Sunday, June 29, 2008

Hollywood Forever

Note: This article ran originally on LAist. This is a reprint. I am the author.

May 29, 2008
Hollywood Forever: Six Feet Under?

Hollywood Forever Cemetery

I had heard through the cemetery-grapevine that Hollywood Forever was quickly becoming less friendly, stopping tourists from taking photos and putting an end to the atmosphere that had made it the best boneyard in town. Its amazing rehabilitation was well-documented in the HBO documentary "The Young and The Dead," focusing on the Cassity family of St. Louis, who brought the former cemetery back to life.

Brent and Tyler Cassity are young, handsome in that Midwestern way, and charming. If this sounds a bit like "Six Feet Under," you're not too far off the mark - one of the Cassitys consulted on the series. Running an empire called "The Forever Network," the Cassitys came to Hollywood with stardom in their chosen field securely under their belt and soon garnered the press coverage to back it up.

Renaming the tragically neglected Hollywood Memorial Park "Hollywood Forever" and crowning it with an infiniti logo brand symbol, the burial place on a grimy corner of Santa Monica Boulevard became the site of weekend film screenings where hustlers formerly worked the grounds. Newly-demised hipster graves popped up alongside the old guard, joined by the first wave of departed Hollywood Russians, who began choosing HF as their final resting place rather than Forest Lawn or Westwood.

As a tourist attraction, the immaculate lawns and gleaming marble mausoleums welcomed fans, film freaks, and mourners alike -even selling maps at the kiosk - and Dana Gould's recent fundraising effort to make it Vampira's final resting place seemed only fitting. However, at the memorial service, a friend was stopped by security as he was taking a photo. A tipster on "Roadside America" a few months back said that they were forbidden from taking photographs in the cemetery. What gives?

Unlike Forest Lawn, who are notoriously private - any cemetery lover will tell you that the surest way to get yourself removed from cemetery grounds is to ask where a famous person is buried - or Westwood, which, despite having Marilyn Monroe, has managed to keep its atmosphere small, quiet, and unobtrusive - Hollywood Forever's whole image was based on the celebration of Hollywood itself, living and dead. Last night, I got this email from a friend - and yes, he is a property owner, prepaid:

"I was at Hollywood Forever on Monday and they made me sign in at the gate and asked me why I was there. I told them I was a property owner, they still made me sign in. I asked them if they made the people that pay 10 bucks to see a movie on Saturday night sign in. No, was the response. The place is under investigation."

He sent me this astonishing article from the St. Louis Post Dispatch dated May 11th - oddly, this news has yet to break here:

Last month, regulators took control of three companies that make up the heart of the Cassitys' holdings. Government agencies in at least 10 states are trying to sort out what happened. Their attention is focused on one unsexy, but lucrative part of the sprawling firm — prepaid funerals. This was Forever's financial engine, spinning off cash and powering the promises of change.

Regulators are trying to determine if enough money remains to honor the prepaid funerals of perhaps 100,000 people, including 46,000 in Missouri. The funeral industry has not seen an emerging scandal like this in years.

I called Hollywood Forever to try and speak with the Cassitys.

"He isn't usually at this location ... he's usually ... let me see ... (silence) ... I believe the best would be to try in Missouri."

So are the Cassity Brothers no longer at the Hollywood location?

"They ... are but I don't believe he is here this week."

The extensive expose from the St. Louis Dispatch is bad news not only for those who have chosen to pre-plan:

NPS [National Prearranged Services] differed from other companies in significant ways: The Cassitys owned not just NPS, which marketed the product; they owned the life insurers that wrote the policies. In Missouri, NPS was the policy beneficiary, too, which is unusual. When clients bought prepaid burials, they paid NPS, which took out the insurance, paid the policy premiums and collected when they died. Regulators are still trying to determine how the arrangement worked.

A source in St. Louis tells me that Texas regulators took control of NPS and the two life insurance companies -- essentially taking the bankruptcy route for insurance companies. More details as we get them.

Hollywood Forever photo from Javivazquez via Flickr.
By Donna Lethal© 2008

part II

Hollywood Forever: in Limbo

Hollywood Forever Cemetary

A visit to Lincoln Memorial Life's website - (one of the insurance companies owned by the Cassity family/Forever Network) explains why my property-owner friend was stopped and made to sign in at HF's gate, as I reported yesterday:

Memorial Service Life Insurance Company, Lincoln Memorial Life Insurance Company and National Prearranged Services (NPS) Inc. have been place in Rehabilitation under an Order of Rehabilitation entered on May 14, 2008 in Cause Number D-1-GV-08-000945 in the 250th Judicial Court of Travis County, Texas. This action was initiated by the State of Texas at the request of the Texas Department of Insurance with the cooperation of the regulators of several other states.

The Commissioner of Insurance for the State of Texas has appointed Donna J. Garrett as the Special Deputy Receiver of all three companies on May 14, 2008. Ms. Garrett will be responsible for the management of the companies and their operations.

Memorial Service Life Insurance Company (Memorial Service) and Lincoln Memorial Service Life Insurance Company (Lincoln Memorial) have ceased writing new business. NPS has suspended the sale of pre-need contracts. Each state regulates the sale of prepaid funeral contracts and the law varies from state to state. The Special Deputy Receiver is working with regulators from affected states to determine the best course of action to provide the greatest level of protection for all consumers and other stakeholders.

All of the legal documents associated with the case are posted on the site here as well as contact info for the Special Deputy Receiver's staff and a FAQ section. Most notable is the "Filed Agreed Order Appointing Rehabilitator and Permanent Injunction," (see page six): Brent Cassity and his business partners have a permanent injunction barring them from "Doing, operating or conducting [Defendant's] business."

Which explains the vague answers I got when I called HF yesterday, leading me to wonder ...

Q. Who is in charge of Lincoln Memorial, Memorial Life, and NPS?

The Agreed Order appoints the Texas Commissioner of Insurance as the Rehabilitator. The Rehabilitator is automatically vested with title to all of the Companies' property. The Rehabilitator also takes over all the powers of the Companies' directors, officers and managers.The Rehabilitator has appointed Donna J. Garrett as the Special Deputy Receiver ("SDR"). As the appointed SDR, Donna J. Garrett has all the rights and powers of the Rehabilitator, subject to any limitations imposed by the Rehabilitator. Donna J. Garrett in now in charge of the Companies, and serves at the pleasure of the Rehabilitator.In October 2007, TDI placed Lincoln Memorial and Memorial Service in confidential supervision under Chapter 441 of the Texas Insurance Code. While the Companies were in supervision, TDI recommended that they engage an independent manager with experience managing troubled insurance companies. They engaged Dan Watkins as the Acting Manager. Dan Watkins is continuing to work for the companies and with the SDR, Donna J. Garrett.

If you are a policyholder or property owner, I would strongly urge you to keep tabs on the Lincoln Memorial Site.

Here's an interesting interview with Tyler Cassity from 2007.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tied Up with Karen Knotts

Note: this originally ran on LAist and is kindly reprinted here by permission. I am the author.

Tied Up with Karen Knotts

Versatile Karen Knotts is an actor, singer, comedian, clown, magician, puppeteer and ventriloquist. She exhibits several of these talents in her new stage show. Show business is in her blood. She's the daughter of an American entertainment icon, Don Knotts, an authentic comic genius.

Her story isn't "Mommie Dearest," however. Her regard for her father is one of warm and considerable affection, and it's obvious that she considers her late dad to have been a great guy.

It's mostly the story of Karen's life and career, establishing herself as a performing artist while living in the shadow of one of the most beloved and admired comedy performers of his generation.

There are bumps in the road. Her parents divorce and she moves in with her dad. She is awkward, unhip and out of place at Beverly Hills High School. There are mass quantities of marijuana, followed by a breakdown.

But she overcomes Don's initial trepidations about her choice of a profession (the same as his) , and they go off on the road together performing in regional theater ("Mind With The Dirty Man," "Norman, Is That You?"), and she learns her trade from a guy who's a legend in the business: her dad. She eventually appears with him on TV ("Return To Mayberry"). And, ultimately, she is able to emerge from his shadow and make her own way in the world.

Both you and your late Dad have college theatre degrees (hers from USC and his: West Virginia University) Did your father stress formal training?

He never tried to push me to do anything. He always let me find my own way, although he discouraged me from certain things if he thought they weren't working for me. Dad had a great time at WVU, his drama teacher was Sam Boyd and he got so much valuable training from him. The best part of his training though, was in the army during WWII doing shows for soldiers.

Since this is for LAist, are there certain spots in Los Angeles that will always remind you of childhood and/or your dad? Where/why?

Glendale where we grew up. It was a much different town then, but still had the same 'small town' feel. Certain places near where we lived are burned in my memory. One interesting little fact. We lived on Mountain Street up in the hilly area, it was a curvy road, and sort of out of the way. Motorists would come zooming down that road like no tomorrow and a couple of precious pets were killed. Dad was so worried about it he went down to city hall and got them to put a stop sign in front of our house. It's still there. Places in L.A. proper; certain restaurants were his faves. He would usually eat at the same restaurant until he got tired of it (I'm talking for years!) Later in life he favored the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Dining was always first class for him and he favored classic style like the Beverly Wilshire. He loved Italian restaurants like Matteos, La Dolce Vita and La Scala.

Your Dad collaborated with some very interesting partners: the cast of the Andy Griffith Show, of course, but also Phil Silvers, Tim Conway, and later on Three's Company. What was his rehearsal method? Especially with his physical comedy, which I imagine took a serious amount of preparation.

Tim Conway was a great one for ad-libbing and he enjoyed Tim's talent for it. Dad didn't work that way. Everything was rehearsed, very precise. He spent a lot of time learning lines and working on delivery. (I do talk about this in the show.) He was a great craftsman. Never liked to improvise and was uncomfortable on talk shows. The physical comedy came naturally. As a boy he wanted to be a baseball player.

I imagine his image could have been frustrating at times for both of you. Is this something you discuss in your show?

I definitely talk about this! But from my own perspective. I don't thinks Dad's image was frustrating for him, except he was always very conscious of the public's perception of him, and that's why he never publicly discussed politics or did anything that would be an extreme departure from the way people perceived him. He was a very sophisticated, wordly guy, not like his characters, except maybe internally.

What kind of music did he listen to?

Lots of different kinds. He was from the swing era, and always loved that. The classics like Sinatra, Tony Bennett and so on. He grew up hearing hymns and developed quite an ability, he sang beautiful harmony. He tried to teach me but I had a tin ear.

Your Dad was very gracious to fans in his final years (appearing at autograph shows etc) - what did you learn from him regarding celebrity and audiences?

Yeah, he's definitely my role model. He was so gracious and sweet with people. He always took the time to smile or talk to them, never turned anyone away. I loved that about him.

Most of your Dad's nervous, "reluctant hero" characters had an strong inner drive to succeed - did your Dad have the same determination?

You bet. He was very ambitious. He originally started out to be the world's greatest comedian, but reality tempered that goal. The first time he went to New York intending to 'bring the big apple to its knees.' Instead he came home and got a job plucking chickens at the neighborhood grocery store.

Like your Dad, you have studied and performed as a puppeteer and ventriloquist … a common bond?

Yes, this is a theme in my show. You'll have to come see it, it's too hard to explain!

You are heading to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer -- what kind of shows will you seek out to watch in your off time? Your likes?

I love the English comedy, like Eddie Izzard. In fact Dad loved Eddie and was one of the first Americans to discover his stand up. I want to see all the standups out there and I really like people who incorporate characters into their comedy.

Your parents divorced in 1964 (just before your Dad's Universal film career would begin), did you ever feel pulled between your parents - or did they remain cordial? I know you went to live with your Dad.

My parents had the all time great ex-spouse relationship. Every year at Thanksgiving, my dad, his wife, my mother, her husband, Tom (my brother) and me and whoever we were hanging out with, would convene, usually in San Francisco. They remained great friends to the end. I feel very fortunate about that, especially when I hear/read about so many terribly divorces.

As a stand up comic and solo show artist, are you constantly crafting/re-working material or is there a time when you just know - this is IT - it works - leave it be?

I am constantly reworking my stuff. I don't know if I'll ever be satisfied. But for now that's good because it keeps improving. I don't know if I'll ever think, there, that's it, I'm finished!! The great thing about having my dad as a subject for a show is that it's an endless source of material. There are so many memories that occur at different times, and it's all potential material. I can see myself adding new chapters to this show for the rest of my life. So in that sense, it'll never be a finished show.

What would you say is the core message of your solo show?

Interesting question to have to actually address head-on. For me and my experience living with a famous dad, it was a double edged sword. He was so great and wonderful and warm, and at times extremely entertaining. But because of the fame, the people surrounding that person become invisible. People become so drawn in to the famous person, like a magnet, that everything else disappears. I had to fight the feeling of being an invisible, or inconsequential, person. It took a long time but I finally overcame it, and this show helped me do that.

And finally ... are you aware that John Waters is a big fan of your Dad?

Oh, yes. I knew about that because Dad told me. So was Jim Carrey, Billy Bob Thornton, Katt Williams, and many, many more.

Don and Danny.

All photos courtesy of Karen Knotts. Article 2009 ©Donna Lethal