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HOLLYWOOD REASSERTS ITS LOFTINESS

When Harry Shearer was a youngster growing up in Hollywood, he often hiked in the hills around what was then the "Hollywoodland" sign.

The "land" is no longer part of the word, and Shearer, a 67-year-old contractor, is reaching the top of the hill in a Lincoln Town Car he drives to meet a crew working for him at Tinseltown's most recognizable landmark.His company, Cross Painting of San Diego, is repainting the entire 450-foot-wide sign for the first time since 1978, when it was rebuilt.

"I didn't think it was just another job," Shearer said. "It's a significant job. It's a little like putting rouge on the Statue of Liberty or makeup on Mount Rushmore."

Members of an eight-man painting crew rappel, grasping their hand tools, more than 100 feet down from a paved road to get to the sign, where they scrape peeling paint, cover graffiti and apply new, glossy white paint to the historic 45-foot-tall metal letters stretching along Mount Lee.

So far, they've finished the H, the O and both L's. The job is expected to be complete by mid-May, when there will be a bit of hoopla - after all, this is Hollywood - to show off the face lift.

"Part of our job is to drape the sign, so they can undrape it," said Shearer. He understands the trappings of Tinseltown - his father was actress Norma Shearer's cousin, and his stepfather, Don Taylor, was chief film editor at Universal Studios for 33 years.

The painters report a tiring first week at the job, along with many aches and bruises.

"The first day we were all excited, the second day we were sore, the third day we were really sore," said foreman Joe Penney, 30, of La Mesa. "It's an extremely tough job."

Penney said he goes up and down the rope maybe eight to 10 times a day. That's not even counting the climb up and down the ladders on the back of each letter.

Each painter wears a body harness tethered to a lifeline attached to the top of the letter he is working on, to keep him from tumbling down the hillside. The paint is pumped in from a truck parked on the road.

But there are rewards. The painters say they are enjoying their brief brush with fame as the sign generates a good bit of media attention.

"My 6-year-old said, `I saw you on TV, Dad,"' said Angelo Fierro, 33, who lives outside San Diego. "And my mother has been calling all the relatives."