[Editor's Note: Since the Long Beach Historical Cemetery Tour takes place only one day a year, this review of the October 28, 2017 event was doomed to post after the fact - too late to help readers decide whether they wanted to attend last Halloween. Therefore, we post it now, a week before the 23rd annual Historical Cemetery Tour, which will take place from 9am to 3pm on Saturday, October 27.]
How do you look at Long Beach? The second-largest city in Los Angeles County has a rich and, to many people, unknown history. One event that helps to remedy this situation while providing a lovely Gothic day trip is the annual tour of Sunnyside Cemetery and Long Beach Municipal Cemetery by the Historical Society of Long Beach. The tour takes visitors through two adjacent cemeteries located in a mostly industrial part of Long Beach, on what would become the most valuable land in the city due to its rich oil reserves. But never mind the black gold or Texas tea - we’re talking about dead folks.
The highlight of the tour is the performances, which take place by the burial places of prominent Long Beach citizens. Fame, fortune, scandal, and the sort of story that the Chamber of Commerce might not find flattering are all acted out by Historical Society actors in period costumes, who portray the famous and infamous of the city lying at rest in this beautiful cemetery. Different “residents” are portrayed each year, with rotating characters so that you can attend every year and still hear and see something new. Here are highlights of the 2017 performances:
Long Beach has always been a multicultural city, so when Genero and Ramona Linares, portrayed by Bob Fetes and Roxanne Martinez, brought their family during the turbulent years of the Mexican Revolution they expected to start a new life in a welcoming area. The prosperity of the area, however, did not seem to extend to them. So, during Prohibition, a coworker of Genero’s suggested that he get in on a little bootlegging operation. For a time it paid off, but then in 1923 the undercover “Booze Squad” did a sting operation and caught Genero and his son. Violence ensued and Genero was shot dead in front of this family. His widow went on to found a longstanding, very successful Mexican restaurant that counted among their best customers the LBPD!
Clark Shaw (Dennis Kortheuer) was introduced by Harriet Whitmeyer, who portrayed his mother. “My Son Clark” describes an early Long Beach celebrity who became, in 1907, the head of the city’s water department after inventing a device that would come to be utilized by water departments throughout the entire country.
Another famous family in Long Beach, the Heartwells, were represented by actors portraying two somewhat different kinds of women who married into the rich banking family known for their many contributions to the community, including libraries and youth sports. The rivalry between the two women - barely being able to stand the idea that they’re buried side by side - was acted out to perfection by Kysa Cohen and Terra Taylor Knudson. Ah, the burdens of the rich!
The stand-out story of the day was that of a New Age preacher, a sort of discount Edgar Cayce, who brought his own brand of mysticism to Long Beach, where his Psychic Temple opened to enthusiastic crowds in 1905. Mitchell Nunn portrayed Dr. William Price (the “Doctor” part of the name is in doubt, to say the least), a Southern mystic who combined his charismatic Protestant faith with good ol’ fashioned Appalachian folk magic and Mesmerism.
Jane Nunn portrayed the long-suffering wife who was at first seduced by Price’s belief in women’s equality, his charismatic persona, and his claims of human potential through his teachings. This went well for a time, but the locals eventually moved on to some new fad in mysticism and left the Prices with a big real estate bill for the building that housed the Temple, a building that still exists. Eventually, Price’s wife left him after catching him with another woman, and Price himself ran afoul of the law after he and another man attempted to sell land in Irvine to pay their debt - land which belonged to the Irvine Company, not to them!
Cemetery history was emphasized in one area, while the history of Japanese Americans in Long Beach was discussed in another. A Dia de Los Muertos altar, gourmet food vendors, and authors who have written books on aspects of Long Beach heritage were located in the Municipal Cemetery area. Some attendees dressed in Victorian garb or Goth, Steampunk, and Day of the Dead finery, adding to the ambiance. The beautiful weather in late October made for a delightful day. After the event, thirsty tourists could walk across Willow to the new Ten Mile Brewery, which offered a discount to tour attendees.
Cemeteries are inherently interesting places, especially if you know what to look for. While my party and I walked carefully to avoid breaking an ankle in a gopher hole, one late member of the well-represented gopher family had left his perfect little skull for my photographer to find. And near at least three graves were offerings of pennies and dimes - significantly, right inside the cemetery gates. For those not in the know, this practice of leaving coins in exchange for favors from the dead is common in various American folk magick traditions; leaving a “fee” inside the gates indicates at least one practitioner of Vodou in the area understands that the lord and lady of the cemetery (Baron Samedi and Maman Brigitte) should be given offerings before stomping through their territory. For the rest of us, we paid $20 to the Historical Society of Long Beach for one of the most interesting Halloween-time events in Southern California.
A few points to keep in mind when attending in 2018:
- Wear comfortable, sturdy shoes; the gopher family brooks no high heels.
- Hats and parasols are indicated as we usually have sunny weather. There is some covered seating for each performance, but attendees are not guaranteed a seat.
- Water and refreshments are available for sale, or you may bring your own.
- Restroom facilities are limited to port-a-potties.
- Parking on side streets and in the little park on Orange Avenue is available; on-site parking is mostly taken up by performers and vendors.
- The Historical Society of Long Beach is always looking for volunteers, including actors.
22nd Long Beach Historical Cemetery Tour Rating
One of the most interesting Halloween-time events in Southern California.
This year’s Historical Cemetery Tour takes place on Saturday, October 27, 9:00 am – 3:00 pm. Long Beach Municipal Cemetery & Sunnyside Cemetery are located at 1095 E. Willow Avenue, Long Beach. Tickets are sold online in advance and on-site starting at 8:30am. To contact or volunteer, see hslb.org, the official website of the Historical Society of Long Beach.