Oct. 28, 2002
-- The Hollywood Sign stands four stories high, each letter running 30 feet at its base along the rugged terrain of the Hollywood Hills. Up close, it's massive, but to those who have been around since its birth, something is missing. Actually, four somethings. Following the familiar HOLLYWOOD that still greets pilots and tourists arriving in Los Angeles today, there once stood more letters: L-A-N-D.
For Morning Edition
, Special Correspondent Renée Montagne
investigates the origins of the sign. Since its construction, the sign put up by the Hollywoodland Real Estate Group may have undergone a small amount of cosmetic surgery, but then again, what in L.A. hasn't? After all, doesn't the most famous billboard of all time deserve a little pampering?
In 1923, Los Angeles was in the midst of expansion, and the Hills beckoned those set on sniffing out opportunities to make a mint in the real estate game. Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times
, had involved himself in other real estate schemes previously. "Chandler and his investors owned most of the San Fernando Valley," says David Wallace, author of the books Lost Hollywood
. "They just grabbed desert land because they knew the minute that water came through with the weather in the Valley it would become a garden!"
Sensing a similar opportunity in the Hills, Chandler teamed up with movie director Mack Sennett, who oversaw the investment company that did the development.
To tune everyone else in to the same signal they were picking up, Chandler had a baker's dozen worth of letters, each standing 50 feet tall, erected in the Hills. The HOLLYWOODLAND sign spelled out an invitation to up-and-comers and wishful thinkers alike that was hard to ignore. To enhance the effect, the sign was lit by 4,000 light bulbs; a nearby cabin housed a maintenance man whose sole job was changing them.
If America was the land of opportunity, then Hollywood was the distillation of America's desires, the place where you could go to live out your fantasy. Only, at some point reality had to come crashing down. The sign stood proudly, and without incident, over the land of celluloid and sunshine until 1932, when a poetically ironic episode summed up the frustrations of living in a town where even when things are in focus, they're still two-dimensional.
"There was a young actress named Peg Entwistle who came out here in the late '20s to make a career," says Wallace. "She, like so many dreamers... didn't really get anywhere." Entwistle, who had acted on the New York stage before moving to California, had a couple of movie roles under her belt but hadn't yet found stardom.
"She decided she'd failed," Wallace says. "She was very dejected and one day in 1932 she came up to the Hollywood Sign, found a maintenance ladder by the 'H,' climbed up to the top and presumably took one last look over this city that she had failed to conquer, and jumped."
No longer was the sign merely a backdrop or scenery. Entwistle's suicide linked inseparably the very name of the town to failed dreams and thrust the paradox of HOLLYWOOD into the spotlight. The sign came to embody the metaphor of Hollywood as the land of broken dreams.
Hollywoodland's real estate development experienced a slide in the 1930s due to another significant dive -- the 1929 stock market crash. The ensuing Great Depression wrecked the economy and the housing marked tumbled along with it. By the 1940s, no longer able to pay someone to maintain the sign, the developers abandoned it.
The sign was left derelict until 1949, when the 'H' toppled in the wind. According to Wallace, the damage made people take notice. "It was at that time that the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in," he says. "[They] offered to remove the last four letters of the sign and repair the rest."
But sustained maintenance proved a somewhat trying task. As Hollywood itself started going to seed in the 1960s, the sign once again fell into disrepair. The Hollywood Kiwanis Club raised enough money to fix the damage, but soon after using the last of the funds to restore the 'D,' one of the 'O's crashed down the hill.
Fortunately, help was on the way. Hugh Hefner organized and hosted a party at the Playboy Mansion at which letters for a new sign would be sold at nearly $28,000 a pop. The adopt-a-letter campaign worked, and aided by Gene Autry (who bought an 'L') and rocker Alice Cooper ('O'), among others, Hefner ('Y') raised enough to prop those letters back up where they belonged.
And while Hollywood itself may forever change and adapt with the trends that circulate around it, the sign can look forward to a long and happy life, complete with the occasional facelift.
Listen to Patt Morrison's Morning Edition
commentary on the decision not to allow black spots on the Hollywood Sign
to promote Disney's film, 101 Dalmatians
. Nov. 29, 1996.
Read about another Hollywood legend in the Present at the Creation
series: Rita Hayworth
Search for more NPR reports on Hollywood
Visit the official Hollywood Sign
Web site to learn about the history of the landmark.
Read a biography of film director and Hollywoodland developer Mack Sennett
Learn more about Peg Entwistle
, the dejected young actress who jumped to her death from the 'H' in the Hollywood Sign in 1932.