There likely isn't a soul on the planet cannot identify the gigantic HOLLYWOOD sign sitting atop a minuscule mountain few people know the name of. For a couple of generations, that sign has best symbolized the flash and allure, the glitter and glamour of both a small town and a ginormous industry. Its history is fairly well known to those of us who are "Hollywood Brats." To those outside the brat brigade, that story might seem as improbable as any film the MGM or the Warner Brothers ever produced. And, in matter of fact, that sign - whose history goes back 95 years, originally had next to nothing to do with the then nascent movie industry.
Way back in 1923, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler and a couple of developers named Woodruff and Schults came up with he idea of erecting a larger-than-life advertisement for a new upscale housing development they were planning to build in the hills above Hollywood. Their development would be called "Hollywoodland." Their original intent was to erect a 43-foot high sign built of telephone poles, thin metal, wood, wire, and pipes and lit with 4,000 20-watt bulbs spaced 8 inches apart. Chandler and his investors thought the sign would stand for no longer than 18 months. - at which time, they assumed, construction would be complete and a score of well-heeled movie stars and executives would have begun moving into their new residential palaces. The sign wound up costing $21,000.00 (about $290,000.00 in today's dollars). Of course, in order to put up the sign they first had to build a pathway to the top of what would officially be named "Mt. Lee." Chandler et al never got further than building a primitive road. In 1926, the land with the enormous sign - which was already showing a bit of wear and tear - came into the hands of Mack Sennett, the enormously successful movie producer and owner of the Keystone studios.
The actual "Hollywoodland" sign made its way back into the news in a big way on September 16, 1932, when a distraught 23-year old Welsh-born stage actress named Peg Entwistle committed suicide by climbing up to the top of the "H" and then leaping to her death. Entwistle, who had appeared on Broadway in the late 1920's was known both for her talent and her good flapper-esque looks. Film immortal Bette Davis often proclaimed that Peg was the reason she decided to be an actress after witnessing one of her stage performances. “I had to be an actress, exactly like Peg Entwistle,” explained Davis. Peg was often cast in comedies as an attractive, good hearted ingénue, but her desire was to play more challenging roles. Arriving in Hollywood in early 1931, Entwistle made the rounds of studios with little success. It is a tale that thousands of wannnabe film stars can tell. Indeed, there is an old Hollywood saying that "The first requirement for becoming a star isn't talent, good looks or great luck; it's the ability to withstand repeated rejection." Apparently, Peg lacked that ability. Just about the time Peg had hit rock bottom, she scored a feature part in an RKO picture called Thirteen Women, starring Irene Dunne, Ricardo Cortez (Jacob Stein) Myrna Loy, Florence Eldridge (the wife of actor Frederic March) and Jill Esmond (who had recently married Laurence Olivier). Peg was dismayed to learn that her 12 of her 16 minutes of screen time had been left on the cutting-room floor. And so, she committed suicide by jumping from atop the sign. Hikers found her body at the base of the sign along with a note which read "I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” Thirteen Women opened the day after her body was discovered. Today, 86 years later, all Peg is remembered for is her death, not her talent.
One direct result of Peg's suicide was that the ladder which long stood on the sign's backside (permitting workers to ascend in order to effect repairs) was taken away. But for years thereafter, picnickers would go to the base of the sign, spread out their blankets and dine . . . while waiting to see if perhaps the ghost of Peg Entwistle would be joining them for a nosh.
Maintenance of the iconic sign fell by the wayside during the Great Depression, and by the mid-1940s, the sign was looking pretty sad. The “H” fell down—legend has it the sign's caretaker drunkenly plowed into it with his car—and the other letters were deteriorating. Though the L.A. Recreation and Parks Commission wanted it completely torn down, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce had different ideas. They offered to remove the “LAND,” then restore the remaining nine letters to promote the town. This they did in 1949 . . . the year of my birth. In the mid 1970s I lived within hiking distance of the sign on Argyle, several blocks above Hollywood Blvd. By that time the Hollywood sign was looking every inch of its 50-plus years. An “O” had toppled down the hill, an “L” had been set on fire, and the other letters were falling apart. Hugh Hefner came to the rescue, holding a benefit gala where celebrities were able to “purchase” the new letters. Hefner himself bought the “Y,” Alice Cooper bought an “O” in honor of Groucho Marx, and Andy Williams sponsored the “W.” Other donors included Gene Autry, Warner Bros. Records, and Les Kelley of Kelley Blue Book.
In the 1940s, Howard Hughes bought 138 acres of land surrounding the sign, intending to build a compound for himself and then-girlfriend Ginger Rogers. Plans fell through after Rogers broke up with him, and the Hughes estate did nothing with the property for decades. When they finally sold it for $1.7 million in 2002, developers announced a plan to divide the estate into five luxury home sites. The Trust for Public Land raised money to purchase it from the developers for $12.5 million in 2010. The sign’s previous rescuer, Hugh Hefner, chipped in $900,000. The sign's letters have been altered a couple of times over the years:
- In 1976, it was changed to “Hollyweed” to celebrate changes to marijuana laws.
- It read "Holywood" when the Pope visited in 1987.
- It was briefly Ollywood during the Oliver North Iran-Contra hearings.
- It’s been used to root for football teams, including “Go Navy” in 1983 and “GO UCLA” for the 1993 UCLA-USC game.
- It even helped market a movie when animated character Holli Would was perched on top of the "D" to promote the film Cool World (1992).
5 years ago, Sherwin-Williams freshened up each letter by removing all of the previous paint, then applying 105 gallons of primer and 255 gallons of exterior acrylic latex paint in the color “High Reflective White.”
Throughout its 90-year history, the Hollywood(land) sign has been a symbol not only of a town which makes magic come true; it has served as an iconic totem for dreams and nightmares, music and mystery, dreams and delights.
May Harry Chandler's 18-month wonder stand watch over the movie capital for another 90 years . . .
Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone