There are few signs as famous as the nine letters perched across Mount Lee in Hollywood. Whether you’ve marvelled at the sign in person, seen it in movies like Superman and The Day After Tomorrow, or watched it on TV when the Oscars famously pan to the sign, the Hollywood sign is an icon of the United States. While today it symbolises movies, glamour, fame and fortune, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, it was even once a public eyesore and a playground for vandals! As the giant letters near its 100th birthday, we take a look at the history of the Hollywood sign in California.
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The history of the first Hollywood sign
Built in 1923, the giant letters of the sign originally spelt “Hollywoodland”. The sign was created as a marketing tactic for a new housing development that would be called “Hollywoodland”, likely named after the California holly growing in the area. The housing development was meant to capitalise on the growing movie industry in the area and was designed to feature Mediterranean and English Tudor homes, plus a Spanish-inspired shopping area. The development began selling plots of land in March 1923.
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To promote the development, Los Angeles publisher Harry Chandler and his partners contributed $21,000 (over $250,000 in today’s money). Developer John D. Roche designed the sign to be the same size as Wilshire Boulevard, one of the main roads in the city. The letters were 45-feet high and it was covered in 4,000 lightbulbs that lit up at night. Roche and other developers hoped that people in traffic would see the blazing sign and dream of escaping the city bustle to the quiet hills.
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Decay and pranksters at the sign
The developers never intended for the Hollywoodland sign to be a permanent landmark. By 1939, no money was available to maintain the sign and in 1944, the Hollywoodland development ended and the sign fell into disrepair. The ‘H’ even fell over and stayed that way for five years until 1949 when the city repaired the whole sign and removed the “land”. Unfortunately, it only took another 30 years before the sign became decrepit again, with letters falling over and vandals and pranksters making their own alterations.
The third “O” fell down the side of Mount Lee, termites infested the wood, while arsonists set fire to the second “L”. In 1976, Cal State Northridge student Danny Finegood and his friends used black and white fabric to make the sign read “Hollyweed” to celebrate the state’s decriminalisation of small amounts of marijuana. He did it as part of an art project – and he got an A! Danny would go on to change the sign again to “Holywood” on Easter, “Ollywood” in protest of Oliver North’s Iran-Contra testimony, and to “Oil War” in protest of the Persian Gulf War.
Revamping the iconic sign
The City declared the sign would need to be completely rebuilt at a cost of $250,000… Which was ten times the cost of the original. In 1978, Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner held a gala at his mansion where celebrities bid on the letters to finance the sign refurbishment. Gene Autry, Andy Williams, Warner Bros. Records and the Kelley Blue Book all sponsored letters, while Alice Cooper sponsored an “O” in honour of Groucho Marx.
They each pledged around $28,000 to fund the sign and construction finished later that year. The sign was the same size as the original, with each letter towering 45 feet high. But this time, they made it with steel, rather than telephone poles. Since then, it regularly receives a fresh coat of the iconic white paint. In fact, on its 90th birthday in 2013, the sign got a fresh coat of paint courtesy of Sherwin-Williams and their “High Reflective White”.
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Protected parkland now surrounds the sign – but that almost wasn’t the case. In 1940, business tycoon Howard Hughes bought 138 acres west of the Hollywood sign to build a mansion there. He later abandoned the plans and in 2002, Hughes’ estate sold the land to a Chicago-based investment firm. Several movie studios, foundations, and actors (including Hugh Hefner who contributed $900,000) wanted to prevent people from building luxury homes around the sign. So they raised $12.5 million to reclaim the land as protected parkland.
Where to see the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles?
You’ll find the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee in the Hollywood Hills area of the Santa Monica Mountains. The sign overlooks Hollywood in Los Angeles, California.
Can you get to the Hollywood sign?
There are now three trails where you can hike to see the famous Hollywood sign up close and marvel at the views of the surrounding city. If you prefer to drive, you can take the DASH Observatory bus service to the sign or drive to the Griffith Observatory, which has spectacular views of the sign and the city below.
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Do you know any fun facts about the history of the Hollywood sign in California? Let us know in the comments below!