In August of 1976 I picked up a newspaper that someone had left behind on the 42 Sunset Blvd bus and read that Mary Anissa Jones, Buffy from the 1960’s CBS sitcom Family Affair, had overdosed in an Oceanside apartment at age 18. I was saddened and in disbelief that this young girl only six years my senior, had succumbed to a much different life from the one she portrayed on television. This event created the clear acknowledgment for me that people in the lime light no matter how bright or for how long, have the same limitations as the rest of us do in the ordinary world. When Elvis died one year later in August of 1977 at age 42, it created a much wider spectrum of this reality ranging from that forgotten child star to "The King" himself and everyone else in between. I promptly tore out the small photo and obituary of Mary Anissa Jones from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner that day and took it home with me, thus starting a life long fascination with obituaries. Coincidentally when Elvis died I also heard about it while riding on that same 42 Sunset Blvd bus through Hollywood by a young man who announced it to everyone as he got the news from his transistor radio.
Throughout most of my working life I have clipped out interesting obituaries from the paper and taped them on to the wall of my office for others to read, creating a kind of tourist attraction wherever I happened to be employed at the time. People from other departments and other buildings would stop by for casual visits to read the “obituary wall” as it has since been named. Although interesting to read about the greats such as Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson or Lucille Ball when their time arrives, I find it even more fascinating to read about the not so famous such as that reclusive 1940's film noir actor, a 1950's roller derby queen from the Olympic Auditorium, the owner of the Los Feliz hipster lounge The Dresden Room, the guitar player from that forgotten 1980’s new wave band or the inventor of that 1960's rice and pasta mix, Rice A Roni. Even more interesting are the obituaries of the everyday people where a long and bountiful life is reduced to a 2 inch by 2 inch section of newsprint. One which stands out the most was that of a WWII veteran named Joe Cool, right after his name it read "Yes, his real name”. I was amused at the thought that Mr. Cool always had a bulletproof retort when someone accused him of trying to be cool, “What are you Joe Cool or something ?” Joe's response would smugly be “As a matter of fact, yes I am.”
Today I have become the "obit guy” amongst my friends and co-workers. When news hits the airwaves about a celebrity‘s passing, I immediately get a text message or an email from friends informing me of the news. Needless to say, this has been a busy week with the passings of Art Linkletter, Gary Coleman, Dennis Hopper and former Dodger Jose Lima. The obit wall gets recycled throughout the year with older ones coming down and newer ones becoming the headliners on my office wall. Over the course of time I started to accumulate boxes of yellowing newsprint with no significant use for them so rather than risk a fire hazard, I recently tossed most of them away. I kept several musicians such as John Entwhistle of The Who, Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone of The Ramones and Sandy West of The Runaways so that I could slip their obituary clippings into the record sleeves of their respected albums in my vinyl collection. For some reason I kept a few others; Esther Wong the owner of the 1970’s Chinatown music venue Madam Wong’s, Danny Sugerman the best selling author of No One Here Gets Out Alive (the biography of Jim Morrison of the Doors) and Deirdre O'donoghue the original host of Breakfast with the Beatles now hosted by Chris Carter
As far as that very first obit of Mary Anissa Jones. I placed it in a book aptly titled The Best Short Stories by O. Henry which I was reading at the time of her death in August of 1976. The small clipping remained untouched in the book from that day for the next 31 years until I uncovered it in when I was moving in 2007 and then just as quickly, it disappeared again amongst my belongings once again. Hopefully the yellowish news print of the pig-tailed little girl who left us way too early will resurface again some day.