The Unlikely Fate of an American Icon — a History of the HOLLYWOOD Sign

The Unlikely Fate of an American Icon — a History of the HOLLYWOOD Sign

Overlooking the movie capital of the world, the Hollywood sign has been a symbol of the mythical world of show business for nearly 85 years. And yet, once you know the real history behind the most famous sign on the planet, you will find it to be one of the most unlikely icons ever built.

The Birth of Tinsel Town

The early days of movies were controlled by Thomas Edison and the Motion Pictures Patents Trust. Operating out of New York, Edison and company controlled movie production and ruthlessly stamped out any competitors. To avoid the trust, a few filmmakers headed about as far away from New York as you can possibly get without getting your feet wet – a sleepy little town of orchards and sheep farms known as Hollywood.

A Quiet Little Nowhere

Ironically, Hollywood got its name from the wife of a Kansas prohibitionist named Harvey Wilcox, who had moved to the Cahuenga Valley area to set up a small community that reflected his conservative beliefs. He bought 120 acres of land and built a ranch in the middle of a fig orchard. Wilcox’s wife, Daeida, while returning home by train from an East Coast trip, struck up a conversation with another woman on the train who called her summer home Hollywood. Daeida liked the name so much, she decided to borrow it as the name of her ranch. By 1897, the area surrounding the ranch became known as Hollywood, and in 1903 the town was incorporated.

Enter the “MoviePeople”

In 1907 the first filmmakers came to Hollywood and set up shop. The sunny climate and tremendous distance from Edison and the Patent Trust made Hollywood an ideal location for shooting movies. Five years later, over a dozen film companies had moved into Hollywood, but the real boom hadn’t started yet. Films were shot all over town, with many ‘studios’ setting up shop in old barns and unused cowsheds. Cecille B. DeMille worked out of a barn on Vine Street.

The New Gold Rush

By 1915, Hollywood was a boomtown. Studios were springing up all over town. Young hopefuls gathered by the hundreds for a shot at breaking into the movie industry. Established stars built glamorous mansions. The town was literally transformed overnight, from a sleepy conservative backwater to a bustling metropolis where fortunes were won and lost every day. As more and more people flocked to Hollywood, the real estate market exploded.

Here’s Your Sign

In 1923, the Hollywoodland Real Estate Group decided to promote some of their prime real estate by erecting a massive sign on the side of Mount Cahuenga. The sign simply read: Hollywoodland, but that was the only thing simple about it. Built at a cost of $21,000 dollars the enormous sign was made of 13 letters. Each letter was 30 feet wide and 50 feet tall. The letters were made of metal barn roofing and held up by a framework of pipes and telephone poles. Below the sign was a large white circle, 35 feet in diameter. The message was meant to say: “Hollywoodland! Period.” The sign originally was studded with 4,000 20-watt light bulbs that blinked “Holly” then “Wood” then “Land” out into the clear California sky and was visible at a distance of 25 miles. As a promotional gimmick, the sign was meant to last about a year and a half. Obviously, the promotion is still going on. Only the product has changed.

Hard Times

The Great Depression hit Hollywood hard. Salary cuts were implemented; jobs slashed. The Hollywoodland sign stood as a symbol of hope for thousands of actors and actresses struggling to make it in movies. One such hopeful was a Broadway actress named Peg Entwistle who tried desperately to make it into movies but failed. In 1932, she climbed to the top of the 50-foot “H” and jumped off into the night, committing suicide from Tinsel Town’s most famous symbol.

The Depression also forced the real estate developers who built the sign into bankruptcy. By 1939, all maintenance on the sign had stopped. All 4,000 light bulbs were stolen. Vandals removed pieces of the sign, and the elements wore away at its supports. Holes and gaps began appearing in the sign, which was becoming an unstable, unsightly mess. Many neighborhoods in Hollywood lobbied for the sign’s removal

The rationing during World War Two meant that no resources could be spared to repair or fix the sign. Near the end of the war, the bankrupt real estate developer who had built the sign, gave the city of Hollywood his remaining acreage high up in the Hollywood Hills – sitting on a small parcel of this land, sat the rapidly deteriorating sign.

By 1949 the sign was in extreme disrepair – the letter H had fallen face down. Something had to be done. Later that year, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, the new owners of the sign removed the “Land” part of the sign and repaired the remaining letters.

I’d Like to Buy a Vowel

In 1973 the sign was declares a historical monument by the cultural heritage Board of Los Angeles. It’s new, official status as a monument, meant that much-needed restoration and repairs would take place. The repairs would be expensive, so to raise money, the new Hollywood Sign trust put together a star-studded fund raiser, during which, individual letters of the sign could be “adopted” for $28,000 each. The fundraiser was hosted by Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion and featured a unique mix of celebrities rallying around the sign. Gene Autry adopted one of the L’s. Alice Cooper bought an O. Paul Williams sponsored the W. With new financial backing, the Sign Trust unveiled a new Hollywood sign in 1978.

Sign Sponsors:
H — Terrence Donnelly, Publisher of the Hollywood Independent Newspaper
O — Giovanni Mazza, Italian movie producer
L — Les Kelley, Creator of the Kelley Blue Book
L — Gene Autrey, singing cowboy, Owner of KTLA
Y — Hugh Hefner, Creator of Playboy magazine
W — Paul Williams, Singer/composer * (some sources attribute this to Andy Williams)
O — Warner Brother’s Records
O — Alice Cooper, rock legend (in tribute to Groucho Marx)
D — Dennis Lidtke

The Sign Today

In 1992, Dan Lungren, California Attorney General specified a plan to maintain the sign. Under the plan, The Hollywood Sign Trust was to preserve and promote the sign as a symbol of the entertainment industry. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce was entrusted with protecting the image of the sign, ensuring that any images of the sign are properly licensed. The City of Los Angeles was required to maintain and protect the restricted area of Griffith Park that’s home to the sign. They also provide park rangers and security for the sign.

The entire area around the sign is restricted and monitored by a state-of-the-art security system. External alarms, motion sensors and digital surveillance cameras constantly monitor the entire sign area.

In 2006, the Hollywood Sign Trust integrated the sign’s security system with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that the sign is protected as a national treasure.

You can see the view from the sign’s webcams and security cameras HERE.

Only in America – Fate of the Original Sign

When the original sign was torn down the pieces were purchased from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce by Hank Berger, a nightclub promoter for $10,000. Berger cut up small sections of the sign and sold them as framed collectables. Sales were slow and Berger eventually gave up on the project. The crumbling, original sign then sat in storage for 25 years.

Dan Bliss, who knew Berger through business dealings, purchased the sign for an undisclosed six-figure amount in 2003. Bliss auctioned off larger pieces of the sign on eBay, including a 5’x3′ section of the H to the Hollywood History Museum for $11,766. The rest of the sign sat stacked in a storage building. In 2005, Bliss auctioned off the rest of the sign on eBay. He opened the bidding at $300,000. Bliss wanted to use the money to fund a documentary to see if Elvis was still alive. On December 6, 2005 the remaining sections of the original Hollywood sign sold for $450,400. Ah, only in America.

You can see the original ebay listing for the sign HERE.

From a real estate ad to federally-protected icon of the American entertainment industry, the Hollywood sign has endured as a lasting tribute to the dreamer in everyone.

You May Also Like