Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics. This entry looks into the history of the iconic Hollywood sign.
The Hollywood Sign is so ingrained in pop culture that it’s become a symbol of movie magic. When people think about Hollywood, they recall the greatest stories ever told and the memories they associate with them. The landmark sign that sits on top of Mount Lee’s southern slope represents that legacy.
All immortal landmarks must begin somewhere, and the Hollywood Sign is no different. It has undergone several changes and makeovers since it was first erected, then ultimately dedicated on July 13, 1923. Interestingly, it didn’t even have anything to do with movies at the start.
The first iteration of the sign read, “Hollywoodland.” The idea was conceived by Los Angels Times publisher Harry Chandler in an effort to promote an upmarket real estate project. However, the sign became synonymous with motion pictures as the neighboring area became a film industry hotspot.
According to the History Channel, the original sign was forty-five-feet high and boasted white block letters. These letters were connected to telephone poles and were illuminated by four-thousand light bulbs. The bulbs lit up the letters every night, much to the delight of onlookers.
Chandler only intended for the sign to coruscate in the hills for eighteen months, and it was only needed to promote houses at first. But the growth of the movie industry resulted in the sign being recognized as an international symbol. As such, the real estate developers decided to keep it up. Though it didn’t take long until the billboard lost some of its glory.
Death and Deterioration
In the years that followed, the symbol started to show some wear and tear. It also became associated with tragedy. In 1932, actress Peg Entwistle took her own life when she jumped off the sign’s ‘H’ letter. Her body was discovered in a ravine below Mount Lee on September 18th.
The negative connotations surrounding the ‘H’ continued into the 1940s when the letter was destroyed. The Great Depression caused Chandler’s real estate project to go under. This meant that the sign couldn’t be maintained, and for a while, it read, “Ollywoodland.”
Reports about how the sign got destroyed vary. One account claimed that it was knocked over by the caretaker, who drove his car into a nearby cliff while intoxicated. The Hollywood Sign Trust, however, believes windy conditions caused the incident. Who knows which side was telling the truth.
In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce signed a contract with the City of Los Angeles Parks Department to repair and rebuild the sign. Both parties decided to remove the word “Land” as they wanted the sign to represent the area, as opposed to the previous real estate project.
By the time the 1970s rolled around, the famous landmark needed another makeover. More damage had been done since the last upgrade. For example, the third ‘O’ rolled down a hill, and arsonists tried to burn an ‘L.’
The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce determined that the sign needed to be rebuilt from scratch. With the help of several celebrity donors, a new sign, built from concrete and steel, was put up in 1978. The process of the old sign being taken down and replaced with a new one took three months. This was the only period since 1923 when the landmark didn’t overlook Hollywood.
The restoration was responsible for revitalizing Hollywood. Numerous redevelopment projects followed in its wake. These included restorations of the El Capitan Theater, Egyptian Theater, Roosevelt Hotel, and Pantages Theater. Adding some gloss to the monuments of the past took Hollywood into the future.
The local residents aren’t the biggest fans of the beloved landmark. The access points are located in their neighborhoods, and the streets tend to be busy with tourists. The Beachwood Canyon entry point was closed off in 2017, much to the delight of those who live in the region. At the same time, the decision sparked outrage as some people didn’t want the trail closed off.
Critics of the sign also cite the congestion and heavy traffic in the area as a bad thing. According to the naysayers, the hillside roads aren’t equipped to deal with large volumes of people. But who can blame the tourists for wanting to see the beautiful monument with their own eyes?