Touring LA's High Profile Deaths

By Shirley Jean Jalmaani

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“Be a tourist in your own hometown. You will see things you never saw, you might learn things you never knew, but the best part is, you get to see how where you live is shown to the rest of the world,” says Dearly Departed Tours co-owner Brian Donnelly.

Taking The Dearly Departed Tour was a unique experience. It was anything but morbid or depressing. It was actually quite fun, entertaining and pretty lively.

We arrived at the Dearly Departed Tours headquarters on Sunset Boulevard. The location in which the tour begins doubles as the headquarters for the tour, the gift shop and a miniature museum of death. Co-owners, Donnelly and Scott Michaels run the business together. Michaels runs the shop portion while Donnelly does the actual tour. While waiting for the rest of the tour members to arrive, we went around the two story shop, looking at artifacts that represented  where the departed celebrities passed, old newspaper clippings, pictures, funeral wreaths and even some death certificates.

“We’re the real deal. We do our own research and we came here to do this,” Michaels said. “This is our passion, this is our love.”

Once 1pm came around, we boarded the small white tour bus with the Dearly Departed name written across on the side. Donnelly opened the tour with a bit of a warning, stating that he tends to speak quickly during his tour and proudly admitted that he has attention deficit hyper disorder (ADHD). With his hyperactive tendencies and excitement, it  was clear that he had ADHD. We prepared ourselves for quick movements, abrupt stops and just as many unexpected starts.

The moment the tour began, it was everything we expected it to be. With the tour being in the center of Hollywood, we definitely hit LA traffic. There were lots of stops and gos. Things were pretty jerky at the beginning. No less than ten minutes into the tour, Donnelly nearly brought dearly departed to an unexpected Sunset Studios employee who decided to cross the street while not paying attention to anything but what was on his phone. The tourists definitely had a few jokes to make about the near accident.

As the tour progressed, jokes were made, comments and opinions stated and facts were given out. Donnelly was a hilarious tour guide who knew exactly what he was doing.

The Deaths on Tour

The tour made many stops but there were a few that stuck out the most for us. One of the first stops on the tour was of Yolanda “Lundy” Schlessinger. Schlessinger, 77, was found dead in December 2002 in her Beverly Hills condominium bathroom after police officers had been informed that the elderly woman had not been seen for nearly two months. Unlike other deaths on the tour, Schlessinger’s death was of natural causes and had become a well- known death due to having been found mummified. She was the estranged mother of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a radio talk show personality.

After the stop at Schlessinger’s former apartment complex, Donnelly stopped us at Marie Prevost’s apartment. Prevost, 38, was an actress who died from alcohol poisoning on Jan. 21, 1937. Donnelly stated that police officials had found her body two days after her death after neighbors reported that her dog would not stop barking. When officials went into Prevost’s home, they found her on the sofa with bite marks from her dog.

Next on the tour, we stopped at the Beverly Hills Cemetery where passengers were able to visit the gravesites of famous icons. One of the gravesites most visited was the site of Natalie Wood, an actress who mysteriously drowned while on a boat trip. The case is still open for investigation and police officials believe that the death was in fact a murder. Even though the cause of Wood’s death is unknown, many visit her gravesite. Keeping to Wood’s Russian roots, visitors often left pennies on her grave as it is a Russian tradition for good luck.

While at the Beverly Hills Cemetery, we knew we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the gravesite of 1950s sex icon, model and actress, Marilyn Monroe. Monroe, who had died in her home on Aug. 5, 1962 at the age of 36, was found by her housekeeper with an empty bottle of prescription drugs. Though Monroe’s death was classified as an overdose, there are those who believe it was foul play. Regardless of how she died, Monroe’s grave is one of the most visited sites in the world and can be found in the wall at the Beverly Hills Cemetery. In fact, her resting place has to be washed down weekly because fans and admirers like to kiss her grave with red lipstick.

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Before leaving the cemetery, we couldn’t help but also take notice of the grave right above Monroe’s. Just before we left the tour bus to explore the cemetery, Donnelly had told us of one of Monroe’s many suitors and admirers, Richard Poncher. Poncher, who was a big fan of Monroe’s, wanted to be as close to her in death as he was in life. To do so, not only did he have his grave resting right above her’s, but rather than laying on his back in his coffin, he was buried laying face down so that he would always be facing Monroe’s body.

One of the last stops that we came across was that of Freddie Prinze, Sr., who had committed suicide at the Beverly Hills Hotel Plaza on Jan. 29, 1977. To this day, employees of the Beverly Hills Hotel Plaza are not permitted to talk about the comedian and actor’s suicide. Prinze, who had risen to stardom quickly, was on a popular show called Chico and the Man. He and his wife, Kathy, had a son named Freddie Prinze, Jr. who was only an infant when his father committed suicide at 22-years-old. Prinze had been battling drug and alcohol addiction as well as depression when he took his life.      

By the time we got off the bus, everyone on the bus couldn’t help but praise Donnelly for giving such an interesting and lively tour of something so dark. We talked a bit with Donnelly, thanked him for the tour and made our way back inside headquarters. We took some final shots of the place and headed on our way with memories of not just an interesting tour of unique deaths, but also seeing Los Angeles in a completely different light.