Jon de Vos – So right in her diamond and frills
April 30, 2010
The “Hollywood” sign that sits on Cahuenga Peak and looks out over the San Fernando Valley has been rescued. Again.
The famous sign, regarded around the world as the most recognized of all American icons, was erected in 1923. The letters were 50 feet tall by 30 feet wide and lit by 4,000 20-watt bulbs. The sign originally read, “Hollywoodland” and was built by Harry Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, to advertise his upscale real estate development. To replace burnt-out bulbs and keep the sign in good repair, a caretaker lived in a small cabin behind one of the “L’s.”
An odd footnote to the sign occurred in 1932 when a 24-year-old aspiring starlet, Peg Entwistle, heard some negative reviews of her first (and only) movie, Thirteen Women, climbed to the top of the ‘H’ and jumped to her death.
The Great Depression killed Chandler’s dream as well and the sign fell on hard times, literally. In 1940, Howard Hughes bought the 138 acres adjacent to the sign, intending to build a mansion for girlfriend d’jour, Ginger Rogers, but their relationship floundered, and the property languished. Abandoned and neglected for two decades, (the sign, not Ginger Rogers) the ‘H’ collapsed during a windstorm In 1949. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce repaired the sign, removing the last four letters and the sight began to entrench itself into the American consciousness.
But still, it sat again, abandoned and neglected for more than two decades until 1973 when its growing decay again raised alarms. KABC, Los Angeles Talk Radio threatened, ‘Today the Sign, Tomorrow Grauman’s!’ A token amount was raised and used only to patch and reinforce the nine letters, mainly to prevent their demolition by LA city officials. But the sign’s notoriety, alongside its deterioration, continued to grow and that same year the sign was officially designated the City of Los Angeles’ historic landmark # 111, as if decrepitude qualified.
The sign has been used for pranks. During the Pope’s visit it read HOLYWOOD and on January 1, 1976, California relaxed its marijuana laws and activists reworked the sign to read, HOLLYWEED but despite the growing renown, the sign’s condition continued to worsen.
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By 1978, the third ‘O’ had fallen, the top of the ‘D’ had toppled and the first ‘L’ was badly burned. What to do but throw a party at the Playboy Mansion? Like you might expect at Hef’s house, there were some pretty strange bedfellows. Alice Cooper, Gene Autry, Hugh Hefner and Andy Williams bought and auctioned off the sign refurbishment at $28,000 per letter. The party was a smashing success and the money paid to totally rebuild the sign with 200 tons of new concrete and glistening, newly-painted steel letters, towering above Los Angeles.
A new threat reared its head in 2002 when Howard Hughes’ estate sold the property to a group of Chicago investors who put the property on the market in 2008 for $22 million, intending to break it into four estates for the ultra-wealthy. Real estate, being what it is, even in Hollywood, there were no buyers and this year a nonprofit land-conservation group was given the chance to buy the land for $12.5 million. Hollywood icons like Tom Hands and Steven Spielberg solicited donations across the land but as the April 30 deadline neared, the group was nearly $1 million short. Once again the sign was rescued by Hugh Hefner who wrote the final check for $900,000 ensuring the property would be incorporated forever into Los Angeles’ Griffith Park.
The best place to see the sign is to go north on Gower Street above Sunset Boulevard. The sign is directly in front of you. Keep going north onto Beachwood Drive where you can get to within a hundred yards of the sign and some great photo backdrops for aspiring movie stars. There’s even a locked fence around the sign as if to prevent bad actresses from plummeting from the height of their careers.
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