July 13, 1923 – The Hollywood Sign, aside from a passion for Hollywood history, the industry & the town, I have a real connection to the place. My father grew up in the Silverlake neighborhood & I chose to attend Loyola Marymount University. They were happy years, full of adventures. I actually love the city. I was always thrilled whenever I caught view of the Hollywood Sign from anywhere around town. For me, it symbolized not just the glamour & excitement of the film industry, but also the hardship & heartbreak of trying to be an actor.
The Hollywood Sign was the project of the Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler 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 movie premiere.
It took 200 workmen to get it erected. 7 miles of road had to be cut into the mountainside & 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, in Griffith Park, north of the Mulholland Highway. The Hollywood Sign measures 450 feet long, its 13 mammoth letters are 45 feet high, & it’s visible from all parts of Hollywood & many other neighborhoods of LA. It is massive. Each letter is constructed of 3’×9′ metal squares rigged together by an intricate frame of scaffolding, pipes, wires & 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. The sign itself featured 4,000 20-watt bulbs, spaced 8 inches apart. In the 1920s, the sign blinked into the Hollywood night: “Holly” first, next “wood” & at last, “land”, & then to make the point, a giant period for punctuation. The effect was truly spectacular. The bulbs were changed daily by a caretaker who lived in a small 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.”
The last 4 letters were removed in 1945, after Hollywood was well known as the world’s film capital, & the sign had become a famous landmark.
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 suburban San Fernando Valley & the studios relocated to other parts of town. By 1970, Paramount Pictures was the only studio left. Hollywood, the neighborhood, fell into disrepair & many of the grand old movie palaces became adult theaters. Crime soared, & the beautiful boulevards were devastated by urban decay. The Hollywood Sign was dilapidated & 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” & the entire third “O” had slid down Mount Lee, & an arsonist’s work had burned the bottom of the second “L.” Someone, & it wasn’t me, had altered the Sign’s letters to read “Hollyweed”.
In 1978, because of a campaign to restore the landmark by musician Alice Cooper (who donated the missing O), a committee set out to replace the deteriorated sign with a more permanent structure. 9 donors each gave $27,700 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 TV 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, businessman
- Y – Hugh Hefner: founder of Playboy magazine
- W – Andy Williams: singer, TV host
- O – Warner Bros.
- O – Alice Cooper, who donated in memory of comedian 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 LA Trust For Public Land, a conservation group, needed to raise $12.5 million.
Donations came from Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Aileen Getty, Norman Lear, plus Sony, NBC Universal, & Warner Bros., but were still $1 million short. Hefner:
“I am proud we were able to come together & create a public/private partnership to protect this historic symbol that will continue to welcome dreamers, artists & 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 blow to bits by aliens in Independence Day (1996), set on fire in Escape From LA (1996), & collapses to dust in Earthquake (1974).
The sign is featured during the first & 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 Charles Chaplin (Robert Downey, Jr.) & Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (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.