“Hollywood” Sign of the Times

Photo Courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust and HollywoodPhotographs.com. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust and HollywoodPhotographs.com. All Rights Reserved.

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.”

Hollywoodland
Photo Courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust and HollywoodPhotographs.com. All Rights Reserved.

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

A Very Special Olympics

Originally published in “A Stone’s Throw” Column, South Pasadena Review 8.6.15

By Ann Suk Wang

The Special Olympics: Volleyball at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion
The Special Olympics: Volleyball at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion

After the last note of the floor exercise played and the final pose held, a gymnast sprinted off, into an excited embrace with her coach. Together they almost fell over, twirling with joy as the athlete’s legs and arms wound around the coach’s torso. It looked like an octopus clinging to a pillar. The pillar stood strong.

I waited in line for 45 minutes with two whining boys to get into the John Wooden Center at UCLA and experienced this glorious moment. It was worth it for all of us.

Last week, Los Angeles was graced with a special event: the Special Olympics. And I say graced because it was a gift to L.A. to participate in the celebration of diversity and be inspired by the determination and courage of those around the world with an intellectual disability.

My family also attended volleyball games, the first ever “dance challenge” and the closing ceremony; all were tear-jerkingly inspirational. We had witnessed the thrill of victory, not only for a medal, but personal victories to overcome with disabilities that, truth be told, melted into the background.

South Pasadena had the privilege of being a “Host Town” to athletes from Morocco and Paraguay. More than 100 communities from San Louis Obispo to San Diego participated by being matched with delegations from different countries. Volunteers welcomed guest before the games through parades and activities, spread the word around town about events to come and cheered during competitions for their matched athletes.

The Special Olympics are held every two years, alternating summer and winter games (and should not to be confused with Paralympics, held the week after The Olympics for those with physical disabilities.) Their motto: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt” was coined by Special Olympics founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the first games in 1968, held in her backyard.

Since then, the Special Olympics has promoted awareness and been a champion for equality, inclusion, and acceptance. During the 9 days of the 2015 summer games, there were about 7,000 athletes, 177 countries represented, 30,000 volunteers, 3,000 coaches, and 500,000 spectators (millions more watched on TV).

Volunteer healthcare professionals gave free exams and met the health care needs of the athletes. Michael Wang, a physician at USC and my husband, cared for a football coach with malaria and an athlete with a foot infection, requiring surgery.

“Fans in the Stands” gathered groups of 10 or more to attend sporting events to cheer for the athletes at dozens of venues around L.A. (like UCLA, USC, Long Beach, Griffith Park, Lucky Strikes in Downtown and more.)

Special Olympics Inaugural Dance Challenge: me with Cody Carlson, made popular in So You Think You Can Dance
Special Olympics Inaugural Dance Challenge: me with Cody Carlson, made popular in So You Think You Can Dance

The “Inaugural Dance Challenge,” launched at the Wallis Annenberg Center, was hosted by Nigel Lythgoe, producer of “So You Think You Can Dance” and judged by famous names like Nicole Scherzinger, Paula Abdul and Twitch, to name a few. Apolo Ohno, Gold Medalist in speed skating at the 2006 Winter Olympics, said it well, “This night is about being unified on the field and in life.” Ben Vereen, the “preacher” of the night said, “The dance heals us. [It’s] not only for the people dancing, but for us.”

The dancers were magical, whether from Panama or Pakistan. I almost lost my voice in collective shouts of excitement as soloists leapt in a lyrically graceful jeté, couples glided across the stage in beautiful ballroom gowns and crews hit it hard while onlookers bounced to the beat and hooted their approval. One soloist even got there late, due to a bus problem, but was given the opportunity to perform anyway, his hard work rewarded with cheers and tears.

“The world comes together to see our athletes in action and celebrate their victories over huge odds. The Special Olympics World Game embraces unity, achievement and dignity,” states the la2015.org website.

This last week, my own chest swelled with pride for the courageous athletes and all the supportive people around them, holding them up and giving the rest of us a snap shot of a hopeful future.