The Hollywood sign

By the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, the area of Hollywood, California had grown into more than just a city, it had become the center for all things entertainment, especially the cinematic and radio industries. Hollywood was becoming more than just a suburb of Los Angeles; it was coming to be recognized as a lifestyle, representing the glamour and romance of the movies and their stars and starlets, their heroes and heroines. Americans were flocking to the movie palaces to see actors such as Erol Flynn soar across the screen as a swashbuckling pirate and swoon as America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, batted her eyes at the audience through the lens; Housewives and teens huddled around newspaper stands and checkout lanes to read about the latest adventures of society girl, Talulah Bankhead or find out who Cary Grant was dating now. Americans could simply not get enough of the photos of handsome gentlemen in tuxes and beautiful, graceful women in long flowing dresses as they walked the red carpet at the newest film premiere.

All of this equated to dollars and those dollars were flowing into the Cuhenga valley, nestled in the midst of the Santa Monica mountains. Some time during the summer of 1923, The Hollywood Real Estate Development chose the location for a new housing subdivision. They called it Hollywoodland. To market this new piece of paradise, the developers came up with a plan to erect a sign above Hollywood, on what would later be renamed Mount Lee, in honor of one of the pioneers of Hollywood. The plan was for the sign to be temporary and remain for less than two years. It cost an estimated $21,000 to build (a substantial fortune for the time). The original sign consisted of 3’x9’ tall, 30 feet wide metal squares, rigged together by a frame of scaffolding, pipes, wires, and telephone poles. The original sign also contained 4,000 20-watt bulbs that would blink “Holly”, “Wood”, “Land”. The sign lit up Mt. Lee until 1949, when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce contracted with the City of Los Angeles to provide maintenance and care of the sign. The City of Los Angeles determined the cost to maintain the lighting was too great and removed the lights. They also removed “land” from the sign, as a cost saver and so that it would represent the whole valley and not just the housing development.

In the 1960’s, the film industry began moving to the San Fernando Valley, taking with it a mass exodus of celebrities and people who worked in the industry. The once glamorous Hollywood Boulevard, with its glittering movie palaces, its elegant fine dining restaurants, and fashionable boutiques, shops and department stores closed its doors only to re-open as massage parlors, porn shows, strip clubs, and adult bookstores. Crime increased and more people left the once prestigious center of entertainment. As the area slowly deteriorated, so did the Hollywood sign. Throughout the 1970’s, the sign was the target of multiple pranksters and vandalism – the top of the D fell over and one of the O’s broke loose and tumbled down Mt. Lee, an arsonist set fire to the second L and the letters were altered to spell out “Hollyweed”. In 1973, in an attempt to save the sign, it was designated a local cultural landmark, and in 1977, Fleetwood Mac offered to host a concert to raise money for the repair and upkeep of the sign, but the citizens refused the offer. Hugh Hefner finally stepped up with a fundraiser. At the Playboy Mansion, he hosted an auction where celebrities could “buy” a letter to help with the restoration. Among the auction winners were Alice Cooper, who bought an O in honor of Groucho Marx, Gene Autry sponsored an L and Andy Williams bought the W. In 1978, the old sign was scrapped, and a new sign was erected 3 months later. The restoration didn’t just save a sign, it signaled a re-birth of Hollywood into a tourist attraction.

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