Stardust and Scandal: The Hollywood Sign Turns 100

California’s most famous sign turns 100 years old this year, and while it’s a familiar sight to people the world over, there’s a lot you might not know about the Hollywood sign.

Perched at the top of Mount Lee, in Griffith Park, above the sprawl of Los Angeles, the Hollywood sign appears in the background of countless tourist photos. “It’s hard to think about L.A. and not picture the sign,” says Casey Schreiner, author of the guidebook “Discovering Griffith Park: A Local’s Guide.” “I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more iconic landmark.”

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It’s beloved, Schreiner adds, by tourists and locals alike. “Angelenos think of it the way Parisians think of the Eiffel tower,” he says. “People are drawn to it because it symbolizes a dream and a kind of ambition that only exists in LA.”

The Beginnings: Hollywoodland

But while it now has iconic status that’s helped it last a century, the Hollywood sign had much more humble beginnings. When it was first erected in 1923, it was essentially a billboard: It was an advertisement for the Hollywoodland neighborhood (and it had those four extra letters at the end, too!). It was also covered in lightbulbs — roughly 4,000 of them — that blinked all night. It cost $21,000 to build, and was designed to last 18 months.

Instead, it stood for decades. “There was a guy whose job it was to screw in the lightbulbs when they went out,” says Schreiner. “He lived in a shack below the sign.” By the late 1940s, the sign had fallen into disrepair, and the Hollywoodland real estate development had folded. Some said the sign should be bulldozed, but the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in and had it rebuilt — this time, without the “land.”

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In the 1970s, the sign needed help again. “It was an eyesore,” says Schreiner. Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy Magazine, stepped in to raise money. He threw a 1978 gala at his famous mansion, and auctioned each letter of the sign to a different celebrity or corporate sponsor, including actors and musicians like Gene Autry and Andy Williams, rock star Alice Cooper and Warner Bros. Records. The price tag of just over $27,000 a letter was enough to fund a total restoration.

The old sign was torn down, and three months later a new one went up. Unlike the wood and sheet metal construction of the original, the new version was made of steel, mounted to steel columns and sunk into a sturdy concrete foundation.

Since the new sign was unveiled, it’s been repeatedly power washed and repainted, to keep it in good condition. The iconic view of the sign was threatened once more, in 2010. For years, everyone had assumed the land the sign was on was a part of Griffith Park, the huge public park that also houses the Los Angeles Zoo, the Griffith Observatory and the Autry Museum of the American West. When a developer put a big parcel just to the left of the sign’s “H” on the market, the city scrambled to pull together money to buy it.

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Howard Hughes and the Hollywood Sign

“It turned out it was private land, tied to Howard Hughes,” says Schreiner. “He wanted to build a mansion up there for some starlet, and she basically said if I go up there, I’m never coming down alive.”

The starlet was Ginger Rogers; Hughes, the fabulously rich business man, bought the parcel of land when the pair were engaged and planned to build a massive castle with sweeping views of the city. He even went to court with the city over the right to build an access road (and won!). Before anything was built, the relationship dissolved, and the parcel became a forgotten piece of the Howard Hughes estate.

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When it went up for sale in 2010, the city of Los Angeles couldn’t quite get the money together. Enter Hugh Hefner, again.

“He helped again, and gave the city some of the money it needed to buy the land and add it to Griffith Park,” Schreiner says. In fact, he adds, the sign’s surroundings are part of what makes the sign so special. “Griffith Park is one of the largest urban wilderness parks in the country,” he says. “It’s four times bigger than Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It’s right in the middle of the city. From there, you can see Universal Studios and Warner Bros. Studios. You’re near a lot of stuff. And there is a huge amount of wildlife and native plants.”

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The Centennial of the Hollywood Sign

In honor of the sign’s centennial, the Hollywood Sign Trust has announced plans to build a visitor’s center. For now, there are a number of ways to experience the landmark, including hiking up Mount Lee. Keep in mind that the trail ends behind the sign, so while it’s a great vista of L.A., it’s not a good view of the sign itself.

“You can drive to a viewpoint, but it’s in a residential neighborhood, the roads were built in the ’20s, and they’re narrow,” says Schreiner. “But there are dozens of places to see the sign. In my book I list 14 ways, including one where you come out of the subway into a shopping plaza and get a nice view.”

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Schreiner’s favorite views are from the Lake Hollywood Reservoir (“You get a view of the sign with water in front of it, which is unique,” he says), and from the West Observatory Trail. However you see the Hollywood sign, Schreiner says, it’s well worth a visit.

“It’s big. It’s bigger than it looks,” he says. “I think most people, when they come to Hollywood, are a bit disappointed at how small things look in real life. The sign is the opposite; it over-delivers.”

Peg Entwistle, dubbed by tabloids as the “The Hollywood Sign Girl,” was only 24 years old when she climbed 50 feet (15 meters) up a workman’s ladder to the top of the “H” and plunged to her death after trying to make it in Hollywood and finding no success. Legend has it that the very next day, a letter arrived offering her the lead in a play at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.

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