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Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Hollywoodland Sign

I think I have taken the Hollywood Sign for granted. I guess seeing the giant white letters staggered across a Los Angeles mountaintop in movies and on TV over the course of my entire life, it was as much a part of my mind's landscape as the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower.

I don't know what triggered my search for information about the sign on the internet - probably a 6th-generation gully-leap from researching my Burt Lancaster man-crush, or the fact that a head in a bag had been found near the sign. Most likely the first, but I will claim the latter. Whatever the reason, I wound up finding a photo of the famous LA landmark falling to pieces. Probably a still photo from the movie "Earthquake", I thought. However, further research determined that this was not the case. Apparently, in the mid-to-late 1970's, the sign was in such disrepair that the city contemplated tearing the eyesore down for good.

Ah, it must have been a simpler time when a group of miserly curmudgeons would actually contemplate tearing down a big fancy sign so readily identified with their city. It would be like tearing down the Sands Hotel in Vegas, rich with all its Rat-Pack history, in the name of short term progress. That would never happen. We care too much about history...

Once, the sign sat high on the hill as an advertisement for a real-estate development called "Hollywoodland" and was lit by 40,000 lightbulbs. A caretaker was even hired to maintain the sign - mostly replacing bulbs.

The Hollywoodland sign - fancy house.

Problems keeping the sign in good repair sprung up even in the early days. Once, the "H" fell down - some accounts have it being blown down by the wind, others have it being knocked down by the caretaker's car. I like to think it was the caretaker's car, preferably driven by an intoxicated caretaker.


Anyhow, in the late 70's, Hugh Hefner launched a campaign to raise funds for the sign's restoration. Hugh himself threw in a couple hundred thousand in skin-cash, Alice Cooper funded the "O", in an homage to Groucho Marx - and Paul Williams paid for the restoration of the "W".

By the time I made my first pilgrimage to Hollywood in 1979, to interview Buster Keaton's widow and have one of the worst sandwiches of my life, the sign was already restored and it welcomed me to the city, as it had countless others over its long history. Seeing it in the distance gave me a visceral thrill. I was in the land of cool - the center of the motion picture universe. I half-expected to see Bob Hope sauntering down the street, cracking wise to passersby.

I can't imagine a Hollywood without the giant sign watching over the town reminding us of its history, silently guarding its secrets. Maybe someday someone will design a newer, hipper sign and they will tear the iconic landmark down and replace it with the snazzier version. But that would be crazy. That would be like tearing down Yankee Stadium to put in a modernized ballpark - crazy.


  1. Enjoyed the short read of this. Thanks for taking the time to research, write and post.

  2. " of the worst sandwiches of my life".....
    Life is hard.