Hollywood Cemetery is one of Richmond's often-overlooked treasures, and the unique quality of this lush garden of graves is a good starting place for understanding the city's character. For that reason alone, public station WCVE-TV and producer Paul Roberts get high marks for the magnificently well-filmed and well-researched production airing in December.
The hour-long production focuses not just on what this ornate urban-park graveyard looks like today, but on the sometimes vitriolic opposition its developers had to contend with, as well as the cultural forces that made it "the" place for genteel Richmonders to spend eternity.
"I read recently that if you walk through a cemetery in a community, it gives you a great feel for a period in history of that particular city," says a Hollywood Cemetery tour guide during the program's opening moments. (Yes, newcomers, Hollywood Cemetery is such a local icon that people flock to tour it.) Named for the multitude of holly bushes and trees growing there, Hollywood Cemetery indeed comes close to telling much of what you need to know about Richmond from the very earliest beginnings of suburbia here to the ironclad clasp the Civil War still has on the city's mind-set.
Occupying a coveted tract on the north bank of the James with a commanding view of the river, Hollywood developed because in the early 19th century the city's existing cemeteries were filling up. Hollywood solved two problems: the need for additional burial space and a yearning for green space. When it opened, it was less than a mile outside the city, yet it was easily accessible. Some opposed it. Some said it would hold back the city's westward expansion. Others feared that runoff from decaying corpses would foul the city's water supply.
But as Roberts deftly visualizes through distinguished and lyrical camerawork, the era of romanticism provided Richmond with a burial ground that celebrates the city and its dead alike with nature's beauty. Paths wind casually through hillsides covered with gravestones, mausoleums and sculpture that approach the heights of fine art. Splendid mature trees and greenery abound, and a story that wants to be told seems to materialize at every turn. More than 75,000 people are buried at Hollywood, including three presidents (Monroe, Tyler and Davis), along with a handful of Confederate notables (Gens. Stuart and Pickett among them) and a slew of Civil War soldiers, together with casualties from wars that followed.
"Hollywood" loses its way briefly for about 10 minutes when it profiles other historic figures buried there. Roberts rightly spends time noting that the graves of Douglas Freeman, Lewis Powell, Lewis Ginter, Mary Munford, Virginius Dabney, Ellen Glasgow and James Branch Cabell are at Hollywood. He even notes that Ginter, the tobacco magnate who established the North Side neighborhood that bears his name, is entombed in Hollywood's largest mausoleum, which features Tiffany windows. But, alas, he never shows us their final resting places (with the exception of Glasgow's and Cabell's, which get about 20 seconds of screen time), nor does he allow us to see those Tiffany windows. It's a major disappointment.
Nevertheless, "Hollywood" is almost as much a treasure as the cemetery itself. It's the next best thing to a real visit to the city's most peaceful and splendid oasis. S
"Hollywood: Richmond's Garden Cemetery" airs on WCVE, Channel 23, on Dec. 1, at 8 and 11 p.m. and on Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. It will air on WCVW, Channel 57, on Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 7 at 8 p.m.
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