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Local Cemetery Offers a Final Reading Place

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In an idea that may seem clever, campy, or just plain morbid, actor/producer Merrill recently began presenting a series of staged screenplay readings titled "Playing Forever"--at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Launched in August, "Playing Forever" runs every other Thursday night through Oct. 23 and features some well-known actors reading from famous scripts just yards away from the burial sites of some of Hollywood's most beloved legends. On Sept. 11, Felicity Huffman and Willie Garson joined Merrill and others for a reading of the noir classic The Maltese Falcon. The film's director, John Huston, and one of its stars, Peter Lorre, are just two those who call Hollywood Forever their final resting site. Merrill seeks out scripts he can connect to those interred at the cemetery--be they obscure character actors, cinematographers, or orchestrators. "We look for any kind of connection, it doesn't matter to me," said Merrill. "And the truth is, you can connect almost anyone to that cemetery."

Most people who drive down that stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard aren't even aware of the little piece of history nestled behind the numerous auto repair shops. It was an HBO documentary about Brent and Tyler Cassity, entrepreneurial brothers who purchased the cemetery in 1998 with the intention of renovating the historic landmark, that first caught Merrill's attention. "Not that I'm a goth guy, because I'm not," Merrill was quick to state. "But at the same time, I do have a reverence for history. And usually in every city, there's a great cemetery." Merrill attended a summer solstice poetry reading at the cemetery, where he was awed by the tranquil beauty of the grounds. "I was just knocked out by the venue itself. I just thought L.A. does not have very much public space at all, certainly compared to other cities I've lived in. It didn't strike me as a cemetery; it seemed like a beautiful, historical spot," said Merrill. "The sun set, and the moon came up, and it was a beautiful night, and I just thought, This is a knockout."

He approached Tyler Cassity with the concept of performing live theatre there, something Cassity had already been giving serious consideration to, and came up with the idea of reading the screenplays the people who were buried there had made famous. "I thought it would be a reverential way to celebrate life," said Merrill. "The fact is, these people built this town, and they're still here."

The readings take place on the Fairbanks Lawn, which houses a memorial to Douglas Fairbanks and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and features a long reflecting pool. At a flat area in front of a stairwell, lights are trucked in and actors are supplied with microphones. Guests are invited to bring blankets and a picnic dinner and enjoy the surprising peacefulness of the neighborhood. Weather permitting, "Playing Forever" may continue into the season and feature a Christmas show, but right now the atmosphere is perfect for enjoying a unique form of entertainment. As for those who might question the good taste of such a venture, Merrill insists all respect is intended. "Some people were sort of put off at first. But the truth is, as Tyler puts it, it's not a matter of if, just when. We're all going to end up there someday."

Upcoming readings: Sept. 25, "All About Eve"; Oct. 9, "The Palm Beach Story"; Oct. 23, "Stage Door." All Shows 8 p.m., gates open at 7 p.m. Reservations not required. Tickets available at the gate on the night of the performance. $10 per person, parking included. Feel free to bring a picnic of food and drink. Blankets for sitting on lawn and warm clothing suggested no matter how hot the day has been. Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard. www.urbanempire.org.

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