Image: Display ad for Hollywoodland, The Times, Feb. 3, 1924. The lonely prospector, with a trusty, sure-footed burro as his only companion, dreams of a life of ease in the Hollywood Hills. Note: “The welfare of your family demands insurance against the coming congestion of a great metropolis!”
The Hollywood Sign, originally the Hollywoodland Sign, possesses a strange history and place in Hollywood/Los Angeles history. Originally a giant calling card for the Hollywoodland real estate development, the sign sat fallow for years, unwanted and uncared for, before being saved by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce in 1949. Never popular with the public until threatened with destruction, the sign only achieved worldwide recognition when the film industry began employing it as a stand-in for Hollywood in the 1970s.
Designed in 1923 by advertising man John Roche, the Hollywood Sign owes its life to Los Angeles Times publisher and editor Harry Chandler. As a member of the five-man syndicate behind the Hollywoodland neighborhood, Chandler longed to outshine all other local real estate developments with the elegant hillside enclave. Chandler commissioned Roche to create a temporary sign visible from Wilshire Boulevard. Roche suggested spelling out the name, so the builders spent $21,000 to combine telephone poles, sheet metal panels, wire, and pipes to rig letters 50 feet high and 30 feet wide.
This was not the first large real estate sign in Los Angeles, though it did dwarf the others. Other similar, large signs sat atop Whitley Heights and Outpost Estates among other developments in the mid-1920s. Billboards and neon signs also proliferated. Many people wanted to ban these types of signs, but the city council refused to act. Signs and billboards mushroomed.
To maintain their supreme status, Hollywoodland developers decided to illuminate the sign at night by placing 40,000 20-watt bulbs eight inches apart around all the letters. It spelled out the words “Holly,” “wood,” “land,” “Hollywoodland” like a gigantic Christmas tree. The sign was supposedly visible all the way to the coast on clear nights, an obvious nuisance to residents.
As sales dramatically slowed by 1929, developer S. H. Woodruff entered negotiations with the Arora Neon Company about “neonizing” the letters of the Hollywoodland Sign to help lure customers. In a letter to Woodruff dated October 20, 1929, D. Arch Thompson listed two proposals to add neon to the sign. One idea consisted of a neon tube in the center of each letter to cost $6,900 plus 40 cents an hour to light it up. The second suggestion was to line the edges of each letter with neon. This would cost approximately $12,500 and cost 77 cents an hour to burn. A neon gas tube would last approximately 10,000-12,000 hours before burning out. It was suggested to line the letters in either green or blue. The stock market crash prevented any attempt to follow through on these ideas. After the developers moved on in the 1930s, sign maintenance ended in 1939 along with night illumination.
Though it towered over Hollywood, the Hollywoodland Sign was rarely mentioned or shown in The Los Angeles Times and just a footnote to Los Angeles residents. When a sports car successfully reached the summit in 1924, a photo was taken placing it next to the sign. The sign was not shown again in The Times until Sept. 18, 1932, after Peg Entwistle’s suicide. It disappeared once again from view until suffering major damage in the 1940s from weather, fire, and age. The Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department, which now owned the sign, suggested it be destroyed in 1949. After heated discussion from residents, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce renovated and took control of the sign, removing the word “land” to form the Hollywood Sign as we know it.
Once again it dropped from radar screens until needing replacement in 1978, when the original sign was destroyed and one featuring a steel form and base replaced it. At this point, the Hollywood film industry began employing it as a location or background for films and television shows, and its popularity grew. Tourists finally began taking an interest in it, and the Hollywood Sign Trust was formed to help properly maintain, license, and secure it.
Today, the proliferation of GPS and other devices floods Hollywoodland with tourists, destroying the very peace promoted by developers when it opened in 1923.