Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

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Russ Columbo

Jan. 14, 1908 – Sept. 2, 1934

March 30, 2014 -- In the early 1930s, it would be hard to find anyone in Hollywood with as wide a range of talent, and as much promise and potential as singer and actor Russ Columbo.

A musical prodigy and professional violinist at 13, he became a popular composer, singer and radio star, in a league with Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee among the top crooners of the era.

With his wavy black hair, smoldering good looks and silky baritone, Columbo -- known as the "Singing Romeo" and the "Valentino of the Air" -- arrived in Hollywood just as the sound era began, and appeared in films with Gary Cooper, Fay Wray, Franchot Tone, Constance Cummings and Constance Bennett. Within a few short years, Columbo had moved from small, uncredited singing parts to supporting roles, and then his first starring role.

Still in his early 20s, Columbo was dating one of the most attractive and popular movie stars of the era, Carole Lombard, and there were rumors of marriage. In addition to his film career, Columbo was also performing at nightclubs around Los Angeles, and had just started hosting a Sunday evening radio show. Columbo was at the height of his fame and popularity, with a bright and seemingly unlimited future.

When Columbo is remembered today, however, it's usually due to the bizarre and tragic circumstances of his untimely death.

Columbo was born Ruggiero Eugenio di Rodolfo Colombo on Jan. 14, 1908, in Camden, N.J., the 12th and final child of Italian immigrants Nicola and Giulia (Julia) Perseri Colombo. (Three of their children died in infancy.) Nicola Colombo worked as a stone mason and building contractor, and also as a theater musician. He instilled in his children a love of music, and young Russ took guitar and violin lessons. (When he started his professional career, Russ changed the spelling of his last name from "Colombo" to "Columbo.")

When Russ was about 5 years old, the family moved to Philadelphia, then San Francisco, where Nicola worked as a watchman on the wharf, and 13-year-old Russ made his professional debut, playing the violin at the Imperial Theater.

The family moved to Los Angeles, where Columbo played in the Belmont High School orchestra, and also worked on silent movie sets, playing mood music to help the actors get in the right frame of mind for their performances. One of the actresses he performed for, Pola Negri, noticed that Columbo bore a striking resemblance to one of her former lovers, Rudolph Valentino. Negri took an interest in Columbo's career, and helped him land small roles in several films in the late 1920s.

Columbo was also working as a violinist in hotel and theater orchestras around Los Angeles. When a band singer became ill before a radio program scheduled to be broadcast from the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, Columbo was called in as a last-minute replacement, which resulted in a job with the popular Gus Arnheim and his Ambassadors as a violinist and singer. And so, at 17, Columbo dropped out of high school and started touring across the country with Arnheim.

Although Arnheim officially hired Columbo as a violinist, his role as a vocalist quickly increased. Arnheim was having problems with his featured singer, Bing Crosby, due to Crosby’s excessive drinking and erratic behavior. Crosby eventually left the orchestra to strike out on a solo career, and Columbo stepped in as his replacement. (Although the gossip columns and recording companies reported a bitter rivalry between the two singers -– "The Battle of the Baritones" -– they were actually good friends.)

Arnheim recorded a string of hits with Columbo, from "I Can't Do Without You" in 1928, to "Sweet and Lovely" in 1931. Columbo also returned to the screen, appearing as a singing prisoner in an uncredited role in "Dynamite" (1929), which starred Conrad Nagel, Kay Johnson and Charles Bickford, and was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and "Street Girl" (1929), which starred Betty Compson, John Harron and Jack Oakie, and featured the Arnheim orchestra.

Like Pola Negri, film producers also saw Columbo's potential as a screen star. He appeared in small roles in "The Wolf Song" (1929), starring Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez; "The Texan" (1930), starring Cooper and Fay Wray; and "Hell Bound" (1931), starring Leo Carillo and Lola Lane. Columbo appeared in his first co-starring role in "Broadway Thru a Keyhole" (1933), with Constance Cummings and Paul Kelly, and directed by Lowell Sherman.

In September 1933, Columbo, then 25, met Lombard while he was performing at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Lombard, then 24, was out on the town with 36-year-old screenwriter Robert Riskin, a month after her divorce from actor William Powell. Columbo noticed Lombard in the audience, and began singing to her, and she returned his attention.

The observant Riskin noticed the connection, and also realized that he couldn't compete with the "Singing Romeo." Riskin told Lombard that she would be hearing from Columbo soon, and he was right. The next morning, Columbo sent a dozen yellow roses to Lombard's home, and their romance began.

After dating for a few months, Columbo was eager to get married, but Lombard was hesitant, having just come off her divorce from Powell.

On screen, Columbo played himself in "Moulin Rouge" (1934), which starred Constance Bennett and Franchot Tone, and co-starred in "Wake Up and Dream" (1934), with June Knight and Roger Pryor. Universal Pictures announced that Columbo would next star as a toreador in "Men Without Fear," and he was also being considered for three more films –- "Glamour," "Show Boat" and "Sweet Music." Clearly, Columbo was being groomed by Universal to become the studio's new romantic musical star, to rival Crosby at Paramount, Fred Astaire at RKO, Nelson Eddy at MGM and Dick Powell at Warner Bros.

Beginning in early 1934, Columbo also began starring on his own prime-time radio program, broadcast on the NBC network every Sunday evening from the Roosevelt Hotel.

Columbo had to make a decision. Did he want to become a romantic musical film star, or did he want to focus full-time on his music career? Not only was he a popular singer, but he was also a successful composer, having written "Prisoner of Love," "You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)," "Too Beautiful For Words," "When You're in Love," "My Love," "Let's Pretend There’s a Moon," and "Hello Sister." (After his death, performers including Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, the Ink Spots, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, James Brown, Perry Como, Jerry Vale and Tiny Tim recorded songs written by Columbo.)

Columbo was leaning toward his music career, but he never got the chance.

On Sunday, Sept. 2, 1934, at about 1 p.m., Columbo went to visit his best friend, photographer Lansing Brown Jr., and Columbo had a lot to talk about. Not only was he worried about his career decisions and the soon-to-be-released "Wake Up and Dream," but his mother had suffered a heart attack two days before, and he was also troubled by Lombard. He wanted to get married, but she seemed to keep putting him off. (Publicly, Lombard would only say that they were "just very good friends.")

Brown and Columbo were in the library of Brown's bungalow on Lillian Way in Los Angeles, with Brown's visiting parents in the kitchen in the back of the house. Brown was sitting behind a desk, with Columbo seated in a chair across from him. While they were talking, Brown, a gun collector, picked up one of the antique pistols on the desk, a Civil War-era, percussion-cap weapon, one of a matched set of dueling pistols.

Brown used the guns as paperweights on his desk, and he was certain that they weren't loaded, though he had never attempted to load or fire the guns. While Columbo was talking, Brown picked up a match and absent-mindedly struck it against the pistol.

The gun fired, and the corroded lead ball in the barrel ricocheted off the mahogany desktop, and hit Columbo in the left eye socket, pushing through his brain, and fracturing the back of his skull.

"I had the pistol in my hand, snapping the trigger with my thumb and not actually paying much attention to what I was doing," Brown said. "I don't know how or why I got the match under the hammer. All I know is that there was the explosion."

Brown's parents ran into the library when they heard the explosion, and their son's calls for help. When they entered the room, they saw Columbo slumped over in the chair and Brown bent over his body, pleading with him to speak. Brown's mother went to get ice to put on Columbo's head, and his father called for an ambulance.

Howard Nutt, a police ballistics expert who examined the gun after the shooting, determined that the gun had been packed with black gunpowder, paper wadding and the bullet, and had likely been in that condition for decades, perhaps even before the Civil War. The matching dueling pistol also contained gunpowder and paper wadding, but no bullet.

Brown said he had owned the guns for about seven years, and he had often brought them out and showed them to friends. Nutt said it was miraculous that neither gun had gone off during previous handlings.

Columbo was quickly taken to Hollywood Receiving Hospital, then transferred to Good Samaritan Hospital. Doctors planned to attempt surgery to remove the bullet from the back of Columbo's head, but they wanted to wait until his condition stabilized, and that didn't happen. Columbo never regained consciousness, and lingered for more than five hours before he died, just after 7 p.m., at the age of 26.

At the coroner's inquest, held on the morning of Sept. 5 and presided over by L.A. County Coroner Frank Nance, six witnesses were called -- Lansing Brown Sr.; Lansing Brown Jr.; Virginia Brissac, Columbo's secretary; LAPD Det. Lt. Joseph A. Page; LAPD ballistics expert Spencer B. Moxley; and Dr. A.F. Wagner.

When asked to describe the circumstances of the shooting, Brown Jr. said, "We had been talking for quite some time and these old dueling pistols, they have always been on the desk there, and I was pulling the hammer back and clicking it while I was listening to him talk, and there was a match, just an ordinary kitchen match, and I had it in my left hand and I wasn't looking at my hand. I was naturally listening to him and looking at him and I don't know, there was an explosion and I noticed Russ had slipped over in his chair. That's all I can remember."

Following an inquest, highlighted by Brown's testimony, a coroner's jury quickly determined that Columbo's death was a tragic accident, and absolved Brown of any blame. After the inquest, police officials attempted to return the guns to Brown, but he declined, saying that he never wanted to see them again.

Doubts still remain over whether the official version of Columbo's death is the true and complete story. Among the main theories are that Columbo and Brown were more than just good friends, and that Brown was upset about Columbo's possible marriage to Lombard, or that Lombard was upset about Columbo's relationship with Brown and insisted that he end it. In those scenarios, Brown either shot Columbo intentionally, or threatened to shoot himself, and Columbo was shot in their struggle with the gun. Among the more far-fetched theories are that Columbo was shot by a jealous woman or an angry husband who mysteriously entered Brown's house and left unseen by neighbors, he was killed by organized crime over a family debt, or that Crosby arranged the shooting to eliminate his professional competition.

As "proof," supporters of these theories point to the bizarre circumstances of the official version, the power of the film studios in the 1930s in preventing their stars from being tainted by scandal, Brown's allegedly fragile mental state, and the fact that the fatal bullet was never removed from Columbo's skull and examined.

Since Columbo's mother was still recovering from her recent heart attack, her doctor recommended that she not be told about her youngest child's death, fearing that the shock of the news could be fatal. Since Columbo had been a daily visitor to her room in Santa Monica Hospital, she was told that he had been called away on short notice to do another film, and was on location.

Lombard took charge of the arrangements for Columbo's funeral service. Columbo's body was taken to the Delmer H. Smith Mortuary on West Washington Boulevard, with his funeral service held at Blessed Sacrament Church, 6661 Sunset Boulevard, on Thursday, Sept. 6, 1934. More than 3,000 fans and mourners crowded into the church, with another 1,000 standing outside. Columbo's pallbearers were Crosby; actors Zeppo Marx and Gilbert Roland; director Walter Lang; Lombard's brother, Stuart Peters; and singer Sheldon Keate Callaway. (Marx was a last-minute replacement due to the illness of actor and director Lowell Sherman, who had directed Columbo in "Broadway Thru a Keyhole." Sherman died less than four months later.)

Jack P. Pierce, Universal's top make-up artist and the man responsible for creating the looks of "Frankenstein," "Dracula" and "The Mummy," was given the job of repairing the damage to Columbo’s face and head for the funeral.

Columbo's casket was covered with a blanket of white gardenias -– his favorite flower -– from Lombard, who attended the service with her mother, Elizabeth Peters. Near the altar was a large cross of white flowers, sent by Universal Studios producer Carl Laemmle Jr. During the service, Lansing Brown was alone in the back of the church, on his knees, sobbing uncontrollably.

After the service, Columbo's body was returned to the mortuary, with his burial postponed until his mother recovered. Meanwhile, Columbo's surviving brothers and sisters told their mother that Columbo was on a five-year concert tour abroad.

A week after Columbo's funeral, "Wake Up and Dream" -– his first and only starring film role, with Roger Pryor and June Knight -– was released, to positive reviews.

From the mortuary, Columbo's body was brought to Hollywood Memorial Park -– now Hollywood Forever Cemetery -– where it was stored until arrangements were made for his final resting place inside the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale, Calif., and until Julia Colombo was strong enough to be told that her son was dead.

But Julia was never told and finally, on Oct. 18, seven weeks after his death, Columbo was interred in a crypt in the Sanctuary of the Vespers on Memorial Terrace, near the famed "Last Supper" stained-glass window. He rests just across from his older brother Fiore, who was killed when he was struck by a car in July 1929, also at the age of 26. (Fiore Colombo was originally buried in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, but his remains were moved in 1932 to the more-fashionable Great Mausoleum, and the name on his crypt marker was changed to "Columbo," to match his famous younger brother.)

The space beneath Columbo's crypt was purchased, but it remains vacant, and there are rumors that it was originally intended to be the final resting place for Carole Lombard. Lombard, however, married actor Clark Gable in March 1939. After she was killed in a plane crash in January 1942, she was also laid to rest in the Great Mausoleum, on the opposite side of the "Last Supper" window, later joined there by Gable in 1960. Lombard remained close to Columbo's family until her death.

Even after Columbo's burial, family and friends, assisted by Lombard, continued to tell his mother that he was performing on an extended European tour. They sent letters and arranged for birthday and Christmas gifts to be delivered, with fake postmarks from the capital cities of Europe, pretending they were from Columbo. They monitored radio broadcasts to make sure there would be no mention of her late son and, even though Julia Colombo was nearly totally blind, they checked all newspapers coming into the home, to make sure there was no mention of his name -– or of Lombard’s marriage to Gable.

They played Columbo's recordings and told her they were current radio broadcasts, and warned all visitors to talk about Columbo as if he were still alive, and more popular and successful than ever.

They successfully kept up this elaborate deception until Julia Colombo died on Aug. 30, 1944 -– three days before the 10th anniversary of her son's death. When she died, at the age of 78, her last words were reportedly, "Tell Russ I am so proud of him, and happy."

Columbo's father, Nicola, died in 1942, at the age of 81. (Julia was told about his death.) Nicola and Julia, along with their daughter Anna, who died in 1940 from a brain tumor at the age of 39, are buried together -- as "Columbo" -- in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Glendale, on Gardenia Terrace.

Columbo had no will when he died, but he did have a $47,000 life insurance policy. The only problem was that he named his mother as beneficiary, so before the money could be paid out, she would have to sign off on the policy. And that would mean she would have to be told he was dead.

Instead, the policy was left unclaimed and, when Julia Colombo died, the insurance money became part of her son's estate.

In 1930, Columbo was living with his parents in a small house at 1322 Tamarind Ave., about a block from the Warner Bros. Studios on Sunset Boulevard, and two blocks north of the main entrance of Hollywood Memorial Park. As an increasingly popular film, radio and recording star, Columbo decided to get a place of his own.

He first leased a large Mediterranean-style house at 1019 N. Roxbury Dr., in Beverly Hills. The home was built in 1928, and the first occupant was actor Monte Blue. After Columbo moved out, later occupants included composers George and Ira Gershwin, singer and actress Ginny Simms, and Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney -– who was certain that the house was haunted by Columbo’s ghost. (Clooney was also certain that Columbo had shot himself in the house.) The house was torn down in 2005.

From Roxbury Drive, Columbo moved to 509 N. Crescent Dr., a block north of Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills, where his landlady was actress Charlotte Shelby, best known as the mother of silent film star Mary Miles Minter, and a key figure -– and possible suspect -– in the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922.

After a brief stay on Crescent Drive, Columbo moved in January 1934 to his final residence, at 1940 Outpost Circle, a few blocks north of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and about a mile and a half from Lombard's home on Hollywood Boulevard. And, as they had at his other homes, Columbo's parents moved in with him.

After his death, Columbo's parents moved back to their house on Tamarind Avenue.

In addition to his parents, his brother Fiore and sister Anna, Columbo's sister Carmela, who died in 1986 (her crypt marker is incorrect), is also interred inside the Great Mausoleum, on Iris Terrace. Columbo's brother Albert, who died in 1946, is buried outside at Forest Lawn, in the Eventide Section. Several other siblings are buried in Philadelphia.

After Columbo's death, a number of singers, including Paul Bruno, Gordon Lewis, Steve Mason, Jerry Vale and even Tiny Tim, recorded Columbo tribute albums, and through the years there have been discussions of a film biography of his life, but none have ever come to fruition. In the 1950s, there were plans for a television dramatization of his life, starring Tony Curtis, but that project was never completed. In the early 1990s, there were rumors of a Columbo-Lombard film starring Tom Cruise and Michelle Pfeiffer, but those plans also fell through.

Although he was cleared of all wrongdoing in Columbo's death, Lansing Brown was devastated, and was haunted by the shooting for the rest of his life. He immediately moved out of the bungalow on Lillian Way and moved in with his parents on North Genessee Avenue.

Brown served in the Army during World War II as a photography instructor. Although he kept his photography studio on Wilshire Boulevard, Brown seemed to focus more on his world travels than his portrait photography. In February 1962, he suffered a stroke at his studio, and was taken to Sawtelle Veterans Hospital, where he died, at the age of 61. Brown is also interred in the Great Mausoleum, with his parents on Gardenia Terrace, not far from Columbo's parents and sister, in an unmarked crypt.

A few Russ Columbo videos:

Columbo plays violin and sings with Gus Arnheim and his Ambassadors in a 1928 Vitaphone short

Columbo, as a guitar-playing Mexican prisoner, sings "How Am I to Know?" in an uncredited role in "Dynamite" (1929)

Columbo sings "Prisoner of Love" in 1931

Columbo sings "All of Me" in 1931

Columbo sings "Street of Dreams" in 1932

A clip from "Broadway Thru a Keyhole" (1933), with Columbo and Constance Cummings

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