originally published August 5, 2013
In the vast history of advertising, very few brainchildren have endured. Nobody cuddles with a stuffed Energizer Bunny anymore, and I’d be surprised if there’s a soul remaining who still gets mileage from their California Raisins album. And for an advertising campaign to become a protected national landmark, that almost never happens.
The Hollywood Sign is perhaps iconic because it represents the place where people have pursued their dreams and chased their ambition, before landing in a defeated clump in some guy’s one-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando valley, shooting a soft-core porn that will never see the light of Cinemax. Hollywood is where the beautiful people drink their beautiful drinks at their beautiful parties, celebrating the fact that they spend all their days looking glamorous and glorious beneath the perpetual California sun.
And even though very little actual production takes place in Hollywood, and even though most movie stars prefer the quieter seclusion of Beverly Hills or Bel Air, that sign still tells the whole story in nine letters.
Developer H.J. Whitley had made use of a bold sign to advertise his Whitley Heights development between Highland and Vine. His buddy, Harry Chandler, who ran the L.A. Times and was to Los Angeles real estate what Mr. Potter was to Bedford Falls, took Whitley’s suggestion to do the same for his new Hollywoodland development. Hollywoodland was to be a snazzy but affordable neighborhood in the hills just north of Chinatown. The sign was to be big, bold, and most of all, temporary.
The Crescent Sign Company got the gig to slap thirteen massive letters on the side of the hill. Each letter was to be 30 feet wide and 50 feet high, studded with over 4000 light bulbs. No other billboard would have ever been so visible, not in 1923 nor today. The word ‘HOLLY’ would light up, then ‘WOOD’, then ‘LAND’, then the entire thing. Not bad for $21,000 (about a quarter-million in today’s money).
As avid readers of this site (both of you!) will remember, Hollywood was not where the movie business was born. Thomas Edison worked out of New York, and it was only when he and the other major manufacturers of one-reel tales formed the Motion Picture Patents Company that the independents moved out west to escape the tyranny of a stifling oligopoly.
Over the course of the 1910’s, the independents thrived, and pure logic drew the entire industry to Los Angeles. And why not? The weather is relatively predictable, and the landscape can vary from desert to mountainous to tropical jungle, all within a quick drive from the studio backlot. Where the Hollywoodland sign was meant to preside over the city for only as long as it took to sell off the parcels of land which it aimed to promote, it soon became a symbol for the industry that was to define 20th century entertainment.
And it lit up. How cool is that?
At one point in 1932, the sign took on the ultimate embodiment of glamorous dreams having fallen short when frustrated and heartbroken actress Peg Entwistle committed suicide by leaping from the sign’s ‘H’.
Then one night in the early 1940’s, the sign – which was falling into severe disrepair as the modest amount of actual weather that does strike Los Angeles began taking its toll – took a literal hit. Albert Kothe was the sign’s official caretaker, replacing the light bulbs and such. On this particular night, Albert had snarfed back a few too many drinks before getting behind the wheel. He drove off the road and took out the letter ‘H’. Albert survived, but his 1928 Model A was destroyed, as was the ‘H’. It was as though the neighborhood was suddenly meant to be pronounced with a jolly British accent.
It took until 1949 for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to team up with the city’s Parks Department to bring the sign back to life. Step one was to drop the last four letters and allow the sign to represent the dream factory of Hollywood instead of some 26-year-old housing development. Next came the divvying of responsibility. The bulb replacement job was handed over to the Chamber of Commerce, who felt it made more sense just to forego the light bulbs and let the sign stand on its own.
The 1949 fix-up did the trick for a little while, but by the 1970’s the sign was in even worse shape than before. Unprotected wood and sheet metal are not meant to handle the passage of a half-century of weather, wind and sun. In 1978 it was time once again for someone to step in and make this icon of L.A. attractive and tourist-snapshot-worthy.
But who could the city turn to? Would the Chamber of Commerce have to hammer out another extensive deal with the Parks department? Would someone swoop in and heroically save the day? Enter the Hollywoodland hero:
Yes, Alice Cooper.
He was the grease that eased the Chamber’s wheels into motion, as the mission to replace the letters with more permanent structures was underway. Cooper himself donated to replace the third ‘O’, which had actually fallen completely apart. He did so in memory of his good friend, Groucho Marx. Yes, that was a thing – the two hung out a lot during Groucho’s final years.
Eight more donors stepped up with $27,700 each to sponsor the new 45-foot steel letters, which were designed to last for generations. Giovanni Mazza, an Italian movie producer, chipped in for the first ‘O’, which had broken down and looked more like a lower-case ‘u’. Hugh Hefner ponied up for the ‘Y’. Singer Andy Williams threw in the money for the ‘W’ (which makes sense). Warner Brothers Records dropped the cash for the other ‘O’.
The original sign’s historic ‘H’ was restored in 2005 using material from the original sign. Artist Bill Mack hopes to tour America with the thing, then find a permanent home for it somewhere in Hollywood.
The sign has been altered on a few occasions – it’s protected by a fence and motion-sensing security so pranking the sign is not an easy feat, but it has been done. “HOLLYWEED” looked out over the city in January 1976 when a state law decriminalized marijuana. The Fox network got the sign legitimately changed to FOX for a short period in April 1987 when they launched nationwide. When Pope John Paul II visited L.A. later that year, one ‘L’ was covered so that the sign read ‘HOLYWOOD’.
Often imitated and unquestionably iconic, this one-time ad for a housing development (which still exists, and actually looks rather charming) is more prized by L.A. residents than the Capitol Records building and Hollywood Boulevard combined.
That’s a pretty good score for a big ol’ billboard.