L.A’s Greatest Landmarks: The Hollywood Sign

Photo by Vlasta Juricek, 2005

Perhaps the most recognizable string of letters in the world. A Real Estate Advertising gimmick turned into a Monument and saved by Hugh Hefner, not once but twice. What more fitting tribute to Tinseltown could you ask for? I love The Hollywood Sign.

On Friday the Thirteenth, July 1923, they dedicated The Sign. Thomas Fisk Goff, owner of the Crescent Sign Company, designed it at the behest of real estate developers Woodruff and Shoults. The whole crackpot scheme was the brainchild of H.J Whitley and Harry Chandler, owner of the L.A. Times.

I can almost picture Chandler, with a wild gleam in his eye, exclaiming, “Why, that’s just crazy enough to work!”

The original letters originally read “Hollywoodland,” were five feet taller than the current structure, and festooned with around 4000 light bulbs, plus a giant blinking dot below, 35 foot in diameter, to  “catch the eye.” Because thirteen, fifty foot tall, white, blinking letters are far too subtle on their own.

They put it there to sell land in the hills. And when they were done, they just left it. Bastards! That’s so “ungreen.” Just leaving your garbage on the hill! What are you thinking!

I kid, of course, I love the thing, but that’s kinda what happened. It was never meant to be permanent, at all, let alone to stand up to decades of weather. And I’m sure many, many people felt that way about it as it started to deteriorate over the years. In the early Forties, the signs official caretaker got drunk, drove into the “H” and destroyed it. By 1949 the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the City of L.A. parks Department had come to a deal to repair the sign. The eliminated the last four letters and removed the lightbulbs. The Chamber of Commerce would have had to foot the bill for lighting the thing, so, yeah; no.

But it was still the original letters and they continued to deteriorate into a complete eyesore. By the 1970’s it was determined that it needed a complete overhaul, costing a quarter of a million dollars. To raise the money, the band Fleetwood Mac pledged to do a charity concert on the hill in 1977, but local residents put a stop to it. So, the following year, Hugh Hefner stepped in and held a charity auction at the Playboy Mansion, auctioning off individual letters at $27,777 each.

Thus, in August of 1978 they tore down the old sign and put up the one that stands today, this time on purpose. The letters are 45 foot tall and from 31 to 39 feet wide. No light bulbs. Hugh Hefner owns the “Y,” Andy Williams spotted for the “W,” and Alice Cooper bought the third “O” in honor of Groucho Marx. Warner Brothers owns the second “O,” and I suspect they currently keep The Warner Kids trapped in there, instead of in their old water tower.

Recently, a proposal to develop the surrounding land prompted the “Save the Peak” campaign. $12.5 Million dollars was needed to keep 138 acres adjacent to the sign. Donations came from all over, but at the eleventh hour, the Hollywood Sign’s Number One Fan, Hugh Hefner stepped in again, this time donating the final $900,000 dollars to save it.

Thanks, Hef. I really, really appreciate it.

I would respectfully like to dedicate this post to the Memory of Peg Entwistle. Rest in Peace, Star.

This post is part of the L.A.’s Greatest Landmarks series – click here for the rest of the series!

Peg Entwistle

9 Replies to “L.A’s Greatest Landmarks: The Hollywood Sign”

  1. Whitley had nothing to do with the development, it was the brainchild of Chandler, M. H. Sherman, Shoults, and Woodruff. Sherman obtained the land when acquiring property that his streetcars might eventually travel through.

    1. Well, indeed, but that’s not what I said, exactly.

      Schematics of verbage, tho’ I guess I should clarify if it seems I was implying the wrong thing.

      To whit: Whitley had previously used a similar sign. He suggested the idea to his friend Chandler, who then brought the idea the rest of his (Chandler’s) syndicate. Apologies for leaving Sherman out.

      I didn’t mean to imply Whitley had any part of the development. What actually transpired I’m sure could be the basis for another Chinatown. My saying that “the whole crackpot idea” was theirs was just me getting a bit stylistic on a tidbit I pulled off of wikipedia. I thought it had a bit more flair than, “He suggested he might use a sign similar to the one he had used for Whitley Heights to advertise his land development.”

      I was aiming for a relatively short, fun article; one that might, indeed, prompt the reader to dig further, if they were interested, or walk away a little more informed and mildly entertained, if not. That’s what I felt was my job. I never intended to be completely comprehensive, though, of course, I wish to remain accurate.

      For example, in wishing to keep the post brief and relatively light, I had pretty much completed it and realized I had not found a way to mention Peg Entwistle at all. Every way I thought of to include her sounded, to my inner ear, either tacked on, or needlessly morbid. Were I doing a longer, more comprehensive article, that would not be the case. This was on my mind through the entire writing process, and I felt she deserved better. Thus, I included the dedication at the end, and her photo, specifically hoping that maybe even one person take a moment to find out who she was. I didn’t feel right completely leaving her out and I wanted to afford the matter some respect.

      Anytime I can, maybe, inspire someone, somewhere, to delve a little deeper on something, maybe even something they didn’t know they were interested in a few minutes prior, it makes me feel good, even if I’ve only created the possibility.

      I considered being, and in some initial drafts was, more detailed regarding the initial planning of the sign, I opted for a light tone and what I hoped was an intriguing image. (Clearly spelled out as my own fantasy. Maybe “Chandler twirls his handle bar mustache and rushes off to share the idea with his fellows…” would have worked. ) This was, again, much as the dedication, done in hopes a reader might be prompted to look deeper.

      I’m a manipulative bastard.

      But I don’t mean to be a misleading one. Sorry, if I seemed to infer an inaccuracy.

  2. Hi Rob!

    Great post! I too am eternally grateful to Hef for saving the sign. I had no idea he’d done it before, too. Very cool. And I’d love to hear his story of why he chose to buy Y instead of H. Perhaps for what Y resembles?

  3. Thanks for the mention of the Whitley Heights sign. I hadn’t heard of that one before.

    I found a photo of it in the LA Public Library’s collection.

    (BTW, the actress you have pictured here is not Peg Entwistle. That’s Gwili Andre, a Danish actress who had a brief career at RKO, and, some years later, became another notable suicide. A similar glamour headshot of Peg Entwistle can be found here.)

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