One of America’s most familiar, iconic landmarks got its start as a real estate sign perched high on Mount Lee in the Santa Monica Mountains. It was supposed to be there for just 18 months.
Flash forward 100 years — the centennial birthday is upon us — and who hasn’t seen the 45-foot-tall “HOLLYWOOD” sign in movies and TV shows? The initial cost of the steel, sheet metal and wood sign, which is 350 feet wide, was $21,000, but it’s cost hundreds of thousands to make it look pristine.
The sign was given a fresh coat of paint last year, in preparation for its big birthday. Town & Country said Dec. 8 is believed to be the actual big day, as that’s when the 4,000 light bulbs were turned on.
“The sign was finalized by turning on the lightbulbs on December 8 in 1923,” Hollywood Sign Trust Chair Jeff Zarrinnam told Town & Country. “But the letters were standing during 1923 and we are celebrating all year long.”
The yearlong celebration includes a quarter-scale sign that’s being moved here and later there around the city so folks can take selfies, a film festival at the restored Egyptian Theatre that will include films that star the sign and an anticipated street party on Hollywood Boulevard in December.
Says Town & Country, “On a practical note, 2023 plans include star-studded galas to raise funds for the sign’s maintenance and for a planned visitor center.”
In January, the Hollywood Sign Trust announced it was raising money for a center. Said Zarrinnam, chair of the trust, in the announcement: “Over the years, visitors and locals have expressed great interest in a ‘close-up’ experience where they can learn more about the roots of the Hollywood Sign, its legendary stories, and the epic hopes and dreams the sign continues to inspire.”
The sign has witnessed triumph and tragedy, according to the Hollywood Sign Trust, which is charged with protecting it and tweets about it as @hllywdsigntrust. Here are some of the highlights:
Before the sign
The area we now know as Hollywood was farmland and small businesses until a little film company from Chicago went West to finish a shoot in better weather. Other film companies followed. According to Hollywoodsign.org, “By 1912, word of Hollywood’s ideal film-shooting climate and landscapes spread and at least 15 independent studios could be found shooting around town.”
By 1915, Hollywood had already been dubbed Tinseltown. Within just years, the sign’s website said that 40 million Americans were going to the movies each week.
A star — well, sign — is born
In 1923, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler decided to place the sign, which originally read “HOLLYWOODLAND,” as a highly visible advertisement for his “upscale” real estate development. Designed by architect Thomas Fisk Goff, it went up in the Beachwood Canyon section of the mountains.
It didn’t take long for the sign to become a symbol of the film industry that was bringing wealth and fame to the area, though.
In 1932, New York stage actress Peg Entwistle left the success she’d found on Broadway and headed West, expecting to dazzle on the silver screen as well. On Sept. 18, despondent that the one film she’d made had been flagged by censors, she climbed the hill and made her way to the top of the H, where she jumped. She wasn’t found or identified for several days.
But as Slate reported in 2020, “The story of a failed actress killing herself by jumping off the very symbol of her crushed dreams has a narrative symmetry that’s almost never seen in the wild, and on Sept. 20, newspapers all over the country competed with one another to see who could slap the most purple headline on the AP wire story. (The reliably parochial Washington Post was the winner, writing that Entwistle ‘Left Broadway Stardom for California’s Oblivion.’)”
As news of the 24-year-old’s death spread, she was nicknamed “the Hollywood Sign Girl” by the tabloids. Her story has been included in a film or two, as well as earning oblique references in songs and in what Slate called “trashy tell-alls.”
The sign itself has managed starring or supporting roles in as many as 150 films and TV shows.
When America entered World War II, “Hollywood mobilized to become a full-time war industry,” and as stars enlisted, “patriotic films dominated the silver screens,” according to the sign trust’s website. It was about that time that the Hollywoodland real estate development went under. The sign, which had not been maintained, became city property in 1944. “The sign had made an unheralded transition from billboard to defacto civic landmark,” per the trust. But it was a mess.
The Guardian reported that “songwriter and mystic eden ahbez, who lived for a time beneath the Hollywood sign, becomes a media sensation after writing a hit single for Nat King Cole, “Nature Boy,” in 1948. The story is that ahbez slept under the first ‘L’ of the sign.”
Crumbling sign, struggling industry
The late-’40s and early ’50s ushered in a tough era for movies. More than 400 actors, writers, directors and producers were blacklisted, suspected of being Communists or collaborators. Movie attendance was way down, but the sign’s website said the transition to television kept the Hollywood community afloat as TV companies bought up old studios. Soon television was the major happening, not films.
The ’60s were the worst times of the sign’s life, described by the trust as “rusted, dilapidated, soon to literally crumble under its own weight.” The city was also falling into disrepair, with high crime and urban decay and residents fleeing to settle elsewhere.
Sign gets star status
When Los Angeles’ Cultural Heritage Board declared the sign an official landmark in 1973, the sign was falling apart. The O had toppled down the mountain. Part of the D was missing. And someone set fire to the bottom of the second L.
Says the site: “Adding insult to injury, pranksters altered the sign’s letters to read ‘Hollyweed’ in 1973 (advocating looser marijuana laws) then later, to ‘Holywood’, commemorating a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1987.”
By 1978, when the Chamber of Commerce decided to restore the sign, it needed a complete redo, the old letters scrapped — and the “LAND” portion dropped. The cost then was considerably higher: $250,000. The letters were symbolically auctioned off one at a time to well-heeled celebrities like Alice Cooper and Gene Autry at a fundraiser hosted by Hugh Hefner.
The sign that arose from the rubble was constructed of 194 tons of concrete, enamel and steel.
Part of the party
By 1980, the film industry was coming back, thanks in part to a massive federal grant that let Hollywood launch redevelopment projects, including Disney Studio’s rehabilitation of the El Capitan Theater, a facelift for the Roosevelt Hotel and Pantages Theatre and other projects. “Hollywood was moving forward in part by wisely reinvesting in the monuments of its past,” the sign trust said.
In 1997, The Guardian said Michelle Yeoh dangled from a helicopter over the sign for a National Geographic cover story photo shoot. “More than 15 years later, the images are going viral in advance of the Oscars, where Yeoh is a leading contender to win this year’s best actress award,” the article said. It added, “The photographer ‘thought it would be fantastic if we have this actress hanging over the Hollywood sign,’ Yeoh told Jimmy Kimmel. ‘I mean, sounds amazing right? But who’s crazy enough to do this except Michelle Yeoh?’”
The sign has been called a barometer of Hollywood’s health, looking good when times are good and falling apart in challenging times. For the last few decades, Hollywood has done just fine. And the sign’s been part of the party.
When the West Coast celebrated Y2K on Dec. 31, 1999, it happened right there on Mount Lee.
In 2000, The Hollywood Sign Trust hired Panasonic to install a complete security system, which is monitored around the clock. That prevents vandalism and provides warning if fire approaches.
The sign’s been getting a makeover for years in preparation for its 100th birthday. In 2012, the trust teamed up with Sherwin Williams to repaint it in its entirety.
And in the last few weeks, Mother Nature bestowed a little love on the hills behind the sign: Mount Lee was covered in snow.