THE Hollywood sign is one of America’s most iconic landmarks — but it started out in 1923 as a temporary billboard for a mountaintop real estate development called Hollywoodland.
“They didn’t consider it a permanent structure,’’ film historian Leonard Maltin told the New York Post.
“It was only going to be up for a year and a half — as long as it took to sell all the plots of land and build homes.’’
The original sign — 15-metre-tall letters constructed of wood and sheet metal high atop Mount Lee — contained thousands of light bulbs that flashed on and off: “HOLLY WOOD LAND”.
By 1932 it had become so identified with the movie industry that an unsuccessful and despondent starlet named Peg Entwistle climbed to the top of the H and leapt to her death.
Eventually, the sign began succumbing to neglect — a truck knocked down the H in 1940.
There was talk about tearing down what was becoming an eyesore, but there was such a public outcry that the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce agreed to pay for repairing the sign — provided the LAND part was removed and they didn’t have to replace all those light bulbs. (The sign has long since been illuminated by spotlights at night.)
By 1977, it was clear the deteriorating sign needed to be completely replaced. Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, led a campaign in which nine donors — including singer Alice Cooper, cowboy actor Gene Autry and Hefner himself — donated $US27,777.77 apiece for new steel letters (13 instead of 15 metres high) set on a concrete foundation that sprawls the length of two football fields.
“Hugh Hefner has spent his life in love with Hollywood,’’ Mr Maltin said. “He came to the rescue again a few years ago when they needed to raise money to save the land around the sign [from development].’’
Today, the City of Los Angeles Parks Department maintains strict security — including barbed wire barriers — around the sign to keep out vandals, drunken revellers and would-be suicides. Even so, in 2012, a deranged man managed to leave his boyfriend’s decapitated head in a plastic bag on a hiking trail below the sign.
Mr Maltin says that lately homeowners in neighbouring Beachwood Canyon have been complaining about “an epidemic of small Hollywood tour vans that can snake in and out of the narrow streets. People are fed up with visitors, even well-intentioned ones”.
Mr Maltin says the closest he’s ever gotten to the sign was during one of his very early assignments as a correspondent for Entertainment Tonight’ in the 1980s, “standing on a very scary piece of curbing below the sign.’’
He says the best place to see the Hollywood sign — and to take a selfie with it in the background — is on the elevated walkway of the Hollywood and Highland shopping centre. “There’s a spot where you can get a perfect shot of the Hollywood sign over your shoulder on a non-muggy day,’’ he says.
Incredibly, you can even buy a piece of the original Hollywoodland sign from 1923, Mr Maltin reveals.
“A graphic artist named Bill Mack bought the original sign — [which was] put in a warehouse when it was replaced,’’ Mr Maltin says. “He creates new artwork with pieces of it.’’
The first time Mr Maltin saw the sign?
“I was 17 or 18 years old,’’ says the New Jersey native. “It was like flying over the Statue of Liberty on a plane ride into New York. It confirms you’re really here.’’
This article originally appeared in the New York Post and was reproduced with permission.