Posts Tagged ‘William Desmond Taylor’

Review of ‘Hollywood Story’

Saturday, May 14th, 2011


The true ‘Hollywood Story’ is solved 

 Hollywood Story poster


By Allan R. Ellenberger

Recently I had the pleasure to watch the rare film, Hollywood Story (1951), starring Richard Conte, Richard Egan, Henry HullFred Clark and in one of her early film appearances, Julie Adams (billed as Julia Adams).


The film was obviously inspired by the unsolved William Desmond Taylor murder that occurred barely 30 years earlier — a famous Hollywood director (named Franklin Ferrara in the film) is found shot and dead in his bungalow. The case goes unsolved and ruins several Hollywood careers including one of the directors leading ladies, an actor who is rumored to have murdered him and a screen writer who becomes a destitute beachcomber.  


Helen Gibson, William Farnum and Francis X. Bushman being greeted by the studio guard at the entrance of the former Chaplin Studios


Besides the cast mentioned earlier, there are cameos by former silent film favorites, Francis X. Bushman, William Farnum and Helen Gibson and an appearance by Joel McCrea who plays himself. But the real star of the film, in my opinion, are the scenes of old Hollywood. The film opens with a shot of Hollywood Boulevard looking west from Vine Street with the Broadway Department Store entrance and the Warner Theater clearly visible.


Other scenes include the NBC Studios (now demolished) on Sunset and Vine and shots of the Hollywood Christmas Parade as it passes Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The swimming pool of the Roosevelt Hotel makes an appearance as does portions of the famed Sunset Strip.


Richard Conte and Julie Adams near poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel in The Hollywood Story


The plot of the film revolves around Larry O’Brien (Richard Conte) a Broadway producer who arrives in Hollywood to try his hand at filmmaking. Based on facts presented to him, he decides to make a film about the Franklin Ferrara murder. His friend and now-agent (played by Jim Backus), finds him an old abandoned studio that just happens to be where Ferrara was found murdered. This begins the chain of events for his plans to make a movie about Ferrara — investigating the facts himself and getting in trouble in the process.


While the film is produced by Universal (the old entrance to the studio also has a cameo), they rented the Charlie Chaplin Studios on La Brea just south of Sunset as the stand-in for the studio where Ferrara was murdered and where O’Brien will now make his film. A long shot of the bungalow clearly shows the neon sign atop the Roosevelt Hotel (and is still visible today) in the background and the distinctive brick gate entrance to the studio can be seen from inside the lot. It is at this front gate that Conte greets silent film stars, Bushman, Farnum and Gibson. In another scene Conte runs outside the gate onto the sidewalk just as he sees Julie Adams and Paul Cavanaugh make an escape up La Brea and around the corner at Sunset.


I don’t believe Hollywood Story was ever released on video or DVD, but it should be. If you ever have the opportunity to see this film and old Hollywood is one of your interests, I highly recommend it.



 The studio guard, Richard Conte and Jim Backus walking onto the Chaplin lot. Notice the ornate tower in the background which is the entrance to the studio. That same tower is below.




 The studio guard greeting Francis X. Bushman at the entrance of the former Chaplin Studios in The Hollywood Story. Below is the same spot as it looks today.




 Richard Conte stands on the sidewalk outside the entrance to the former Chaplin Studios looking north toward Sunset. Below is the same spot as it looks today.





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Frank A. Nance profile

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010


Frank A. Nance, Coroner to the stars



 Frank A. Nance sits at his desk in the Los Angeles Coroners office (1932, LAPL)


By Allan R. Ellenberger


Frank A. Nance was not a famous movie star. He never appeared in a film, yet he came in contact with more movie stars than the average person – the only difference is, if a movie star was in the presence of Frank Nance, they were probably dead. You see, Frank Nance was the Los Angeles County Coroner from 1921 through 1945, during what is typically called the Golden Age of Hollywood.


During his term in the Coroner’s office, Nance investigated 121,000 deaths, including 2,500 murders and 17,000 traffic victims. He wrote numerous articles about his job and set up standards, many of which have become routine procedure in California Coroner offices.


Frank Albert Nance was born on May 25, 1875 in Galesburg, Illinois. When he was 12, his family moved to California where Nance was educated in Los Angeles schools and at Pomona College where he was a star athlete. In 1911, Nance married Bessie Marion Beaver, a native of Toronto, Canada. The couple settled in the Los Angeles suburb of Monrovia, living at 127 N. Canyon Boulevard.


Nance’s career in public service began on December 10, 1910, when he became bookkeeper in the County Auditor’s office.  On March 25, 1921, the Board of Supervisors appointed him from a list of eight certified eligible candidates to succeed the late Calvin Hartwell as County Coroner. He officially took office on May 1 at a salary of $375 a month.


During his 24 year career as coroner, Nance performed or presided over many celebrity autopsies, including the murders of director William Desmond Taylor (1922), actor Ray Raymond by the hands of fellow actor Paul Kelly (1927), and the mysterious ‘Trunk Murders’ committed by Winnie Ruth Judd. The suicides of director Lynn Reynolds (1927), actress Peg Entwistle (1932), producer Paul Bern (1932) and Lupe Velez (1944) kept his name in the headlines. And Nance’s findings concerning the mysterious deaths of Thelma Todd (1935), Ted Healy (1937) and Marie Prevost (1937) fascinated the public.


Nance’s first headline-grabbing case was the murder of director William Desmond Taylor. The inquest was held at the Ivy Overholtzer undertaking parlor where Taylor’s body was present, covered with a satin sheet, except for his head. Actress Mabel Normand was scheduled to testify at 10 am however at the appointed time, Normand was nowhere to be found. Nance ordered a telephone search for her, however, it was learned that while the photographers waited at the entrance, Mabel was hurried in through the back alley and was waiting in the hall.


Mabel entered the rooms wearing a brown checked sport coat furred at the collar and cuffs, a black skirt and a cream lace waist and a green velour, wide-brimmed fedora. She wore white gloves and held a lavender silk handkerchief in one hand. Her voice was low and she spoke calmly.


“Did Mr. Taylor go to your car with you when you left?” Nance asked her.


“Yes, he took me to the car and stood talking with me a few minutes and said he would call me by telephone in about an hour,” Mabel replied. “He watched while I drove away and I waved my hand to him.”


“Did he call you up,” Nance asked.


“No,” she said. “I went home and went right to bed. My maid never wakes me anyway, once I have retired.”


It was during Nance’s tenure that both the St. Francis Dam disaster (1928) and the Long Beach earthquake (1933) occurred, each presenting extraordinary problems for the Coroner to solve. More than 450 people lost their lives when the St. Francis Dam collapsed and flooded the valley below.


The disintegration of the St. Francis Dam is one of the worst American civil engineering failures of the 20th century. Nance’s inquest concluded the disaster was primarily caused by the paleomegalandslide on which the eastern abutment of the dam was built. The coroner’s jury determined responsibility for the disaster lay with the governmental organizations which oversaw the dam’s construction and the dam’s designer and engineer, William Mulholland, but cleared Mulholland of any charges, since neither he nor anyone at the time could have known of the instability of the rock formations on which the dam was built.


Frank A. Nance (seated) and his staff go over notes from an inquest (LAPL)


In 1929, a scandal of sorts erupted in the Coroner’s office when it was charged that certain employees had sold funeral privileges to several Los Angeles undertakers. After an investigation by the Sheriff’s department, it was determined that no evidence was found to support the charges. Nance expressed pleasure at the outcome of the investigation.


“It confirms my opinion that none of my employees would be a party to such proceedings,” Nance said. “Should I ever find anyone guilty of such an act I will dismiss him at once. “


At times, Nance would publish statistics, especially if some form of death was more prevalent at that time. For example, during the mid 1930s, the suicide rate had steadily climbed in California and Los Angeles County over a fifteen year period. Nance reported that during the fiscal year of July 1, 1935 to June 30, 1936, there were 522 reported cases of suicide. Of this total 416 were men and 106 were women. The suicide ages ranged fairly evenly from 20 to 60 years. Poisoning was the favorite method of killing oneself, shooting, hanging, jumping and asphyxiation followed in that order.


In 1939, Nance relaxed procedures for an autopsy and inquest when Edward C. Crossman, veteran police ballistics expert committed suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning. Crossman was a friend of Nance and was  an expert witness at many coroner inquests. Crossman left a special note to the Coroner:


“Dear Frank Nance: This is, of course, a suicide. No inquest is necessary, and for the sake of my family will you keep the matter as quiet as possible. Reason for suicide – the death of my beloved wife – Oct. 21 (1938), from the motor car accident which was my own fault. Best regards. Edward C. Crossman.”


Per the dead man’s wish, Nance announced that there would be no autopsy or inquest in this case.


In 1945, Frank Nance celebrated his 70th birthday, which was the compulsory retirement age for Los Angeles County employees. On May 29, civic leaders, public officials and county government workers packed the assembly room of the Hall of Records to honor Nance for 34 years in county government service, 24 of them as County Coroner.


“It is not my desire to retire at this time, but retirement is the penalty for having enjoyed one’s 70th birthday,” Nance said in response to many tributes by assembled speakers. “I resent the insinuation of the Retirement Act that I am an old man. One’s age is a state of mind.”


Nance left the coroner’s office on May 31, 1945 and was succeeded by Ben H. Brown, who became coroner as well as Public Administrator – a consolidation of both departments.


After his retirement, Nance accepted an executive position at the Utter-McKinley Mortuary.


“After 24 years as Los Angeles County Coroner, during which time I have had intimate contact with all local funeral firms, I take pleasure in announcing my association with the Utter-McKinley Mortuaries,” Nance announced. “I do so with the sincere belief that Utter-McKinley is the finest funeral firm in Los Angeles.”


Shortly after Nance’s retirement, his wife Bessie became ill and died two years later on August 8, 1947. The following year on November 7, 1948, Nance married for the second time to Ruthmary Barnes, a cofounder of the Executives’ Secretaries, and went on a cross-country tour with his new wife. When they arrived in Boerne, Texas, about 30 miles north of San Antonio, they found the climate to their liking and leased a ranch house.


In late September 1950, Nance became ill and was admitted to a San Antonio hospital where he died of pneumonia a week later on October 2, 1950. His body was returned to Los Angeles where funeral services were held at Utter-McKinley Wilshire Mortuary at 444 S. Vermont Avenue. He was buried next to Bessie at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.






The grave of Frank A. Nance and his wife Bessie are located at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale in the Kindly Light section (above), Lot 207, Space 1 and 2. They are directly across the road from the Finding of Moses statue near the cemetery entrance. If you know where Claire Windsor is interred, the Nances are two rows up and ‘about’ 20 feet to the right.



A month following his death, a bitterly worded will was filed for probate in Superior Court. The document, written entirely in Nance’s hand, identified his widow as Ruthmary Nance, 45 of 2124 Hillhurst Avenue.


It stated that during their brief marriage, Nance gave her joint tenancy interest in property worth $20,000, made her beneficiary in insurance policies of $15,000 and purchased a car for her.


“All of which,” the will said, “she now has in her possession exclusively and all of which she received from me on her promise to be a loving and loyal wife as long as I lived, which promise she has refused to keep or to tell her true name to others – persisting that her name is Ruthmary Barnes.”


Nance cut off his wife with $1.00 and left the remainder of his estate, valued at the time at $25,000 to his brother, sisters and a godson.  Nance had no children.


The following September, Nance’s brother, Ira, sued his ex-sister-in-law, charging that Frank Nance was deceived into assigning her some $50,000 from his holdings. The inducement for these transfers was the “promise of marriage, but after the marriage, Mrs. Nance did not live with Mr. Nance as his wife despite her promise.”


Unfortunately the results of these charges were never made public, however, Ruthmary Barnes returned to her original name and died on March 14, 1972.



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Valentino’s Forgotten Admirer

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009


Valentino’s forgotten admirer




By Allan R. Ellenberger


With news of the impending burial of singer Michael Jackson (September 3) in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn-Glendale, fans will be deprived of making the pilgrimage to his grave – if this is indeed his final resting place. Forest Lawn is infamous for their so-called privacy issues, and with the burial of the King of Pop within their granite walls, security will be tightened. Sadly though, security is sometimes taken to extremes. At times, overzealous cemetery personnel often harass people who have every right to be there.  


How differently the entombment of silent film star, Rudolph Valentino was handled at Hollywood Cemetery almost 83 years ago. Valentino, whose death and burial was as controversial in 1926 as Jackson’s is today, was interred in the Cathedral Mausoleum – not as imposing or opulent as the gothic Great Mausoleum, but just as stately and on a smaller scale.


For two years after Valentino’s death, it’s estimated that more than 100,000 people from around the world visited his borrowed crypt. This early pilgrimage by fans was documented in the 1938 book, Valentino the Unforgotten by Roger C. Peterson. In it, Peterson, who was custodian of the Cathedral Mausoleum, documents the almost daily invasion of visitors to the actors’ tomb.


Roger C. Peterson

 Roger C. Peterson, right, and an unidentified assistant place a floral tribute at Rudolph Valentino’s crypt, circa 1938 (photo courtesy of Tracy Ryan Terhune)


Peterson began working at the mausoleum the year following Valentino’s death. At that time, the only celebrities interred in the vast granite edifice besides Valentino were director and still-unsolved murder victim, William Desmond Taylor and the “Too Beautiful” actress, Barbara La Marr.


Over the eleven years that Peterson worked at the mausoleum, he met and talked to literally hundreds of Valentino admirers. In the book Peterson shares some of those stories — some peculiar and others very poignant. One story in particular was about a simple middle-aged woman, a devoted fan, but whose purpose at the mausoleum was more than just about Valentino. In a few paragraphs, Peterson describes his experience with this woman:


“Of all the people who are loyal to Valentino’s memory, there is one who stands out. She is an Italian woman and comes to the mausoleum three or four times a week. Although she had never seen Valentino in real life she had formed such an attachment for him in pictures, that when he died, she and her husband sold their home in San Diego and moved to Los Angeles. They now have a home within walking distance of the cemetery.


“A few years after they came here she had a baby which died at birth. She named it after Valentino. The baby’s crypt is near that of Valentino, and many people mistake it for his. She brings fresh flowers from her garden. These she divides equally between her baby and Rudy. She also takes care of the flowers brought in by other visitors and fixes these with loving care. Then, with her Bible in hand, she sits for hours reading and saying her prayers. Often I have heard her crying, and it is quite pitiful to hear her weep for her loved ones. Many times after I have closed the mausoleum, she will walk by the windows nearest her crypts and continue to say her prayers.


“She claims Valentino has come to her at night and talked with her. In her broken English she says, ‘Mr. Pete, the spirit of Rudy come to my house. He knocks on walls, sometime on door. I feel him close to me. He say he help me to be happy and he is glad I come to bring flowers to him.’


“She has met Valentino’s brother and sister. On Rudy’s birthday and anniversary of his death, she always arranges the flowers so that it is very pretty when they arrive. They have become good friends and she tells me that Alberto has been to her home for a visit.”



The corridor where the crypt of Rudolph Valentino is located (see arrow) and the crypt of Angelina Coppola and her son Rodolfo Valentino, top row left. Angelina would sit here and pray and read her Bible. (photo by Alan Light)


When I first read this account many years ago, I searched the walls around Valentino’s crypt looking for the remains of this child, but to no avail. I wondered if perhaps Peterson’s imagination had at some point taken over his storytelling, but decided to do more digging.


Based on Peterson’s story, the infant Rudolph was located near Valentino’s crypt and was sometimes confused for his. So I narrowed my search to the same wall where Valentino rests looking for an Italian surname. On the very top row and a few columns to the left of Valentino are the crypts of a couple named CoppolaMatthew and Angelina.


The Coppola’s story is typical of many immigrants who came to this country at the turn of the last century. Both Matthew and Angelina were born in Italy – Matthew’s family arriving here in 1894 when he was 13 years old. They settled in Paterson, New Jersey where Matthew met fellow immigrant, Angelina Rosa Federico. The two were married and started a family – Thomas, Lewis, Dante and Virgilio – all sons. Matthew was a carpenter by trade and in 1919 he moved his family to California to find work – first in San Jose and soon after moving to 2371 Brant Street in San Diego.


True to Peterson’s account, the Coppola’s moved again sometime in late 1926 to Los Angeles – specifically to 1316 Tamarind Avenue (demolished) in Hollywood – only two and a half blocks from Hollywood Cemetery. (The Coppola’s next door neighbor was future singer/actor and Valentino look-a-like, Russ Columbo)


Early in 1928, at the age of 45, Angelina found that she was pregnant, but sadly the baby boy died at birth on September 28. The state records list the child only as Baby Coppola but Angelina named him Rodolfo Valentino Coppola in honor of the actor.


Roger Peterson first met the Coppola’s when their child was interred in the top row crypt on October 15, 1928. Peterson, whom Angelina called ‘Mr. Pete,’ became friends with the Coppola’s during her frequent visits to the mausoleum. In his diary, dated November 24, 1928, Peterson wrote of Angelina’s personal encounter with Valentino:


“Mrs. Coppola was happier today than I have ever seen her. I asked her why and she told me a strange story of Valentino coming to her last night and talking to her. She said his spirit came to her house and knocked on the door. When she let him in, he told her that her baby was happy and not to grieve so much.”


However, it was difficult for the Coppola’s to entirely release their grief for they felt their child’s death was due to the doctor’s negligence. In 1930 they sued Dr. Rodolfo E. Monaco for $75,000 for asserted malpractice. During the trial, Angelina was on the stand being questioned about a statement she made to the effect that “she had been warned by a voice.”


At this point in her testimony, a woman jumped from her seat in the gallery and rushed to the front of the courtroom. Later identified as Shelly Roane Vier, a Long Beach psychic, she claimed she was sent to protect Angelina Coppola. She told the court that the spirit of Rudolph Valentino had directed her to Hollywood Cemetery the previous Christmas, where she met Angelina, and that his spirit had sent her to the courtroom that day. She was in a trance, she said, and for the moment, the spirit of a departed Indian chief, Gray Eagle, possessed her as she spoke in a strange tongue.


It was several minutes before order was restored and Vier was led from the courtroom by a companion. When court reconvened, the judge granted a motion of the plaintiff’s counsel declaring a mistrial. A second trial held two years later was suddenly ended by the judge who held that there was no evidence to show negligence on the part of Monaco.



 The crypt of Angelina Coppola and most likely her son, Rodolfo Valentino Coppola (d. 1928)


We assume that Angelina continued her frequent visits to the mausoleum for many years afterward, but who can say for sure. Baby Rodolfo’s grave is no longer marked with his name, but it’s likely that he was interred with his mother in the same crypt (1172) when she died on March 23, 1956 at age 72. Perhaps his marker, the one that confused so many fans, was also placed inside.


Peterson remained the custodian of the Cathedral Mausoleum until 1940 when he left to become a home contractor. The cemetery did not replace Peterson and there would never be another custodian to walk the corridors of the mausoleum, directing visitors to Valentino’s crypt.


Roger Peterson grave marker

 The grave of Roger C. Peteron, one-time custodian of the Cathedral Mausoleum at Hollywood Cemetery (photo courtesy of Tracy Ryan Terhune)


Roger Peterson died on July 31, 1972 and was laid to rest at Grandview Cemetery in Glendale. One wonders why he wasn’t interred at Hollywood Cemetery where he had worked for so many years.


Valentino the Unforgotten, the book that Roger C. Peterson wrote based on his diaries of the never-ending procession of visitors to Valentino’s crypt, was published in 1938. However, after only one shipment was sent to stores, a fire destroyed the warehouse where the remaining copies were held. The book was never republished so copies of the original are rare. In 2007, Tracy Ryan Terhune brought the book back into print, adding new information on Peterson. The book can be purchased on Amazon.


If you attend the 82nd Annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial on Sunday, August 23, 2009, before visiting the crypt of Valentino, pause for a moment below the resting place of Angelina and Matthew Coppola and their son Rodolfo, and remember a mother’s devotion and love for her child. 


Thank you to Tracy Terhune for the use of his photos and permission to quote from Valentino the Unforgotten.



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