Music Man in a Grave Business, Funeral Organist Donald Curry Sends Hollywood Stars Out in Style

UPDATED 12/02/1985 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/02/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

Like so many who remember the old Hollywood, Donald Curry gets nostalgic. He remembers the days when actors and actresses "were treated like gods and goddesses," when the stars—and their fans—would gather for premieres at Grauman's Chinese or Egyptian theaters, and then again (later, of course) for the stars' funerals at Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks. "It was spectacular," he reminisces. "People just flocked out when there was a big-name star funeral here. They had to use extra police to control them."

Ah, yesterday. One hesitates under the circumstances to call Donald Curry the last of a dying breed. But as he admits, funeral organists are gradually being supplanted by funereal tape recordings. And as for funeral organists to the stars, well, the Rev. J. Whitcomb Brougher Jr. of the First Baptist Church of Glendale, Calif. puts it this way: "There was a woman who was Donald's rival, but she passed away."

Passed away. Donald Curry has seen a lot of that in the 46 years he has served as funeral organist for Forest Lawn's three Glendale churches. Yet somehow it has not left him jaded. He serenely plays three or four funerals a day, five days a week. Armenian hymns. Buddhist chants. Disco, hard rock and opera. Any song in any tradition to speed the soul of the departed and lift the spirits of the bereaved. But he still has a warm spot in his heart for funerals past. "Sometimes you'd get two thousand people," he says. "Now you'll get one or two hundred. You don't have the star system anymore."

These days you wouldn't expect a spectacular send-off like the 1947 affair for director Ernst (Ninotchka) Lubitsch. "All the greats were there," remembers Curry. "Louis Mayer and young Doug Fairbanks...." While Curry played, Jeanette MacDonald sang Beyond the Blue Horizon. Nor would you be likely to duplicate Robert Taylor's 1969 funeral, when Curry played the theme from Death Valley Days and Gov. Ronald Reagan, Taylor's predecessor as host of the popular TV show, delivered the eulogy.

More typical of the current state of the funeral arts was the 1979 ceremony for Mary Pickford, who died at 86. Curry played Five Foot Two in honor of the diminutive actress, but only about a hundred people attended. "Her generation of fans," observes the organist mournfully, "had almost passed."

Pickford was still America's Sweetheart in 1926 when Donald Curry first came to the U.S. from Britain. He arrived in California with his family at 13 and took up the organ at the urging of his father, a steel-yard manager who was himself an amateur organist. An Episcopalian, Curry first played in a church at 16 and later spent five years in a monastery before deciding that "music had a stronger pull."

By 1939 he had made the acquaintance of Hubert Eaton, Forest Lawn's founder. It was Eaton, advertising cemetery plots "before need," who turned a small L.A. burial ground into four of the most sumptuous and sought-after necropoli in the country. Curry at first played both weddings and funerals, but as business at Forest Lawn boomed, he limited his work to interments. In 1966 Eaton himself passed on, and Curry ushered him out with a stirring rendition of Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.

Curry, a capable sight reader, tries to be democratic about the tunes he's asked to perform. "I'm not about to judge people and their tastes in music," he says. "I'm not going to be a snob about it." Nevertheless, when a man who has written ten volumes of liturgical airs arrives at a cremation and is requested to play Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, there is a tendency to wonder whether America's drift away from the organized church hasn't gone a bit far.

At 73, Curry has no thought of retirement and certainly no morbid premonitions of the finale that admits of no encore. But Forest Lawn encourages its employees, like its clients, to think ahead. Accordingly Curry has a pretty fair idea of what the arrangements for his own funeral will be. "Some good, solid hymns," says the organist cheerfully. "Have it in an Episcopal church and keep the casket closed." After which Donald Curry's body will be lowered to its final resting place in an already selected plot in Forest Lawn's Hollywood Hills cemetery.

Once more, among the stars.

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