The Hollywood sign perched on the slopes of Mount Lee in Los Angeles is one of the greatest icons in the world, photographed by millions and as permanent a feature of the landscape as the mountain upon which it stands. And yet — there was a time when people were more interested in destroying it than taking their pictures with it, a time when the famous white letters were not an icon, but an eyesore.
A difficult time for Los Angeles
The time was 1940’s. The trials and tragedies of the Second World War and the Great Depression were still reverberating through the country, and Los Angeles was in as much turmoil as any other city. Able bodied men left their jobs and went off to fight; women left their kitchens and struggled to meet their families needs; thousands were out of work with nowhere to go. Hollywood was still churning out its movies, offering a welcome escape and fantasy, but the glitzy glamour onscreen was a stark contrast to the grim lives of the people who watched the shows. It was a troubled time for the city, and nothing reflected that better than the batter, decrepit and abandoned Hollywood sign.
It was a far cry from the gleaming white sign that had first been erected in 1923. Back then, the Roaring Twenties was still going strong, sweeping up the world with its infectious mood of change and excitement. The stock market was making millionaires by the dozens and wave after wave of settlers were heading for California and Los Angeles, determined to make their dreams come true. Housing estates were going up everywhere and in Beachwood Canyon, the developers of the Hollywoodland housing estate had the bright idea of putting up the name of the housing estate in 45 foot high white letters on the slope of the nearby Mount Lee, the highest peak in LA, as an advertising gimmick.
Surprisingly, it was an instant hit. The “HOLLYWOODLAND” sign, which was originally cost $21,000 and was supposed to be pulled down after one and a half years, quickly became an established part of the city landscape. For those who lived within sight of it, the sign was more than just an overly-large billboard – it was a statement, a reflection on the city’s love of ostentation, the optimistic spirit of the decade and the superficial glamour of the rapidly burgeoning movie industry. At its most glamorous height, the simple white letters were embellished with thousands of light bulbs, cared for by a caretaker who lived in a cabin behind one of the letters L. The glowing sign was a beacon over the city, and a welcome sight for the thousands of new arrivals who came chasing the bright lights of show business. The sign, like the city, seemed like it would shine on forever.
But then the War came, and then the Depression. The city began to sink into a state of restrained slumber, as its best and brightest went off to sacrifice their lives to preserve the American Dream. The sign on the hillside, still so bright and optimistic, wasn’t as relevant any more. In 1932, despondent young actress Peg Entwistle jumped to her death from the letter “H” and the tragedy hastened the sign’s retreat from popular consciousness. The shining beacon dimmed, and then finally died as the Depression bit deeper, the housing market crashed and the developers abandoned it. Storms, time and vandals destroyed the many bulbs which had once made the sign so bright. The sign stood, neglected and forgotten.
Struggling to survive
It was only when the H fell in 1949 that people began to notice the sign once again. Things were finally starting to look up for the city — the economy was slowly picking up again, hopes were once again beginning to soar and people were looking forward to a bright new future. The sign, however, was still out of sync with the new optimistic spirit. There was talk of ripping it all down, and more talk of preserving it. Whatever happened to it, no-one wanted a huge, derelict sign cluttering the city landscape and reminding them of past hardships.
By this time, the City had taken over care of the sign, and were desperately looking for someone else to do the job. Finally, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in, offering to take responsibility. They would remove the last four letters of the sign, repair the rest and protect it as a landmark. The City agreed and so the sign was shortened, spruced up and got a new lease on life, though the light bulbs, which would have had to be paid for by the chamber, were never replaced. The sign seemed to be revived.
But it was only a short respite. By the 1960s, Los Angeles itself was going to seed again, crime-ridden, smog covered, too busy trying to heal itself to worry about anything else. In tandem with its city, the sign began to deteriorate again. In 1973, the sign was declared Los Angeles Cultural-Historical Monument #111 in 1973 by the Cultural Heritage Board of the City of Los Angeles, but that didn’t stop the decay. Termites ate away the wood and the paint slowly peeled away. The Hollywood Kiwanis Club gallantly raised enough money to temporarily fix the damage, but by 1978, the top of the D had fallen down, an O had collapsed and an arsonist sent one of the L’s up in flames. Once again, the sign was in danger of destruction.
A bright new future
Then L.A.’s fortunes changed again. The movie industry was going through another upswing, the city was starting to clean up its act and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce had decided a thorough makeover of the sign was needed, complete with a $250,000 price tag. Another rescue effort was made — but this time, with a little more star power from, of all people, Hugh Hefner. The Playboy magazine owner organized and hosted a $150-a-plate party at the Playboy Mansion to launch the fund-raising effort and raised $45,000 for it. Donors were also asked to sponsor a letter each for a new sign, at nearly $28,000 a letter. There were no shortage of sponsors: Gene Autry put up the money to buy an L; rock star Alice Cooper dipped into his pocket to pay for an O (and named it in honour of Groucho Marx) and Andy Williams took care of the W.
Finally, in August 1978, the remnants of the old sign were completely demolished and new, all-steel letters were erected in its place. The new Hollywood Sign was unveiled live on November 14, 1978, on Hollywood’s 75th anniversary, before a television audience of 60 million. From then on, its future was assured: it was now no longer just a simple signboard, but a Sign, a bona fide icon worthy of a capital letter and a celebrity in its own right, backed by stars and blessed with a rebirth on national television.
The Sign Today
Like all things famous, the Sign has acquired its own share of stories and inevitably, there is a ghost story. Up until the recently, people were able to hike through Griffith Park and reach the foot of the giant letters. Some of the hikers have reportedly seen a distraught looking young woman walking near the sign, who sometimes vanishes right in front of the astonished witnesses. The sighting has been attributed to Peg Entwistle’s restless spirit, Some people have also reported the strong scent of gardenias around the sign, another sign of the actress’s presence, as gardenia was her signature perfume.
Less mysterious have been the many changes done to the Sign itself. For many years, altering the Sign was a common dare for college students with too much time and too little common sense to try and alter the sign. Some of the alterations were to mark special events and others were politically motivated, but most were illegal and after too many pranks and many accidents, a fence and security system were installed to keep people away. Of the many alterations done to the Sign, the most famous are:
• HOLLYWEED – January 1976, celebrating the new, laxer marijuana law
• GO NAVY – November 1983, before a game at the Rose Bowl
• RAFFEYSOD – January 1985, meaning never determined
• HOLLYWOOD II – April 1986, to mark revitalization of area
• FOX – April 1987, promotion for the TV network
• CALTECH – May 1987, on Hollywood’s 100th birthday
• OLLYWOOD – July 1987, during Iran-Contra hearings
• HOLYWOOD – September 1987, for Pope John Paul II’s arrival
Where To See It
Today, the Sign stands for many things: as a symbol of Los Angeles city; as the embodiment of the city’s most famous industry; and as one of the greatest tourists attractions in the world. Its white shining letters, while no longer glowing with the light of a thousand bulbs, still draws thousands to the city — though nowadays, most of the people who come are more interested in taking a picture of the icon than in buying a house or becoming a movie star.
The best way to see the Hollywood Sign is to drive up Beachwood Drive (north of Hollywood Boulevard). The Sign is clearly visible most the way up Beachwood, although the hills begin to obscure the view of the Sign near the top of the drive.
There are plenty of other places where you can get a good view of the Sign are, and here are just a few:
• The Beverly Center mall: There are two places where the Sign can be seen — from the exterior escalator tubes on the mall’s east side, or from the outdoor food court patio on the mall’s top floor.
• Beachwood Canyon Drive: In the housing area which gave the sign its name, you can get a clear view of the sign as you drive up this road
• The Griffith Park Observatory: from its parking lot, look northwest.
If getting to these places seem too troublesome, then you can go to Universal Studios, where there is a wall with a picture of the Hollywood Sign. A picture taken here really looks authentic and the location has the added bonus of offering plenty of theme park rides and amusements, rather than a hot sweaty drive around town looking for the best view. But whether you go out of your way to see the Sign, or can’t be bothered about it at all, its presence is difficult to escape: almost everywhere you go in Hollywood, you only have look to the north to see the Sign on its lonely mountaintop, gleaming brightly from afar.