," but don't let appearances deceive. The Dearly Departed Museum is a place for those who want more than just the artificial Cliffs Notes version of Hollywood. Gone is the polish of mass consumption and in its place, Michaels vaunts the things people would say are ugly and pointless.

The museum holds all manner of items that skirt the line of "ephemera," from a loveseat once owned by Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery to Mae West's dentures. You can turn a corner and see the massive gates that graced Jayne Mansfield's home, a pillar from the legendary Perino's restaurant, and the bedsheets Rock Hudson died on all sharing the same space and possessing the same amount of reverence as a tribute to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Charles Manson.

The most amazing (or amazingly shocking) item displayed is the actual 1966 Buick Electra that Mansfield died in. The top, ripped open like a tuna can, is the perfect representation of what Michaels wants to say with the museum: we love these stars, but even more is we love the way they died. There's a great leveling with the museum, that says stars are just like us — they lived beautifully and, like us, expired.

The original LA County Coroner Sign before it was changed to Medical Examiner/Dearly Departed Museum

Credit: Scott Michaels/Dearly Departed Museum

Interestingly, there's nothing exploitative about Michaels' museum. When you do run into him he's a fount of film history, much of it bizarre. He loves movies as much as anyone and, like the various tour guides he employs, knows more about Hollywood than the long-time resident. He's a big fan of the 1932 film Freaks and actually raised money to give one of the cast members a proper headstone.

He also understands that most of Los Angeles doesn't revere classic Hollywood in the same way, so he saves the things no one thinks of; pieces of celebrity mansions now bulldozed, programs from nearly every Old Hollywood funeral from Debbie Reynolds to Hugh Hefner.

Many times he's gifted things, like the ashes of The Addams Family's original Pugsley, Ken Weatherwax. These items feel appropriate because they're being elevated in a way they wouldn't. (You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who'd know who Ken Weatherwax is who isn't over 40.)

But the reason to travel to the museum is to take a tour. Where tours offered by TCM and other major companies cater to modern films with a dose of classic cinema splashed it, the Dearly Departed tours understand the people who come to them are film nuts. There's an intimacy to the various tours, which range from focusing on Jean Harlow to horror movies, enhanced by the small groups that go out.

You can see the place where Janis Joplin died, then just as soon hear about the apartment where Mae West once lived only to segue into looking at the place where Halle Berry rammed into a liquor store. Nothing is taken too seriously. There's history on literally every street corner, much of it grim, yet this museum is interested in finding the appreciation mixed with the atrocity, the spectacular in the sorrow. On a personal level, the Dearly Departed tour is one of the few places I feel utterly comfortable bringing my wheelchair along. These guys are willing to accommodate disabled patrons in a way other companies often don't.

Erica Lancaster/Dearly Departed Museum

Credit: Scott Michaels/Dearly Departed Museum

In a city built on the artificial and the controlled, the Dearly Departed Museum acknowledges that, appreciates it and simultaneously exposes it. The Academy Museum will be beautiful when it's done, but it caters strictly to what is meant to be untouchable about Hollywood and cinema. The Dearly Departed Museum loves the stars and history of the city because it's flawed, imperfect, dirty, disturbing even. And for a certain type of film fan, that's more than enough to get them to visit.