LA tour guide makes a living dishing dirt on the dead
  •    PAT GAUEN
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
  • July 27, 2006
  • Section: Metro
  • Edition: Second Edition
  • Page D3

 

Curiosity, not the call of nature, led me inside a Beverly Hills park bathroom the week before last. It was to examine the exact john where singer George Michael crippled his career in 1998 with a graphic sexual proposition to an undercover cop.

I admit we're talking about a morbid strain of curiosity here. But that was the point of how I spent three hours of vacation earlier this month, on a tour so ghoulish that some paying customers might even deny their presence.

Yes, that was me staring out the smoked windows of a white minivan at the 23-room mansion where Erik and Lyle Menendez unleashed the fury of two shotguns on their parents in 1989. A speaker over my head played part of Lyle's taped confession.

Soon it was on to Virginia Hill's old place, where mobster boyfriend Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was rubbed out by shots through a window while she happened to be out of town one night in 1947. An album in my lap accommodated a comparison with news photos from the day.

Scott Michaels was no better at telling me why he guides this macabre tour than I was at telling him why I wanted to go. "Death is either the thing that I fear the least or that I fear the most," he told me, as if that explained anything.

A longtime guide for Los Angeles tours, Scott moved to Great Britain for several years to live at the edge of the limelight as love interest of Graham Norton, a TV superstar on that side of the Atlantic. They split, and Michaels returned to California to go into business for himself.

His "Dearly Departed Tour" is a logical extension of his Web site, www.findadeath.com, which chronicles the hows and whys of celebrity mortality. "A biography usually ends with the death; I pick up the details from there," he said.

There can be no more fertile ground than LA, where Scott's van with the black wreath on the grille gathers its customers ($35 a head) in front of the Erotica Museum on Hollywood Boulevard. (Sadly, the museum was vacant, its contribution to culture lost. Also a side note: The wreath was made by the florist who kept Joe DiMaggio supplied with roses for the crypt of his late wife, Marilyn Monroe.)

Not all the scores of sites we visited involved deaths. George Michael is still alive and recording. Billionaire eccentric Howard Hughes survived the spectacular crash of his X-11 airplane into some Beverly Hills homes that we perused 60 years after the fact. (If you saw the movie "The Aviator," you will remember the scene.)

Heck, we even went past the hamburger stand where actor Hugh Grant met up with a lady of the evening named Divine Brown -- and the section of street where police interrupted their 1995 business arrangement.

Scott, whose whimsical narrative reminded me a lot of a tamer Howie Mandel, knew his stuff. As we rumbled past Cedars-Sinai Hospital, he needed only memory to rattle off names of dozens of stars who drew their final breaths there.

He pointed to the sidewalk where William (Fred Mertz) Frawley dropped dead outside the Knickerbocker Hotel in 1966. And the motel where Janis Joplin injected her last heroin in 1970. And to the spot where actor River Phoenix fatally overdosed outside the Viper Club on Sunset Boulevard in 1993.

Then there was the corner where in 1969 Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, talked with a news vendor about the Sharon Tate murder headlines shortly before Charles Manson's murderous marauders paid them a surprise visit too. The homes of the LaBiancas and Tate (razed and rebuilt as a veritable palace) were on the itinerary, of course.

And we saw a house where Elizabeth Short once stayed, before discovery of her bisected body in 1947 made the killing of the "Black Dahlia" the most sensational unsolved homicide in the city. (Avoid the morgue pictures in Scott's album unless you have a mortician's stomach.)

If case you're wondering, wife Karen -- always a good sport -- went along and insisted that she enjoyed every moment.

"What was your favorite spot?" I asked her.

She barely hesitated before recalling how Scott had paused to let us gawk at the house that was used as the exterior of the Cunningham home in the old "Happy Days" TV sitcom.

"That?" I asked. "Nobody died there."

Karen smiled.