When I began researching and writing my Arcadia Publishing book “Hollywoodland” almost five years ago, standard gossip stated that developers constructed the giant Hollywoodland sign in July 1923 as a billboard promoting the development, all with no documentation or backup. Neither the Los Angeles Times nor the Los Angeles Examiner ran such a story at the time, nor did any book. I even fell into the trap of believing something without legitimate sources backing it up.
After examining the subject over many years, I can safely say that Hollywoodland developers created their massive billboard in late November and early December 1923, thanks to multiple sources placing its construction at that time. There was no story in any newspaper the day it was completed, but Hollywoodland publicity chief L. J. Burrud immediately employed the mass media to publicize it and the development in big ways. Copying tactics from his past, adman Burrud developed stories of interest to newspapers, magazines, and newsreels, spreading the story of the glamorous hillside development across the United States.
“Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays” by Karie Bible and Mary Mallory is now available at Amazon and at local bookstores.
Jan. 6, 1924: The Times publishes a photo of an Oakland car that was driven up to the Hollywood sign.
Burrud began his motion picture career in 1910, working in various capacities in Hollywood before moving to El Paso to begin work as a newsreel cameraman for the Fred Feldman Company per the July 13, 1915 El Paso Herald, filming actualities that appeared in local and national moving picture theatres. The young man smartly realized the end game of all advertising was to drum up sales, and to that end, he began manufacturing short films and massive stunts like employing a giant crane to lift an automobile containing the mayor of El Paso and the stars of his short film about the city onto the top of Elephant Butte Dam.
Young Burrud later shot newsreel footage around the Southwest and in Mexico before creating advertorial film product like newsreels or shorts promoting various automobile companies, displaying cars like the Dort and Maxwell ascending to the top of Mount Zion, traversing deserts, surviving icy canyon passes, and scaling mountains. His scenic films of the Southwest were as much advertisement for the automobiles as anything else.
On September 7, 1923, developer S. H. Woodruff hired Burrud as publicity chief for Hollywoodland after noticing his work as press man for Lake Arrowhead, promoting that real estate development. Here, he met Los Angeles advertising man John Roche, who would go on to design the Hollywoodland sign for development partner Harry Chandler. This sign would dwarf all other real estate name signs around Los Angeles, including Whitley Heights, Outpost Estates, Bryn Mawr, Bel-Air, and the like, all intended as temporary advertising signposts.
Burrud began planning all types of ballyhoo to push the name “Hollywoodland” before the public. He placed stories with glamorous images of Spanish Revival and French Normandy homes in newspapers and magazines. The pressman began shooting a film documenting the building process of the Hollywoodland demonstration home late that fall, shown at a 1924 national real estate convention. In October, Burrud arranged for an Oakland Six motor car driven by Harry Nevill to carefully descend one of the rough, unpaved hills to the edge of Lake Hollywood. The story that ran in the October 23, 1923, Miami Daily Arizona Silver Belt described how the car’s four-wheel brake system carefully allowed it to descend grades up to 55% in accomplishing the feat. Just a few weeks later, an image in the November 16, 1923 Holly Leaves shows an empty Mount Lee, devoid of any sign or construction equipment.
Around the same time, real estate partner and Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler pondered a way to heavily promote the development both night and day, beyond the many stories he could run in the Times. He devised the idea of a giant billboard promoting the development, bringing in local advertising man John Roche to conceive the perfect emblem of style and success. Roche mimicked other real estate signs by spelling out the name of the development but went a step further, devising one of huge white letters that could be seen miles away, unlike those colored red which were only visible within a few miles. He would claim decades later that the huge sheet metal letters were fifty feet high and thirty feet wide.
Developers acquired sheet metal, telephone poles, pipes, and chicken wire with which to build their temporary sign, employing mules and caterpillar tractors to carry the materials up the rough shorn road and steep hill to the top of Mount Lee. Working carefully on the precipitous lands, construction workers sank the sign’s framework of telephone poles into flat areas of the hillside in a jagged line, invisible from the flat lands below, upon which to construct the Hollywoodland sign.
Publicity man Burrud brought in Fox Movietone newsreel cameraman Blaine Walker to capture the sign’s construction in late November 1923, with the undeveloped negative arriving at the Fox Movietone Newsreel office dated “November 27th-23,” per Greg Wilsbacher, director of the Fox Movietone Newsreel Collection at the University of South Carolina. The punch record of the New York office also shows a late November 1923 date.
Employing one of his old automotive stunts, Burrud approached Harry Neville and the Oakland Motor Car Company in December about this time scaling Mount Lee in the car to pose by the freshly constructed Hollywoodland sign. As described in the December 30, 1923 Los Angeles Times:
“Under the guidance of Burrud the car was driven up the trail made by the caterpillar tractor on the very razor edge of the hogback that leads upward…It took quite a few minutes to get the car up over the worse of the grade and then the task of turning it around presented itself. A motley crowd of hill climbers, workmen, salesmen, and curiosity thrill seekers watched this task and when at last Neville and the Oakland headed downward a cheer resounded from the throng.”
The image of the Oakland Six posed by the Hollywoodland sign appeared in the January 6, 1924 Times. As the story points out, the sign was electrified, already fitted with small light bulbs which at night flashed the words, “Holly,” “Wood,” “Land,” “Hollywoodland,” as a giant welcoming beacon to the neighborhood.
One other story seals the construction date of the sign, an article recently forwarded to me by another historian. Titled “The Mammoth Hollywoodland Electric Sign,” the story ran in the September 1924 issue of “Practical Electrics,” describing in detail its behemoth size and construction date. Even then the story claimed that the city of Hollywood was well known to people, hardly requiring advertising. It stated that the sign, visible for twelve miles, “is claimed to be the largest sign in the United States and the only attention it has required during eight months of display has been a weekly winding of the time switch and oiling of the flasher twice a month.” This proves that the sign began construction in late November 1923, finishing up in December.
The story goes on to present the difficulty in transporting materials up the steep hills before its construction, describing the irregular and rocky hillside on which it was placed after tons of dynamite created the holes necessary for the framework of telephone poles “60 to 80 feet in height.” Letters at one end were 15 feet higher than the other, and some letters were 40 feet in front of the proper line, with others behind, in order to fit them on “the irregular surface.” The article reports that taken in a straight line, the sign would be 975 feet long with the letters 45 feet high.
‘Two by six inch timbers, placed 16 to 24 inches between centers, are the horizontal elements of the frame. Galvanized iron or sheet metal letters were nailed to the frame, with “each stroke of a letter is 13 feet wide.” The article states that 3,700 10-watt lamps were placed along the edge of each letter, with “the effect of this is that there is a shadow or dark space between the sides of each stroke, which is found to give an advantage in legibility at night.”
55 outlets composed each circuit, with the open wiring located on the back of the sign. “Everything centers in a junction box near the center of the sign. Here there is a pilot flasher and time switch. The flasher switches on “HOLLY,” then “WOOD,” then “LAND,” successively; then the whole sign is extinguished and the flasher repeats its work.”
Taken all together, these items prove that the Hollywoodland sign started construction in late November 1923, with completion in December. What was quickly and haphazardly erected in late 1923 ironically has become a giant advertising symbol for the city and industry of Hollywood, a worldwide icon on a par with the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and Statue of Liberty. A lowly real estate billboard now rates as Los Angeles’ top tourist attraction.