O’Donnells opened mortuary on LA’s famed Sunset Strip
Thomas and Robert O’Donnell of Hannibal, Mo., moved to Los Angeles, Calif., circa 1925, and opened a funeral establishment on the Sunset Strip, originally named O’Donnell Mortuary. In 1936 the business was acquired by Utter-McKinley Mortuaries, a local chain. The brothers continued to work for the new company. In 1936, the new owners announced plans to remodel the building, inside and out, in the French Colonial style (as shown.) Information on the early days of the Sunset Strip and this photo were graciously shared by Jon Ponder, Playground to the Stars, http://www.playgroundtothestars.com/tag/odonnell-mortuary/
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
In September 1919, rumors were starting to circulate around Hannibal that 50-year-old Thomas O’Donnell, co-owner with his brother, Robert, 47, of O’Donnell’s Bros. Funeral Home, might be planning to leave Hannibal. In an interview with the Quincy Daily Whig, Thomas O’Donnell attempted to put that rumor to rest.
He had just returned from a month-long business trip to Los Angeles, he explained, where he had a financial interest in a start-up company based upon Alfred Henry B. Roberts’ invention, which offered a very promising treatment for tuberculosis, otherwise known as the white plague.
O’Donnell became acquainted with Mr. Roberts via Hannibal native and California transplant, William A. Schanbacher, then 22, who claimed a cure from tuberculosis via treatments with Roberts’ patented invention, a dry-vapor generator he called the Vaportorium.
Both Thomas O’Donnell, his brother, Robert, along with William Schanbacher, invested with the machine’s inventor, who at the time conducted his business at 200 South Bonnie Brae Street, near Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles.
Given enough capital, Mr. Roberts’ plan was to build a Vaportorium on Pasadena Avenue in Los Angeles, directly opposite Sycamore Grove, for the promised cure of tuberculosis.
The Quincy Daily Whig concluded its its 1919 article with the following message:
“Mr. O’Donnell has invested considerable money in the project. He denied rumors that he intended to leave Hannibal but said that he would continue in the undertaking business here.”
Alas, in April 1925, brothers Thomas and Robert O’Donnell turned over the keys to the Hannibal funeral home that they established together in 1903, to 27-year-old James Thomas O’Donnell, the son of their late brother, Michael, and his wife, Myrtle.
Within three months, the O’Donnell brothers, by now both in their 50s, opened the door to a new business, O’Donnell Mortuary, located on Sunset Boulevard, near the intersection of Sunset, Holloway Drive and Horn Avenue in Los Angeles.
The Sunset Strip is a 1.5 mile stretch of Sunset Blvd., passing through West Hollywood, Calif., which is now known for its trendy boutiques and nightclubs. It would ultimately become part of the famed Route 66, which took motorists from Los Angeles to Chicago.
The area was still primarily residential in 1925 when the O’Donnell Brothers moved into the neighborhood, prepared to ply the trade they had perfected half a continent away, back in Hannibal.
An historic first
As the first funeral establishment to open on “The Strip,” the mortuary attracted a unique clientele.
Thomas and Robert provided funeral services for Mrs. Jane Connelly, a veteran vaudeville actress, in October 1925. She played the leading lady in Harry Houdini’s movie, “The man From Beyond” in 1922.
The following August they conducted the funeral for Colin Campbell, a pioneer motion picture director, who made the first version of “The Spoilers,” with William Farnum and Kathleen Williams.
And in the ultimate coup for the upstart business, the O’Donnell brothers establishment was chosen for the Los Angeles leg of the much heralded funeral of silent film star Rudolph Valentino, who died Aug. 23, 1926.
Valentino, dubbed the “Latin Lover,” died at the age of 31 in New York, and his demise created an outcry of mourning from fans from around the world.
His body was returned to California via a six-day train trip, before arriving in Los Angeles.
While visiting in Missouri in 1932, Thomas O’Donnell told of the Valentino funeral at a political gathering in Palmyra. The Palmyra Spectator retold the story in its Oct. 12, 1932 edition:
“Valentino, stricken with an insidious disease, died a rather tragic death which attracted unusual attention. His funeral was the largest and finest ever staged in Hollywood and O’Donnell sprang into fame overnight and a large business was assured from the start.”
Thomas O’Donnell thrived in his new California environment.
In Missouri, he had served as president of the Missouri Funeral Director’s association and president of the Missouri State Board of Embalmers.
In California, he served as president of the Southern California Funeral Director’s association, and vice president of the California School of Embalming.
In January 1928, less than three years after opening O’Donnell Mortuary, Thomas O’Donnell was elected president of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Under his leadership, a committee began a membership campaign. One goal was to raise $2,500 for the erection of signs bearing the name “West Hollywood” in electric lights at main intersections on Santa Monica Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard and Melrose Avenue from La Brea Avenue west to Doheny Drive.
By 1935, Thomas and Robert O’Donnell were in their mid 60s. They sold the O’Donnell Mortuary, 8814 Sunset, to the Utter-McKinley chain of neighborhood mortuaries. The brothers, who had worked together for some 40 years, would remain on staff. They were partnered with Mrs. Breckenridge, who at the time was one of the few licensed women embalmers.
The brothers later went to work for the Will A. Reynolds and Francis X. Eberle Mortuary, 8540 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.
Robert O’Donnell died in July 1946 in Los Angeles. His remains were brought back to Hannibal, where services were conducted at the Immaculate Conception Church. Burial followed in St. Mary’s Cemetery. Survivors included his widow, Marguerite, and son, Capt. Robert O’Donnell, United States Army Air Corps.
Thomas O’Donnell died just three months later, at Beverly Sanitarium in Los Angeles. His services were conducted at the Will A. Reynolds and Frances X. Eberle Mortuary in Los Angeles, followed by entombment in Calvary Mausoleum. Survivors included his daughter, Mrs. Nell Carrington; a grandson, R. Carrington Jr., and a great grandson, R. Carrington III. He was preceded in death by his wife Bessie in 1942.
In July 1952, the nephew of Thomas and Robert O'Donnell, James Thomas O’Donnell, owner of James O’Donnell Funeral Home in Hannibal, died. He drove himself from his home on South Fifth Street to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital just a half hour before his death.
Survivors included his widow, a son, Harold, and daughter, Helen.
At the O'Donnell Mortuary on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, Thomas and Robert O'Donnell conducted the California funeral for silent film star Rudolph Valentino, who died Aug. 23, 1926. Photo: Library of Congress
Mrs. Jane Connelly, a former Vaudeville actress, played the leading role in in Harry Houdini’s movie, “The man From Beyond” in 1922. Brothers Thomas and Robert O’Donnell conducted Mrs. Connelly’s funeral in October 1925 at their new mortuary on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, Calif. Jane Connelly, photo from TMFB Press. Read about Jean Connelly: https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2012/02/houdinis-leading-ladies-jane-connelly.html
Robert O’Donnell, (1872-1946) and Thomas O’Donnell (1869-1946) were co-founders of O’Donnell Funeral Home in Hannibal, Mo., 1903. Photo courtesy: James O’Donnell.
Information on the early days of the Sunset Strip was obtained from: Jon Ponder, Playground to the Stars, http://www.playgroundtothestars.com/tag/odonnell-mortuary/