Photos courtesy of Festival Obscura co-founder Ryan Hughes.
The goal is to create a place that’s alive, revered in the minds of the Long Beach public; a historic site, a time capsule, well taken care of with its gates open to the those with family members buried there and the curious minds, students, residents and history buffs who want to explore.
The inaugural Festival Obscura will present “A Celebration at Sunnyside Cemetery” on Saturday at the 112-year-old historic site and will be the first craft libation, art and music fundraising festival held in a California cemetery, according to organizers.
Founders of the festival Martin Svab, co-owner and founder of Carson-based Phantom Carriage Brewery, and partner Ryan Hughes, Phantom’s director of sales, hope to raise $40,000 to support the future of the burial ground, which has been in slow decline for a little over a decade.
That’s more than the cemetery is bringing in annually with its current endowment fund, according to Hughes.
Festival Obscura has been a couple years in the works, however Svab and Hughes are not the first to have tried sustaining the cemetery in non-traditional fashion. Lola’s Outdoor Retro Cinema nights began in 2013, a collaboration between The Frida Cinema, Sunnyside and title sponsor Lola’s, while the Historical Society of Long Beach has rented the space to host numerous educational events.
Hughes, who started and runs the cemetary’s Instagram, as well as its Facebook page, is on a mission to raise awareness that Sunnyside is a local gem worth taking care of. It’s currently privately owned, and operated by its board members as well as a charity named “The Friends of Sunnyside.”
The current manager, Mike Miner, has been trying to retire, but in order for him to do so there needs to be a replacement ready to step in, someone licensed with at least two years of experience managing cemeteries. In a worst-case-scenario situation, the state would take over management of the cemetery. The problem with finding Miner’s replacement, said Hughes, is that no one wants the job.
In addition to Miner, the only other paid worker is a groundskeeper, Jose Robles.
“They’ve been not able to water the lawns[…] they have a really bad gopher problem,” Hughes said. “Their former owner embezzled half their endowment fund and so they have no space left to bury anybody. Right now they need the money, quite frankly, just to keep the doors open.”
Sunnyside relies on interest from that endowment to maintain operations, but in 1994 a aforementioned former owner embezzled more than half that million, a serious financial loss for the site. Years of drought combined with the limited funding have resulted in the deterioration of the grounds.
One option might be for the city to step in.
“If the city were to take over the cemetery, there could be the potential for Mike to retire and for Friends of Sunnyside to handle the day-to-day operations,” Hughes explained. “In order for the city to take over, the cemetery needs to prove that it can bring in money, as well—which hopefully this festival will be able to help.”
The city’s Department of Economic Development is working with Sunnyside in pursuing a Port of Long Beach Community Infrastructure Grant opportunity, according to Property Services Officer Johnny Vallejo. The application was recently submitted and is being considered.
Vallejo said that as part of that process the city is working with Sunnyside and a landscape designer provided by the water department to develop a plan for the site.
“This is all relatively preliminary, but the City recognizes Sunnyside as an important historical and cultural resource,” Vallejo wrote in an email.
Miner, the cemetery’s manager of the last 24 years, 12 of them as a volunteer, plans on retiring in November, but said that everything’s negotiable. Sunnyside came close to closing after he suffered a recent heart attack, but Miner is still hanging on despite still recuperating.
He said he’s been trying to sell the site to the city for the last two decades. Vallejo said right now the city is working with Sunnyside to pursue grant opportunities and other potential partnerships.
When Miner first started as a volunteer, it wasn’t out of an interest in the funeral business, it was because his father—who was dying at the time—implored him to take care of their family’s eight plots there.
“I told him that I would do it and I’ve tried to do my best, so it’s cost me 24 years, but I wouldn’t say cost me because it’s like a labor of love, hate… It’s more on the love side, it really is,” Miner said. “But it means an awful lot to me and I’ve kept it open all these years with the help of our board and other people and donations, things like that.
It’s worth keeping open, it’s a genuine treasure for anybody.”
With tickets almost sold out for this first iteration of Festival Obscura—where 20-plus macabre artists and musicians, local historians, authors and morticians alongside 45-plus independent local craft breweries, cideries, wineries and food trucks are readying to provide guests a hauntingly good time—Hughes hopes to have the event at least annually, and perhaps even twice year, as an ongoing effort to raise funds for Sunnyside.
“You can’t believe what Martin and Ryan have done to go through the bells and whistles to get the permits and everything to do this,” Miner said. “It was a huge undertaking for them. If things run smoothly I think we’ll be here for the next two years, I do, even though I’m going to retire I pretty much believe that the cemetery will go on with or without me.”
“It’s really exciting to see everybody actually trying to—especially in this day and age—actually trying to come together to do something positive for something that can’t actually speak for itself,” Hughes said. “ I think it is really important to Long Beach, and the history of Long Beach. Hopefully this brings some awareness to it.”
Sunnyside Cemetery is located at 1095 E. Willow St.
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