A few first-time passengers fidget and stare at the calla lily that Smith has given them. But veteran voyager Michael Morgan, an L.A. sculptor, assures them, "It's weird, but after a while you forget you're riding in a hearse." On his second tour he took along his mother, who was visiting from Texas. "She loved it. It's pleasantly morbid."
The Grave Line Tours brochure ("See the stars' last stops!") bills the junket as "A Lively Look at Death-styles of the Rich and Famous." It delivers just that. For the next 2½ hours, the passengers will visit 80 of Hollywood's most macabre and scandal-ridden sites, including the places where John Belushi and Janis Joplin overdosed, where Sal Mineo was murdered, where Montgomery Clift crashed his car, where Carmen Miranda, Peter Finch and William Frawley died of heart attacks, where Roman Polanski was arrested, where Bugsy Siegel was gunned down, where Frank Sinatra Jr. was dropped off after his kidnapping and where Freddie Prinze, Superman's George Reeves and The Wizard of Oz's Auntie Em (Clara Blandick) did themselves in.
Sick? Undoubtedly. Popular? Absolutely. Operating since last October, just before Halloween, Grave Line Tours has become one of Hollywood's most novel attractions. One high-powered Hollywood agent sent out Grave Line's copies of celebrity death certificates (available at $30 each) to her clients as Christmas presents. Charging $25 a head for the tour, Smith and his associate, Miller Maurer, say that business is perking along financially. They're planning to triple the number of daily pilgrimages from one to three and open a shop to sell death certificate copies, T-shirts and other morose memorabilia. Also forthcoming is a new sound-effects tape for the tour, including gunshots, splats and—when passing Clara Bow's home—a football cheer, in honor of the actress' legendary affection for the University of Southern California Trojans.
Smith pleads guilty to a gross lack of tact, but with an explanation. "I think people really want to see these things," says the 35-year-old native of Prairie Village, Kans., who's wanted to be an undertaker since the sixth grade. "I think people who liked Janis Joplin and read about her death want to see where it happened. I know when I first came out here, I wanted to see where Curly [of the Three Stooges] was buried. Most people go to Disneyland or Mann's Chinese Theater. I went to Forest Lawn. It's sick, I know, but it's human nature." Frankly, it's also a way to make a buck. Before forming Grave Line, Smith had worked as a waiter, house painter and emergency medical technician, among other jobs, and Maurer as a picture framer and frustrated pianist—all without notable success.
But don't think the guys are completely insensitive. For instance, as a gesture of respect, Grave Line gives stars a five-year cooling-off period before including their death sites on the itinerary. And despite its name, Grave Line doesn't visit cemeteries. "We don't want our hearse to drive by a family burying a loved one," says Smith. "We don't want to hurt anybody's feelings." Instead they hand out free annotated maps of Westwood Memorial Park and Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery for their clientele to use at leisure.
Despite such niceties, Grave Line is not without its critics. "Some people get wrecked when they see the hearse," admits Maurer, 33, also a native of Prairie Village. "They feel we're mocking them and they take offense."
Yet the entrepreneurs do have some local support. Passenger Eileen Martin, an L.A. legal secretary, heard about Grave Line when she asked the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to recommend a tacky tourist attraction. "The Chamber person said, 'I've got just the thing,' " she recalls.
"It's a budding Hollywood institution, like the Universal Studios Tour, but far more unique," says second-time passenger Jim Bollinger, an L.A. insurance broker. "The flagrant disregard for good taste is certainly appealing. When my relatives visit, this is the first place I'll take them. Hey, you only live once."
No, this isn't your typical Hollywood sight-seeing tour. As passengers climb into the 22-foot-long Cadillac hearse and sign the condolence register in black ink, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor echoes throughout the car. "Dearly beloved," intones Greg Smith, the lean, 6'4" tour director who's dressed in black, "we welcome you along Grave Line Tours." The Tomb Buggy, as the hearse is affectionately called, takes off. Chopin's Funeral March comes on the tape, interrupted by the voice of Bette Davis from All About Eve. "Fasten your seat belts," she advises. "It's going to be a bumpy night."