Sign of the Times: Hollywood’s Landmark Hits the Century Mark

Published: Jan 21, 2023  |  

Multi-award winning journalist, author and screenplay writer

The landmark Hollywood sign, which towers above Los Angeles as a symbol of hope and ambition for millions of starry-eyed hopefuls, is now one hundred years old.

Creation of an icon

Like so many other great icons in Tinseltown, it’s had a couple of facelifts, but is still going strong. In celebration of the special anniversary, here’s a look at the history of the globally recognised structure.

The sign originally read “Hollywoodland” and was built to advertise a real estate development of that name launching in 1923. Each of the letters was 30 feet wide and 43 feet tall and built from metal squares rigged together by scaffolding pipes and wires. Paying the $21,000 bill (equivalent to $330,000 today) for construction was Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler in 1923, who saw the sign as both a marketing billboard for his new housing venture and a marquee for his beloved city beneath.

From the start, it represented not just a destination but an aspiration, as the world fell in love with movies and many flocked to Hollywood to try and make it big. 

Losing the dream

But not everyone could achieve their dream of stardom, and the sign became the scene of a tragedy in 1932 when depressed actress Peg Entwistle climbed to the top of the H via a workman’s ladder and jumped off the top of it to her death. She had enjoyed some success on the Broadway stage and relocated to Hollywood with dreams of hitting it big in the movies. She moved in with her uncle on Beachwood Drive, in the shadow of the sign which she saw as a beacon of hope. But later, after auditions and roles failed to materialize, the sign she gazed upon every day came to represent a symbol of failure. A day after her death, a letter arrived for Peg offering her a role—ironically it was as a woman driven to suicide.

In 1933 the Hollywoodland real estate business went bust, and the famous landmark became neglected. Wear and tear took their toll and so eventually did the weather… In 1944 the H was blown away by high winds and for the next few years the sign read “Ollywoodland.” Some local residents declared it an eyesore and wanted the thing demolished. 

But the city of Los Angeles saw it as a cultural icon and decided to make the sign a civic landmark. The council bought it for just one dollar, gave the thing a paint job and in 1949 removed the “land” part so the sign would now read simply “Hollywood.”

And there it remained—owned but not truly loved. Missing regular maintenance, the sign was damaged by the elements as the years went by. During the 60’s and 70’s it looked rusted, dilapidated and sad. 

Newsworthy and notable

Then in 1973 it hit the news quite often—first when an arsonist attacked it and damaged it, but he failed to finish off the old landmark. Next, when protestors wanting looser marijuana laws, climbed up to the sign and rearranged the letters in a prank so that it suddenly read “Hollyweed.”

Also in 1973, a decision was made to make the sign an official heritage site at a special ceremony hosted by another grand old lady of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard star Gloria Swanson. However the fog was so thick that day that it covered the sign and the event was ruined.

Early in 1978, the worst lightning storm in California history seriously damaged almost every letter in the sign, breaking beams, twisting metal and ripping out wires, prompting the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to launch a “Save the Sign” campaign, looking to rebuild the landmark by selling each letter for $27,777 to reach their $250,000 goal. Celebrities stepped up to help. Rocker Alice Cooper donated $27,777 to fix the first O, singer Andy Williams chipped in the same to remodel the W and screen cowboy Gene Autry matched the amount for the L.  Buyers were quickly found for the other letters.

Among them was Playboy founder Hugh Hefner—he took the H, of course—who threw a fundraising party at his Playboy mansion which earned $45,000 to secure extra funds for the restoration. He also loaned his helicopter to aid in the installation of a steel frame to prop up the refreshed letters. Hefner said: “Hollywood is the city of dreams and the Hollywood sign represents those dreams.”

Long live the Hollywood sign!

The famous structure has often been used in movies and TV shows as an establishing shot for Los Angeles. And the sign has been shown getting destroyed in many disaster movies, including Earthquake, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, San Andreas and Sharknado.

But there have been no more suicides from, or attacks on, the sign in recent years, as it is now a restricted area monitored 24/7 by the police. There are no entry signs around it, which is equipped with sensors to protect against intruders or harm.

Plans are afoot to build a visitor center close by to provide a richer experience for tourists and locals and to tell the story of the landmark.

So, happy 100th birthday to the Hollywood sign!—which still stands proudly, having become one of the most recognizable and iconic sights in the world.

Filed under:

Tags mentioned: