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Celebrating 100 years of the Hollywood sign

BY Yasemen Kaner-White

18th Aug 2023 Life

Celebrating 100 years of the Hollywood sign

The century-long story of the Hollywood sign—the most famous sign in the world

Standing at the feet of the nine letters that make perhaps the most iconic sign there is—"Hollywood”, the whirring of a tourist plane above seeking a close-up didn’t put a dampener on the moment that I touched the letters that are synonymous with stardom.

Building the “Hollywoodland” sign as a billboard

Hollywoodland original signThe original sign read "Hollywoodland" instead of the now world-famous "Hollywood"

The glamorous sign has had a rocky road to becoming what it is today. Originally built in 1923 as a billboard saying “Hollywoodland”, its aim was to attract buyers to purchase property in the Holly Wood Land development. Bright lights in the form of 37,000 lightbulbs, ten watts each, spaced by nine inches, went around the perimeter of the sign, flashing in sequence, first "Holly", then "Wood" then "Land" and then "Hollywoodland".

The company did sell around 500 lots from $2,000 to $50,000—the cheaper, smaller lots were deeper in the canyons with less attractive views, or simply harder to build on. Even the land underneath the sign was part of the development and also divided into plots to sell. Remnants of the original road which would have facilitated the landowners accessing their plots, called Tyrolean Road, can still be seen.

Falling into disrepair

The development believed they would sell all the plots within 18 months, thus built the sign to only last the same amount of time. However, it took longer than that and, although they maintained the sign for around ten years, it became too expensive, so they shut down the lights in 1933 and let nature take its course.

"Originally built in 1923 as a billboard saying Hollywoodland, its aim was to attract buyers to purchase property"

In December 1944, the war was going on and people weren’t buying lots and coupled with the expensive upkeep of the sign, they decided to give the remaining lots (around 400-425 acres) to the City of Los Angeles. On January 26, 1945, the land was officially given to the City of Los Angeles and annexed into an area called Griffith Park, which is about 4,500 acres, within that, of course, they also inherited the dilapidated sign.

A lack of maintenance led to the “H” falling down, so it read “Ollywoodland” for many years. Disgruntled locals wanted it torn down or fixed, so the city disowned the sign in favour of using taxpayers’ money to mend it.

Fixing the Hollywood sign

In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce decided to give the money to fix the sign, on the condition the “Land” was removed so it just read “Hollywood”. 

The meaning of the sign changed from billboard to a sign representing the location, significantly as a symbol of the motion picture industry.

The sign's new meaning

Mount Lee with the Hollywood sign onMount Lee is home to the Hollywood sign. Credit: Downtowngal

At the time television was being created and the people behind it lived in Hollywood, including the inventor and television pioneer Philo Taylor Farnsworth, as well as car dealership owner Don Lee, who invested in the technology for TV. Lee was first to broadcast a TV signal in LA, and the mount where the sign is situated is named after him; Mount Lee.

"In 1973, the City of Los Angeles declared the Hollywood sign a cultural monument"

By 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce was maintaining the sign and by 1973 it was the 75th anniversary of Hollywood, so they celebrated with a major retrofit of the sign with the city declaring it a cultural monument. In 1978, the letters fell down again because the wood used to build them was rotting away and in February 1978 the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce talked about how to save the sign, and the answer was to rebuild it.

Save the sign

Hollywood sign letters close upThe fixed Hollywood sign letters, photographed in 1983. Credit: Pebble Bay Entertainment

In April 1978, they decided to create a “save the sign” committee to raise the funds and in May 1978 held a press conference. Rock star Alice Cooper gave the first cheque for $27,777—enough to cover one of the letters, and for all nine $250,000 was needed. In June, Hugh Heffner did a fundraiser at his Playboy mansion and many more donated. Warner Brothers covered a letter and by August they received the full amount with construction starting soon after.

"In April 1978, a 'save the sign' committee was created to raise the funds to rebuild and rock star Alice Cooper gave the first cheque"

The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, seeing the sign’s importance, created a committee to look after it on October 7, 1978 called the Hollywood Sign Trust. The sign was completed on October 30, 1978. There are nine trustees, one for each letter.

Representing people’s hopes and dreams

View of LA from behind the Hollywood signThe Hollywood sign represents the hopes and dreams of people who move to LA. Credit: Michael E Arth

Jeff Zarrinnam is their Chairman. His German mother and Iranian father both emigrated to Hollywood, lured by the movies, and some of his first memories from his pram was looking up at the sign. His first house on Gower Street is the perpendicular street to the Hollywood sign, so he feels his role is destiny.

“I cannot imagine LA without the sign, I’ve been looking at it my whole life. LA is known as the entertainment capital of the world and the sign is part of the fabric of LA, it reminds people of the world that this is the place where the studios are, the writers come to work, where people come to seek out fame. It represents people’s hopes and dreams.”

The next step for the sign is a visitor centre, which they are currently raising funds for. Stay tuned!

Banner photo: Thomas Wolf

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