A Hollywood Icon Turns 100
By Anthea Gerrie
When we jumped at the chance to marry overlooking the Hollywood sign back in the day, our Angeleno guests thought we were eccentric. Had we really chosen our inconvenient venue—a friend’s tiny cottage on a narrow lane buried within the neighborhood’s most convoluted hills and canyons—just because of the view from the rickety deck?
Yes, we had. We starstruck British expats were now proud Angelenos ourselves, at least for the next decade, and to us, the sign was a symbol of the promised land to which we had made our personal gold rush. Though back then, it was a neglected, almost unloved relic of cinema’s golden age. It had only recently escaped the wrecking ball thanks to a massive fundraising effort by Hugh Hefner, Alice Cooper, and other celebs who felt it deserved to be preserved for posterity.
Fast-forward forty years, and what started as nothing more ambitious than a temporary property billboard is finally getting the attention it deserves. The Hollywood landmark, now an icon for LA itself, is celebrating its centenary and moving from its hidden status as the province of serious hikers and climbers to a new era of accessibility soon to be endowed with a purpose-built visitors’ center to tell its incredible story.
The centenary marks a sea change, not just in the move from dilapidation to restoration with 250 gallons of white paint every decade, but in attitude. In 1932, the sign became a symbol of industry shame as well as fame when actress Peg Entwhistle, propelled by professional disappointment, leaped forty feet to her death from atop the H.
From that time, the danger of the precarious location led to a move to deter visitors, but now they are actively welcomed to get up close and personal with the sign: tour leaders shepherd walkers around the base and supervise the tougher hikes up to the pinnacle behind the giant letters. Meanwhile, the history of the sign will be writ large in a new exhibit at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which boasts a view of the sign from its panoramic rooftop terrace. “It’s such a symbol of how the city developed along with the movie industry itself,” says curator Dara Jaffe.
Indeed, when it went up unannounced one hundred years ago, the illuminated billboard was a rare spectacle in an era that predated the neon signs of Las Vegas by twenty years. The string of 43-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide letters was programmed to switch on in progression, spelling out “HOLLY…WOOD…LAND” in electric lights as dusk fell over La-La Land.
The final syllable was still standing when the city took over responsibility for the sign, which fell into dereliction after the property company that put it up to promote their suburban homes went under in the Depression. But the “LAND” was removed five years later by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce when they saw an opportunity for neighborhood branding in the sign that had lost its fateful H by then. They restored the H in a deal that reduced maintenance by killing the lightbulbs and shortening the letter count. It was far from a permanent solution. By the time my other half and I arrived in LA—attracted by the superficial glamour of the Hollywood lifestyle we had read about as children in the pages of Photoplay—the sign was becoming derelict again, with part of the D and one of the O’s falling down a mountain and a deliberately set fire burning one of the L’s.
"Attracted by the superficial glamour of the Hollywood lifestyle."
Luckily for our future wedding ambitions, several celebrities agreed to stump up nearly $28,000 apiece to replace the half-century-old ruin, whose surviving letters were auctioned off for $35,000 each, at a total cost of $250,000. They included Alice Cooper, who dedicated one of the O’s to his old pal Groucho Marx; Andy Williams, who sponsored the new W; and performing cowboy Gene Autry, who pledged allegiance to one of the L’s. It’s not recorded whether locals were traumatized by the sight of hills devoid of their neighborhood landmark for three months before a bigger, better, much more stable sign was installed in 1978.
Between then and now, celebrity stunts rather than criminal acts and natural disasters (happily, no more recorded suicides) have made headlines around the sign. Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh was famously photographed flying over it in 1998, and a mountain lion prowling beneath the giant letters was captured by a photographer for National Geographic in 2013. It seems hardly surprising in a city that has led the boom in marijuana sales that it has twice been vandalized to read “Hollyweed,” marking the two phases of changes in legislation, while its brief iteration as “Holywood” was intended as an homage to Pope John Paul II making a rare visit to the City of Angels, with the second L restored to its proper prominence after he left town.
Now an institution regularly inspected, shored up, and repainted, the Hollywood sign has its own trust planning a visitors’ center, though no date has yet been announced for breaking ground. But you don’t need a ticket—only a decent GPS—to find Innsdale Drive, from where an easy trail leads around the Lake Hollywood reservoir into the old Hollywoodland estate, offering excellent close-up views of the sign from beneath the base. While tour guides are unnecessary, they are a great source of Hollywood lore and will take you into the estate and past some of the fine homes the sign was put up to promote, ensuring you don’t miss the unmarked entry back onto the trail.
In November, a new exhibit bearing the name of the original billboard—Hollywoodland—will open at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Yet although the sign will be documented along with other landmarks from LA’s golden age, the show’s title is a misnomer. The focus of the exhibit is actually the Jewish refugee founders of the movie industry who were marginalized by society one hundred years ago, despite the prosperity they brought to their adopted home, and then overlooked again by the museum, which failed to pay them tribute when it opened in 2021. How fitting—they were the stars of the show who never got invited to the premiere, like the sign that symbolized their success was left to languish unloved for half a century. Now both the men and the giant letters that have come to represent all they achieved will get their full due in what has been declared the first and only permanent exhibition in the museum, as an apology for the original unjust exclusion.
Hollywoodland is finally a show that will run and run.
— V —
Visit AcademyMuseum.org to learn more or plan a visit to the Hollywoodland exhibit beginning in November 2023.