Hollywood is a town that’s thrived on death, sex and sin. So it’s unsurprising that there are tours that delve into Hollywood’s seedy past. In the land of TMZ and paparazzi, it’s hard to find a way to bridge the gap between the sensational and the salacious, that caters to your love of old Hollywood just as much as your adoration of the gossip that you share with all your friends. That’s where Scott Michaels and the Dearly Departed tour company have you covered! I’ve been fortunate to visit Michaels’ museum three times and take his Tragical History Tour twice. If you’re craving a TCM-esque fix of old-school Hollywood glamour with a winking nod to the stars’ warty past, you owe it to yourself to take a ride with Michaels and the Dearly Departed gang.
Michaels is a man who’s cultivated a couture around death, starting with his website, Find a Death, a site that posts actual crime scene photos alongside thousand-word appreciations for the unsung cast members of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Schlitizie from the movie Freaks (1932). (Michaels is forever in my cool book for fundraising to get Schlitizie Surtees a proper headstone.) Located in a building that would probably be described by lesser people as a “hole in the wall,” the Dearly Departed Museum is a curio of oddities that you’ll be enthralled and repulsed by. The small, sparsely lit museum floor gives off an air of foreboding, not helped by campy tunes that play on a radio hidden somewhere in the area.
Photography isn’t allowed, so I’ll do my best to describe what’s on tap. Sections include tributes to famous murderers like Charles Manson and the Menendez brothers and a case of Rocky Horror memorabilia. But for classic film fans there are macabre tributes to classic Hollywood. You can find Mae West’s actual dentures, Rock Hudson’s bedclothes, even a settee used by the likes of Elizabeth Montgomery. The centerpiece revolves around actress Jayne Mansfield. Several pieces from Mansfield’s life are on display, from luggage to pieces of her former residence, but none of these is as important as the infamous “Mansfield car.” Yes, in the center of this museum is a 1966 Buick Electra 225 ripped open like a tuna can. Michaels has mentioned how he bought the car off the person who was showing it, and here it becomes a living reminder of the adage coined by James Dean about living fast and dying young.
Someone with more refined tastes might consider all this trash, both literal garbage and a sign of the museum’s “poor taste.” However, there is a certain subsection of classic filmdom that knows these people weren’t perfect; they smoked, they slept around, and they died. The museum never feels exploitative, more elevating small pieces of detritus to hero worship. I know I was pretty giddy to see a pillar from the former Perino’s restaurant (which is on display in the museum). Why? Because it’s not like the Academy would have thought to save something like that. This museum finds the value in these things, both minor and horrifying.
After perusing the museum you’ll want to take the Tragical History Tour, one of several offered throughout the year. Some others included the Karen Carpen-Tour in February, a tour led by Little House on the Prairie star Alison Angrim, and tours exploring the likes of the Doors, the Manson murders and blonde bombshells Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow. (I want to take all of these, by the way!) Where the TCM On-Location Tour has a big shiny Starline bus, the Dearly Departed tours have incognito vans which actually helps since weight restriction laws actually limit bigger tour companies from going down specific roads. If you are a wheelchair user you will have to be able to get in and out of the van on your own but the museum gang will do what they can to make sure you enjoy the tour.
Our tour guide Richard was excellent! Every driver brings their own personality and history to the tour, so with a new driver comes a completely different experience. He told us stories about working in Hollywood, and even talked to me about various celebs while waiting for everyone during a stop in the tour. Having taken this twice now I got to see new things, as well as some of the heavy hitting moments. There is a blend of classic film glamour evenly divided with scandal. There’s also a hearty combination of sadness mixed with interest. I got more classic film knowledge on this tour than I did the TCM one. This 2 1/2 hour tour took us to the house where they filmed Halloween (1978) and the 1991 remake of Father of the Bride; you visit the houses where stars like Charo, Natalie Wood, Peter Lorre and Bela Lugosi lived or took their last breaths.
You visit the scenes of some gruesome murders like the killing of screenwriter Robert Lees, Dominique Dunne, Sal Mineo, and the Black Dahlia. New to me this tour was a trip to the Alto Nido apartments where William Holden’s Joe Gillis lived in Sunset Blvd (1950). My previous tour included a stop at the location of Falcon Lair, so if you stop by be sure to ask. The tour takes a stop at the famed Westwood cemetery where Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, and Burt Lancaster are buried. The cemetery isn’t particularly handicapped friendly but it’s a lovely spot and there are so many celebs in a small area. The typical Hollywood haunts are also visited, including the famed Sunset Strip and the Beverly Hills Hotel. There’s a multimedia atmosphere to everything, so you don’t just get the tour guide talking, but also audio narration from Scott Michaels, 911 calls, and an accompanying booklet of photos.
Dearly Departed Tours is truly unlike any tour you’ve taken. It’s Hollywood at its best while showing you some of its worst. It’s not often that a tour has repeat value, but this one does with a new tour coming with every new guide. There’s a reverence for Hollywood by pointing out its flaws. The group of guides are all personable and fun people with stories to tell (so be sure to chat with them at the end). I can’t wait to sign up for another one!
Learn more about the Dearly Departed Tours at their official website.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.