July 13, 1923 – The Hollywood Sign
Putting aside my passion for Hollywood history, the industry and the town itself, I have a real connection to the place. My father grew up in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. I chose to attend Loyola Marymount University with its gorgeous campus in the Westchester area. Those were happy years, full of adventures. I loved the city. I was always thrilled whenever I happened to catch sight of the Hollywood Sign from anywhere around town, sometimes popping into view at unexpected times. For me, The Hollywood Sign symbolized not just the glamour and excitement of the film industry, but also the hardship and heartbreak of trying to have a career as an actor.
The Hollywood Sign was the project of the Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler who conceived it as an epic $21,000 billboard for his upscale Hollywoodland real estate development in Beachwood Canyon. The sign was intended to play the role of a giant marquee for a city that was constantly announcing its own gala film premiere.
It took 200 workmen to get it erected. That’s a lot of erecting! Seven miles of road had to be cut into the mountainside and 300,000 cubic yards of dirt had to be moved.
The sign is located on the south slope of Mount Lee, the tallest point in LA, part of Griffith Park, north of the Mulholland Highway. The Hollywood Sign measures 450 feet long, its 13 mammoth letters are 45 feet high, and it is visible from all parts of Hollywood and many other neighborhoods in Los Angeles. It is massive. Each letter is constructed of 3’×9′ metal squares rigged together by an intricate frame of scaffolding, pipes, wires and telephone poles. All of the building materials had to be brought up precipitous Mount Lee on simple dirt paths.
A giant white dot, 35 feet in diameter, lit with hundreds of 20-watt lights on the perimeter was constructed below the sign to catch the eye of the citizens and visitors. The sign itself featured 4,000 20-watt bulbs, spaced eight inches apart. In the 1920s, the sign blinked into the Hollywood night: “Holly” first, next “wood” and at last- “land”. Then to make the point, there was a giant period for punctuation. The effect was truly spectacular. The bulbs were changed daily by a caretaker who lived in a tiny house behind one of the sign’s giant “L”s.
In 1932, a despondent Hollywood hopeful, Peg Entwistle, jumped to her death from the Sign’s giant letter “H.” Her ghost haunts it to this day.
The last four letters were removed in 1945, after Hollywood was firmly established as the world’s film capital and Hollywoodland had become a neighborhood of charming cottages.
In 1973, the Hollywood Sign was officially named “Los Angeles Cultural-Historical Monument #111”. The ceremony, hosted by film great Gloria Swanson, was blanketed in a thick fog, obscuring the event.
During the 1960s, residents fled Hollywood for the suburban San Fernando Valley and the studios relocated to other parts of town. By 1970, Paramount Pictures was the only studio left in Hollywood proper. The neighborhood fell into disrepair and many of the grand old movie palaces became adult theaters. Crime soared, and the beautiful boulevards were devastated by urban decay. The Hollywood Sign became dilapidated and rusted, like an old star from the silent film era. It was no longer lit at night.
When I lived there in the 1970s, the top of the “D” and the entire third “O” had slid down Mount Lee, and an arsonist’s work had burned the bottom of the second “L.” Someone, and it wasn’t me, had altered the Sign’s letters to read “Hollyweed”.
In 1978, because of a campaign to restore the landmark by Rock musician Alice Cooper (who donated the fund for the missing O), a committee set out to replace the deteriorated sign with a more permanent structure. Nine donors gave $27,700 each to replace the old letters with new ones made of steel, guaranteed to last.
The new version of the sign was unveiled on Hollywood’s 75th anniversary, in 1978, broadcast before a live television audience of 60 million people. Those donors were:
H – Terrence Donnelly: publisher of the Hollywood Independent Newspaper
O – Giovanni Mazza: Italian movie producer
L – Les Kelley: originator of the Kelley Blue Book
L – Gene Autry: singer, actor, business person
Y – Hugh Hefner: founder of Playboy magazine
W – Andy Williams: singer, television host
O – Warner Brothers Studios
O – Alice Cooper, who donated in memory of Groucho Marx
D – Dennis Lidtke: LA business person
In spring 2010, Hefner donated the final $900,000 needed to save the Hollywood sign from extinction. The land on which the sign sits, once owned by Howard Hughes, who had planned to build a house there for Ginger Rogers, had been announced as the site for a fancy new hotel. To save the sign, the Los Angeles Trust For Public Land, a conservation group, needed to raise $12.5 million.
Donations came from Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, the Getty family, Norman Lear, plus Sony Pictures, NBC Universal, and good old Warner Bros. But, they were still $1 million short. Hefner:
“I am proud we were able to come together and create a public/private partnership to protect this historic symbol that will continue to welcome dreamers, artists and Austrian bodybuilders for generations to come.”
The Hollywood Sign has been a star in many films, playing itself in Hollywood Boulevard (1935), Hollywoodland (2006), The Black Dahlia (2007), Mulholland Drive (2001), South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut (1999). A giant ape scales it in Mighty Joe Young (1998). It gets blown to bits by aliens in Independence Day (1996), set on fire in Escape From LA (1996), and collapses to dust in Earthquake (1974). The sign is featured during the first and final shots of Ed Wood (1994).
My favorite of the Hollywood Sign’s movie roles is in Chaplin (1992). There is a great scene where Charlie Chaplin, perfectly played by Robert Downey, Jr. and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., played dashingly by Kevin Kline, ride horses up to the sign where Fairbanks pees on the sign while Chaplin gives a rousing speech about the rising tide of Americanism. Fairbanks then proceeds to climb the sign, performing gymnastics on one of the letters as the camera pulls back to reveal the entire “Hollywoodland” sign with the lights of the city below.