More than 30 years ago, Joseph P. Dispenza studied performing arts as an undergraduate at Fredonia State College. His “master’s degree,” he says, was earned by “learning to survive and thrive” in New York City, where he was a musical comedy performer in the 1980s. Neither of those things prepared him for the place he has worked for 22 years – Forest Lawn – or for being its president, a position he has held for seven years.
But, when he reflects on it, the transition makes sense to him. “There is no line that connects those dots, and that’s OK,” Dispenza says in his Forest Lawn office, where select works of drama (“The Me Nobody Knows,” “Our Town”) share shelf space with dozens of books about funerary history and business. “But looking back now, at 51 years old and with 22 years in the business, it seems very easy to me. Sometimes there is a path, and if you feel the current is taking you there, it’s better to just let it take you.”
Hank Szymula, superintendent of the Forest Lawn Group, knows the common reaction: “The average person would just say, ‘How the heck would anyone from that kind of background have anything to do with the cemetery?’ ” he said.
The easiest explanation comes from simply observing the ease with which the stocky, unassuming Dispenza carries himself. When he speaks, he is calm but commanding. Even an interview has moments that feel like great drama. While rapturously recalling the birth of the first of his two children, he wipes away tears several times, never stopping his story and never letting his voice falter. He explains how his theater work informs his management style this way:
“I use my background and my experience on a daily basis. Not that I’m walking around the cemetery singing! But I use my experience to deliver a peaceful, loving, intimate experience ...”
He cuts himself off. A few long seconds pass, then he continues:
“... through that silence you just heard, or through choosing to talk. That’s what theater does, it uses spaces and sound to deliver an experience the writer wants the audience to feel. And so in that sense, I still use musical comedy almost every day of my life.”
Mary Paschis, Forest Lawn’s memorial department administrator, has known Dispenza since he started there. “It’s not a detriment to him, being an actor,” she said. “Joe is very sincere. It’s just that acting helped him immensely in being able to speak with people, knowing what words to say and how to say them.”
But when Dispenza delves into his life story, he gets more existential about how one thing led to another – which isn’t surprising, for a man who confronts death every day for a living.
Dispenza grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family in North Buffalo. His parents were “cemetery-goers,” he says, and starting when he was 4 years old, he would frequently go with them to place flowers on the graves of relatives he never knew. From those visits, he says, “I know there is a cathartic value in showing up [at a grave] and seeing that the road is plowed in the winter, the grass is cut in the summer, and everything is neat and trim.”
He remembers first seriously “thinking about death” at age 9, when he attended his grandmother’s funeral. “I was very close to her,” he says. At the funeral, he took note of what was done right – “I remember thinking how beautiful my grandmother was in her pink dress in her casket” – but also grew agitated at anything he thought inappropriate.
“I remember being mad that everybody was talking to my parents and my uncles and my aunts, and they were all so loud. They were all so loud!” he says. “I thought, my grandma is dead, why are you all so loud?”
After that experience, Dispenza says, “I started thinking about being a funeral director.” However, that was one of a number of possibilities for his future: Going into the priesthood, going into business – or going into theater.
While attending St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, he was cast in his first musicals, starting as Lazar Wolf in “Fiddler on the Roof.” David Lamb, artistic director of the Kavinoky Theatre, was directing musicals at the school while trying to launch the Kavinoky in the late 1970s. He remembers Dispenza was “a good baritone,” and brought a rare conviction to his role as Mr. Bumble in “Oliver!”
Referring to Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” the source material, Lamb said, “I remember telling the kids: It’s a story, and we have to tell that story. And [Dispenza] was one of the kids who really bought it. Most kids were just waiting for their next song.”
Even at a young age, Dispenza loved the out-of-body feeling that acting gave him. “It’s very rare, when you live in the moment and it’s organic and it’s visceral, and you don’t know what you just said because you’re living it,” he says. “That’s a very odd thing to happen, and it’s a gift.” He wanted to pursue that feeling for the rest of his life, and told his parents he had decided on a career. “When they stopped crying,” he laughs, “they said, ‘OK, but you’re going to take something else, too, aren’t you?’ ”
Dispenza was accepted into the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, but couldn’t afford the tuition and went to Fredonia State. He took a few business classes on the side, but otherwise devoted himself to acting. After graduating, he landed his first paid acting gig at a summer stock theater in Manchester, N.H., and spent a lot of time there with actors from New York City. One of them had an apartment he was looking to sublet and Dispenza was Broadway bound.
New York City
He moved to Manhattan in 1984, and for the next seven years, he took “anything I could get, free or paid.” He found roles in small musicals, off-Broadway shows, experimental productions – “stuff no one would remember” – and took odd jobs to support himself.
He was able to find considerable theatrical success over the years. His big breaks were roles in national tours of “Oliver!” and “Man of La Mancha.” His favorite role, however, “was the reason I left New York.”
In 1988, Dispenza starred in the Broadway revival of “Fiorello!,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about the iconic New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Dispenza thought LaGuardia would be his defining role.
“It was not meant to be a re-creation of the man who was mayor of New York, because he’s gone. ...It was a loud, braggadocio, pound-on-the-desk man who got his way and controlled things, but it was also the man who lost his first wife at a very young age and never got over a broken heart.”
His vision didn’t make it to the stage. Right before the musical premiered, Dispenza says the producer urged him to try to more closely resemble the real LaGuardia. “I completely changed everything I had done, in one night, for the next day’s performance,” he says.
The morning after the premiere, Dispenza read the review in The New York Times: “And they ripped me apart,” he says. (He’s not kidding. The short review by Walter Goodman, which is otherwise fairly positive about the show, says of Dispenza “he seems to confuse acting with yelling; his Fiorello is an annoying blusterer.”
That review changed everything for Dispenza. “It was at that point that I made the decision: This is enough,” he says. “I love theater, I love what I’ve done in New York, but it doesn’t have the lasting value that I needed emotionally. It was always another opening and another show, and every time in between, you start at zero.”
In 1990, at 29 years old, he moved back to Buffalo with no plan in mind. He took the only job he could find: A sales position at Forest Lawn – “something I didn’t even know existed.” He started off soliciting graves, plots and crypts. “You know those annoying calls you get at dinner? That was me,” he says. “But instead of selling window washer, it was, ‘Put down the potatoes, let’s talk about perpetual care.’ ”
He eventually became sales manager, and then vice president. In 2005, he was named Forest Lawn president. “It was a natural progression,” he says. “Like learning to tie your shoes, and then running.”
Dispenza doesn’t like to attribute his current position to his acting career, or any one thing in particular: “It grows out of theater, it grows out of living in New York, it grows out of my background, it grows out of my faith.” Still, it’s hard to mistake the motivation behind some of the things he’s done.
The job is in the details
In the 1990s, Dispenza helped launch the historical tours at the cemetery – and also introduced the idea of having actors play notable people buried there on the tours. “The idea is really remarkable,” said Henry Gartner, counsel and executive secretary to the Erie Niagara Funeral Director’s Association. “Using a cemetery as a way to re-enact life.”
But those who work with Dispenza say his greatest achievement is his complete immersion in the cemetery’s most minute details.
“A lot of people think they’re perfectionists, but Joe’s definitely at a very different level,” said Szymula. “He’s talking and thinking about stuff at 8 o’clock while the rest of us are home. He does it in his sleep.”
Paschis, who has worked at Forest Lawn for 30 years, said Dispenza is “very much a perfectionist.” He works directly with families, does extensive research on religious beliefs and even individually picks every urn that is available for purchase. “He wants things done right,” she said. “He likes to make sure every little thing is running smoothly.”
This perfectionism, like his theater background, is mostly seen through small gestures and habits. He keeps a running count of the number of people buried at Forest Lawn – in his head. (On the day we spoke: 157,954.) He greets the grounds workers by first name. He can effortlessly locate graves and exhaustively recount the history behind them.
Dispenza says he doesn’t know who will come to Forest Lawn any given day – it could be an out-of-town visitor, or maybe another little boy accompanying his parents. He wants to be prepared.
“The curtain never comes down on the cemetery,” he says. “You’re always on, you’re always expected to be perfect, you never miss your lines, you never forget your cue. There’s no room for error in the funeral business.”