The story of the Hollywood sign
By Allan R. Ellenberger
February 14, 2010
The Hollywood Sign has recently been in the news because of developers attempts to build condominiums on nearby Cahuenga Peak. A move is on to raise money to buy the land and turn it over to the city of Los Angeles to become a part of Griffith Park and thus save the pristine view from the flats of Hollywood. To aid its case, the sign has been covered to read, “Save the Peak.”
The Hollywood Sign has had a remarkable and turbulent history and has endured its share of problems, including a suicide leap from the H, squabbles over who should maintain it, markings from mountain-climbing spray painters, hassles among community groups about its worth, and several threats over the years to tear it down.
The sign has been a major part of the local scenery for more than 86 years, longer than most city landmarks such as Grauman’s Chinese, City Hall, the Shrine Auditorium and UCLA. It even predates Mulholland Drive and is decades older than any freeway.
As most know, the Hollywood sign is the remnant of an advertisement for a 640-acre real-estate development. When it was erected in 1923 the sign said HOLLYWOODLAND, the name of the housing development on the slope just below it. The sign, however, was an afterthought.
As with many Hollywood origins, the sign’s beginnings also have more than one version. The one I chose for this article goes as follows:
In the spring of 1923, John Roche, a 26 year-old advertising and promotional man, was working on a brochure for the Hollywoodland subdivision. He had drawn in proposed home sites, streets and equestrian trails. Behind them, on the side of Mt. Lee, he had penciled in HOLLYWOODLAND.
When Roche arrived at the office of one of the project’s developers, Harry Chandler, then publisher of the Los Angeles Times, with the drawing, Roche says Chandler liked the idea and wanted to know if Roche could actually put up a sign that could be seen all over Los Angeles.
To get a good perspective, Roche went to Wilshire Boulevard, then a little, partially asphalted road, to see if he could see the mountain from there. Roche took photographs and then made drawings of the Hollywood hill. Roche determined that each letter would have to be 50 feet high to be visible from that distance. When he reported to Chandler that such a sign would be seen that far, the project began.
“I made a sketch almost that big,” Roche explained in 1977. “I took it to Mr. Chandler’s office about 11 one night – he sat in his office until midnight every night and would talk to anybody – and he said, ‘Go ahead and do it.’ We didn’t have engineers or anything. We just put it up.”
As Roche had determined, each individual letter was made 50 feet high and 30 feet wide. They were put together on metal panels, each three-by-nine-feet, and painted white. The next step was attaching the panels to a framework that consisted of wires, scaffolding and telephone poles, which were brought up the steep hillside by mules.
Fifty to 100 laborers dug the holes with pick axes and shovels. An access road was completed so the enormous sheet metal letters could be brought in. The sign was built in about 60 days at a cost of $21,000, Roche said. “I think we built it faster than you could today (1984).” Roche recalled the sign being lighted, but insisted there were not lights on the original HOLLYWOODLAND. “That came sometime later,” he said.
Regardless, at some point the sign was illuminated at night by a series of 4,000 20-watt bulbs that were evenly spaced around the outside edge of each letter. This required the services of a caretaker, Albert Kothe, who lived in a cabin behind the first “L” and maintained the sign and its lighting system. To replace burned out bulbs, Kothe would climb onto the framework behind each letter, new light bulbs tucked in his shirt.
Since it was planned to promote real-estate, it was not designed to survive the sale of the last lot. Public sentiment, however, led to keeping the sign long after its commercial function was over.
During the sign’s heyday, many stars bought homes in Hollywoodland. The highest lot above the sign was sold to comedy producer Mack Sennett, but he never built there. Sennett did use the sign, though, to pose bathing beauties between the O’s for publicity stills.
There have been rumors of several suicides from the sign, especially during the Depression years, but the only acknowledged one occurred in 1932, when a young actress named Peg Entwistle, who came to Hollywood from the Broadway stage the previous year, jumped to her death from the H.
In 1939, the lights were extinguished when the maintenance fund was discontinued by the realtors. It’s rumored that all 4,000 bulbs were stolen.
In 1945 the development company that owned it donated the sign and the land surrounding it to the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission as an adjunct parcel to Griffith Park. The sign by this point had been neglected and vandalized for several years.
The “H” falls down after a storm (LAPL)
In January 1949 the H blew down in a windstorm, and nearby residents complained that the sign was a hazard and an eyesore. On January 6, the Recreation and Parks Commission announced that the sign would be torn down. They denied a request of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to alter and repair the sign to read Hollywood.
Several days later, Councilman Lloyd G. Davies (who represented Hollywood) introduced a resolution before the City Council that the Chamber of Commerce would repair the sign, at an estimated cost of $5,000, furnish bond to guarantee its maintenance and provide the city with proper liability coverage, if the parks commission would consent. Davies said his district was sensitive about becoming known as “ollywood.”
The parks commission later reversed its decision and allowed the first nine letters to be repaired and cut down the last four, to read HOLLYWOOD, therefore transforming it from a commercial display into a community one.
By the early 1960s, weather again had taken a strong toll on the sign’s condition. At a cost of $4,500, it was restored by the Kiwanis. At irregular intervals, several civic groups and the metal facing repainted, but little structural maintenance was done.
In 1973, the city once again threatened to tear down the sign. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and local radio station, KABC began a campaign to “Save the Sign,” hoping to solicit $15,000 from the public to finance structural repairs, replacement of fallen facing panels and a fresh coat of paint. That same year, the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board designated it a monument, thus giving it dignity but no money.
One woman sent the repair fund a large check with a note: “My little girl in 1925 learned to spell from the sign.” Another recalled a proposal of marriage made to her in 1944 up near the sign; she “foolishly” rejected it but wondered how many accepted proposals were made there. A third woman calculated that if “All the couples who parked up there sent in $1, there would be more than enough.” Fortunately the campaign was successful and the sign received a facelift and a reprieve — but it wouldn’t last for long.
On January 1, 1976, several young men, to mark the change in the marijuana law in California, masked the OOs with EEs made from white sheets. It read HOLLYWEED for a day.
Just a year later, in January 1977, the D became wobbly because of recent rainstorms and there was concern about how long it would stay in place. Up close, the sign creaked and rattled, even in a light wind. Its timbers were rotting. Sheet metal, rusted and corroded, fell from its face and loose securing cables dangled from some of the 50-foot high letters.
It was estimated that a replacement sign would go as high as $120,000. To generate interest in preserving the sign, a press conference was held at the base of the sign with invitations sent out accompanied by a snake bite kit.
The chamber hoped to use money raised in 1975 by KIIS radio station to do some cosmetic work on the landmark. “But the sign is in such bad shape it will do us no good to raise small amounts of money,” said Michael Sims, executive director of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. “We’re either going to lose it or take care of it. That’s going to be up to Hollywood. What we really need now is a guardian angel.”
A few months later, in April 1977, the sign was altered to read HOLYWOOD for Easter Sunrise service, viewable from the Hollywood Bowl.
The Hollywood sign in 1978 (LAPL)
The following winter, the final blow came as wind and heavy rainstorms once again took a toll on the sign. The top of the first O fell off, the Y buckled inward toward the hillside, and the last O collapsed completely.
A campaign was established once again to “Save the Sign.” Eventually, after several efforts to raise money was not sufficient, nine donors came forward, each choosing a letter, and contributed $27,777 each. The donors included: (H) newspaper publisher, Terrance Donnelly; (O) Italian movie producer, Giovanni Mazza; (L) Les Kelly (Kelly Blue Book); (L) Gene Autry; (Y) Hugh Heffner; (W) Andy Williams; (O) Warner Bros. Records; (O) Alice Cooper, in memory of Groucho Marx; (D) Dennis Lidtke.
The new letters were made of steel, and was unveiled on Hollywood’s 75th anniversary, November 14, 1978.
Caltech students pose for photo after altering the Hollywood sign (LAPL)
Over the following years unauthorized alterations have been made to the sign. In July 1987, it was changed to OLLYWOOD, (Ollie North) during the Iran-Contra hearings. During the Gulf War it read OIL WAR and in 1993, 20 members of UCLA’s Theta-Chi fraternity changed it to GO UCLA. They were charged with trespassing and this prompted the installation of a security system featuring video surveillance and motion detection. However, it didn’t prevent another institution of learning to alter it to CALTECH ten years later.
That brings us to the recent alteration of SAVE THE PEAK, to help raise money to purchase the 138-acre parcel to the west of the sign on Cahuenga Peak, preventing possible development that would permanently spoil the view. The land would become part of Griffith Park.
For more information on how to help, go to: http://www.savehollywoodland.org/