The “Hollywood” Sign inspires dreamers, welcomes starry-eyed visitors, is a familiar friend to locals and has a life of its own with stardom and tragedy. For nearly a century, the Southern California icon represented in movies, TV shows, advertisements, books, music and more, has stood tall on Mount Lee, which is located in Griffith Park.
“It’s more than just nine white letters spelling out a city’s name,” says Betsy Isroelit, media director for the Hollywood Sign Trust. “It’s one of the world’s most evocative symbols – a universal metaphor for ambition, success, glamour… for this dazzling place, industry and dream we call H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D. It’s wonderful to know that the Sign is an inspiration to people from all walks of life, as well as to generations of filmmakers.”
Like the city it watches over, the dramatic Sign was a fitting addition to a booming industry of silver screen magic and shining stars above and below. At its birth in 1923, the Sign read “HOLLYWOODLAND,” after a local real estate development, owned by then Los Angeles Times Publisher, Harry Chandler. It was used primarily to draw people to the glamorous west and sell homes.
The $21,000 Sign, lit up with 4000 light bulbs blinked in order: “HOLLY”, “WOOD”, “LAND”, and a 35-foot diameter “.” punctuated the end. Each letter stood about 43 feet high and 30 feet wide. As described by Isroelit, “The original Sign was constructed of wooden telephone poles and squares of tin. Letters made of hundreds of small squares of metal proved to be difficult to maintain, as the squares would easily pop off in a wind or rainstorm.”
The advertising tool was meant to stand for only 18 months, but outlasted the real estate company it was originally built to promote that eventually went out of business. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, as the country suffered, Americans looked to the movies for escape. But pain was also found there.
The rise and fall of one movie star proved too much for 24-year-old Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by plunging to her death off the top of the “H” in 1932.
Some say “The Hollywood Sign Girl” still haunts the mountain today. But perhaps she doesn’t have to wait much longer for her featured roll. Entwistle’s tragic story will finally be told on the big screen as a film is currently in the works.
By the end of the 1930s, the Don Lee Network, then owned by his son, bought the land behind the Sign and built a television broadcast studio and what was the highest elevation transmission tower in the world at the time. The site of the network and working radio towers are still seen by the Sign on Mount Lee, the namesake of the man who helped promote television broadcasting.
Aging and in need of care, the Hollywoodland Sign became the property of the city in 1944. In 1949, after World War II, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, together with the City of Los Angeles, decided to give the Sign a badly needed facelift. And like many of the movie stars it inspired, the Sign was also given a name change, dropping the “LAND” and simply becoming “HOLLYWOOD” to help promote the city and growing movie industry.
Unfortunately, in the 1960s, after the golden age of cinema, large movie studios began to move out of Hollywood and into neighboring cities with more space. The Hollywood Sign continued deteriorating, like the city beneath.
In 1973, the Sign was designated an official Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument (#111). In 1976, prankster Daniel Finegood changed the sign to read “Hollyweed,” as a class project in college and in support of looser marijuana laws; he received an “A.” Finegood changed the sign to “Holywood” in 1987 during the Easter season and a visit from Pope John Paul II.
By the 1970s, the Hollywood Sign was infested by termites and a crumbling mess. In order to restore the iconic landmark, Hugh Hefner held a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion in 1978. Each of the original letters were “auctioned” off and 9 well-known individuals spent about $23,000 each to sponsor a letter.
Today, the Hollywood Sign Trust non-profit “is responsible for physically maintaining, repairing and securing the Hollywood Sign; educating the world about its historical and cultural importance; and securing the funds necessary to accomplish these projects,” says Isroelit. “Since its charter in 1992 the Hollywood Sign Trust has led a range of projects to preserve and protect the Sign, including two major refurbishments and the installation of a state-of-the-art security and surveillance system.” There’s even a police officer stationed nearby. According to Chris Baumgart, chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust, “The Hollywood Sign received two tons of makeup in time to celebrate her 90th birthday [in 2013], restoring an American icon.”
So grab your hiking boots, some water, and sunscreen. You don’t have to go far to see the most famous Sign in the world. One great way to see it is via the Mt. Hollywood Trail at the Charlie Turner Trailhead, on the north end of the Griffith Park Observatory parking lot, a 3.8 mile round-trip hike. There is also a Hollywood Sign shuttle from the observatory and other longer trails that lead right behind the Sign for hikers to enjoy an added bonus: a spectacular view of Hollywood, a unique and thriving city once again.
Go to Hollywoodsign.org for more information and details about visiting the historic monument.
Originally published in The Quarterly magazine, Fall 2015