The Hollywood Sign on the slopes of Mount Lee in Los Angeles is one of the most recognizable and photographed landmarks in the world. Its nine white letters have come to symbolize all that glitters, metaphorically representing ambition, glamour and dreams of success: H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D.
In 1923, the first sign was erected here, but it was not much like the one so well known today. It was a huge, illuminated advertisement for an upscale real estate development called "Hollywoodland.'' The original sign cost $21,000 and included thirteen 50-foot high letters that were painted white. Mule teams and tractors were used to haul the sign's 3' x 9' panels up Mount Lee. They were attached to frames made of pipe, wire, and telephone poles. Some 4,000 20-watt light bulbs were installed on the letters at intervals of eight inches. When the sign was finally lit, the result was dazzling, attracting attention and tourists from far beyond Southern California.
The developers intended to take the sign down after a year. But by then, it had become so popular as a glamorous symbol for Hollywood that city officials persuaded the owner, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, to let it remain. Without proper maintenance, however, the sign fell into disrepair during the Great Depression. In 1932, a struggling 24-year-old actress named Peg Entwhistle committed suicide by leaping from the top of the letter H. By the mid-1940s, neighborhood residents wanted the sign removed.
But the City of Los Angeles had other plans for the Hollywoodland billboard and its surrounding 450 acres. They purchased the land for expansion of Griffith Park. In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce contracted to repair and rebuild the sign, removing the letters "L-A-N-D'' so that it spelled "Hollywood.'' It was also stripped of its light bulbs as a cost-cutting measure.
Keeping the Hollywood Sign maintained over the next half century turned out to be a challenge. Termites infested the wood and toppled the "O.'' Arsonists set the bottom of one "L'' on fire. Vandals altered the sign's letters to read "Hollyweed'' in support of marijuana legalization and then "Holywood'' when Pope John Paul II visited the city. At one point, Hugh Hefner stepped in to raise funds for a $250,000 makeover of the sign, supported by movie celebrities ranging from Alice Cooper to Andy Williams and Gene Autry, among others.
The current sign, dating from 1978 and classified as an Historic Monument, is anchored by 194 tons of concrete. It sports a steel frame and corrugated baked enamel letters. The letters are four stories high, 450-feet long and weigh 480,000 pounds. It was completed in time to celebrate Hollywood's 75th Anniversary and was specially illuminated for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Today, walking into the restricted area around the sign is a trespassing violation. To ensure that the sign and its hillside site are preserved for the enjoyment of future generations, the Hollywood Sign Trust was established in 1978. As part of its mission, the Trust has installed a high-tech security system in concert with city officials, police and fire authorities, park rangers, and the Department of Homeland Security. The security system includes a tall perimeter fence with razor wire, 24-hour electronic surveillance, monitoring microphones and bullhorns, web cameras, motion sensors and patrols by city police and park ranger helicopters.
For visitors, the closest viewing points are in Hollywood Hills, at the end of Beachwood Canyon Drive or just above the Hollywood Reservoir, also known as Lake Hollywood. The latter can be a bit tricky to find. Access is via the Barham Boulevard Exit on the 101 freeway. Parking can be found on adjacent roads, but be sure not to block the driveways of local residents.
The Hollywood Sign is so prominent that it can also be seen clearly from many locations south of Mount Lee. Some of the best spots for taking photographs are the intersections at Hollywood & Highland, Hollywood & Gower, and Gower & Franklin Avenue. The view of the sign from Griffith Park Observatory is also excellent. Anyone interested in more information about the sign or contributing to its preservation can contact the Hollywood Sign Trust at P.O. Box 48361, Los Angeles, California 90048-9998.
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