LOS ANGELES — San Francisco has its Golden Gate Bridge, Paris its Eiffel Tower and London its Big Ben. Here, it's nine really big letters on the side of a mountain.
Hooray for H O L L Y W O O D — the most famous sign in the world, proclaims the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which owns the structure and has trademarked its likeness.
Of course chambers of commerce by their very nature are inclined toward hyperbole, but this claim may be accurate.
The 50-foot steel letters of the Hollywood sign have become the internationally recognized icon for the flamboyant lifestyle of this place they also call Tinseltown, LaLa Land and worse.
On a clear day, the sign can be seen all the way to San Pedro, some 25 miles away. This being smoggy Los Angeles, on many other days you can't even see the Hollywood sign from, well, Hollywood.
It has had more exposure than a Playboy playmate, appearing in scores of movies. And many times when TV news features a Hollywood story, reporters do their standup with the sign in the background.
The letters, with their off-kilter alignment, appear on hundreds of products and on a nationwide chain of video stores, all of which bring handsome royalties to the chamber's coffers.
The sign's history is typically Hollywood: Born in the flapper era, it enjoyed a glamorous early career followed by neglect and disrepair, then had a smashing comeback and return to glory.
The sign's saga begins in 1923, when Los Angeles was emerging from its long status as a sleepy pueblo. People from wintry states were pouring into town on cheap fares offered by the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads. The city was moving west from downtown to accommodate them.
Moneymen headed by Harry Chandler, then the powerful publisher of the Los Angeles Times, formed a syndicate to build an upscale subdivision in Beachwood Canyon above what later became Hollywood.
They decided to advertise their venture by using the promotional methods of the movie studios springing up in the area. Angelenos were astonished when the huge letters sprouted almost overnight on a mountainside north of town: H O L L Y W O O D L A N D.
The advertising gimmick cost $21,000 and featured letters covered with sheet metal painted white and supported by telephone poles, pipes, wires and crossbeams. The sign glittered at night with 40,000 20-watt bulbs.
In true Hollywood(land) fashion, it wasn't long before the giant advertisement became a movie prop. Mack Sennett and other film producers staged chases among the letters for their two-reel comedies.
But the sign also has been the backdrop for tragedy.
Peg Entwhistle, an actress who left London at 14 to try her luck in Boston and New York, appeared in eight plays on Broadway, then came to Hollywood. She found only one role, in a 1932 RKO film "Thirteen Women."
Not only did she have to share the screen with 12 other women, most of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.
Unable to find further acting jobs, Entwhistle grew despondent. On Sept. 18, 1932, police said a hiker found her body at the foot of the "H" in HOLLYWOODLAND. She apparently had dived off the top of the letter, leaving a note: "I am afraid I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain." She was 24.
Hollywoodland lore continued through the years.
During the early 1930s, Bugsy Siegel ran a speakeasy and casino at a nine-story hillside mansion near the sign until the feds marched in. Raymond Chandler wrote of mystery-laden Beachwood Canyon streets in his detective stories. Cowboy artist Charles Russell, author Aldous Huxley, actor Ned Beatty, Madonna and other luminaries have made their homes in Hollywood. A 1961 fire destroyed 24 classic Spanish-style houses, and ruinous mudslides ensued. Hundreds of scenes have been shot in the area, notably the mass panic in 1956's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
The passing years were unkind to the sign. The Depression forced Chandler's real estate syndicate into bankruptcy, and maintenance ended in 1939. Vandals, age and termites took their toll. The 20-watt bulbs were stolen, smashed or shot out. Individual letters started to deteriorate. One day city dwellers finally saw a sign that read: OLLYWOODLAND.
In 1944, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce took over the sign and its surrounding acreage, and in 1949, contracted with the city's Department of Recreation and Parks to repair the sign and remove the LAND.
"By 1978 the sign was really falling apart, and there were some people, especially the residents in the area, who wanted to tear it down," says Johnny Grant, well known as the unofficial mayor of Hollywood — unofficial because Hollywood is officially a part the city of Los Angeles (and has been since 1910).
"The chamber didn't think that such a world-renowned landmark should be destroyed, and it raised the money to completely rebuild it," Grant says.
The old letters were demolished and replaced with all-steel construction. On Nov. 14, 1978, a TV network special saluted Hollywood's 75th birthday with the lighting of the shiny new sign in fresh white paint.
Realizing that HOLLYWOOD could mean big bucks, the Chamber of Commerce obtained a trademark on the sign that same year.
"We enforce the trademark," says Leron Gubler, the chamber's president.
The board of directors won't allow disclosure of annual trademark income, but Gubler indicates it amounts to "hundreds of thousands of dollars." The money helps pay for the chamber's events and operations, which include the Hollywood Walk of Fame — those stars in the sidewalk.
Over the years, the Hollywood sign has endured numerous alterations — most of them unauthorized. Two of the more notable: HOLLYWEED in 1976, promoting the legalization of marijuana, and HOLYWOOD in 1987, commemorating a local visit by Pope John Paul II.
Those altered states were eliminated within a few hours, yet the exposure — involving such a famous landmark — was immediate and worldwide.
Nearby residents have a love-hate relationship with the Hollywood sign. They have the pleasure of close-up views of a famed landmark. But they also must contend with cars, tour buses and interlopers.
The sign is only illuminated for special occasions, and when a company offered to light it up on a nightly basis free, Grant says, nearby residents were adamantly opposed. "The people up in those hills are very, very protective of their privacy," he says.
"Their concern is that it would draw publicity to the sign and they're afraid to encourage people to climb up to the sign and in the process vandalize their property," Gubler says. "I believe there was one incident in which somebody climbed on top of a house without permission to take a photograph, then fell off the roof and sued the owner of the house."
Actually, the sign has been lit a few times: for the 1978 inauguration of the rebuilt sign; for two weeks during the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and on Dec. 31, 1999, for the city's millennium celebration.
You can understand the residents' concerns when you ascend to vistas overlooking the sign. You can't get too close to it because there are no roads; TV surveillance cameras sweep the area, and rangers from nearby Griffith Park are dispatched to halt any incursions. You drive skyward along narrow roads lined with grand villas out of the 1920s, also humdrum houses of a later vintage. Finally you reach the photo op.
The area is crowded with parked cars on a dead-end street so jammed that an SUV has trouble squeezing past. Even in a rain shower, tourists stand at the canyon's edge, aiming their cameras at the nine magic letters.
To get a reaction from a resident, this reporter sounded the chimes at a handsome, modern white stucco house just down the road. A woman's voice answered on the speaker, declining to disclose her name.
Was she bothered by the tourists and other visitors?
Was she against installing lights on the sign?
Because it would just mean more trouble.
What kind of trouble?
"Loud music, nudity, sex, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, you name it."
Ah, the price of fame in LaLa Land.