The Hollywoodland Sign, in a photo published in the Los Angeles Evening Herald, Dec. 8, 1923.
Note: Today (July 13) is commonly mistaken for the “birthday” of the Hollywood Sign. An encore post from Mary Mallory sets the record straight.
Originally constructed as a publicity gimmick and branding symbol to help generate sales for a real estate development, the Hollywood Sign is now a worldwide icon just as powerful as Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and the Statue of Liberty, signifying a land of glamour and opportunity. Myths have always existed about it, from the date of its construction to how the city of Hollywood obtained it. After in-depth research by both historian Bruce Torrence and myself, we can conclusively say the sign was constructed in late November and early December 1923, and illuminated in that first week of December.
Like me, a California transplant involved in history, research, and writing since I was child, Torrence has always been fascinated by Hollywood history, perhaps because his two famous grandfathers contributed much to it. His paternal grandfather, Ernest Torrence, starred in many classic silent films such as “Steamboat Bill Jr.” and “Peter Pan” after a successful career as an opera singer. His maternal grandfather C. E. Toberman could be called the builder of Hollywood for his construction of so many iconic structures around Hollywood Boulevard. Bruce began a photo collection of Hollywood in 1972 with thirty photographs, which has blossomed into thousands. He employed these photos in writing one of Hollywood’s first detailed history books in 1979 called “Hollywood: The First 100 Years.”
Hollywood at Play: The Lives of the Stars Between Takes, by Stephen X. Sylvester, Mary Mallory and Donovan Brandt, goes on sale Feb. 1, 2017.
Both of us are dogged in searching out facts and details to get Hollywood history right, made much easier with the opening of newspapers through microfilm and now digital searching, along with such great digitized sites as the Media History Digital Library and Variety Archives at the Margaret Herrick Library. We look for multiple citations to back up evidence, and especially primary evidence, such as documents, building records, and films, and secondary sources like newspapers, magazines, and books. Getting history right often means correcting yourself, as I admit I fell into the trap of claiming the Hollywoodland Sign was constructed in July 1923. After years of research by both of us, we have discovered the missing pieces clarifying the history of the sign.
When I began writing my Arcadia Publishing book “Hollywoodland” in 2010, I began searching out the history of the development and its world famous sign. Few if any period sources could be found providing a detailed, accurate history of the Hollywoodland Sign, even the Los Angeles Times, owned by one of the five partners of the Hollywoodland development. No newspaper reported the actual day of the beginning or completion of construction, but thanks to discovery on the history of Hollywoodland publicity chief L. J. Burrud, I began slowly piecing the puzzle together.
L.J. Burrud, Hollywood Publicity Man
Hollywoodland developers Tracey Shoults and S. H. Woodruff announced the opening of the real estate tract in late March 1923 newspapers. They focused mainly on the newspapers of record for Los Angeles, like the Times and Examiner, attempting to appeal to upper middle class and rich businessmen and entertainers. Since Times publisher Harry Chandler was one of the partners, the newspaper provided ample free publicity of the site in multiple stories virtually every day of the week, often with photographs. With real estate booming all round the city, sales initially took off, but the real estate men realized they needed special publicity to help brand their neighborhood as the “supreme achievement for community building” for people of discriminating taste.
On September 7, 1923, Woodruff turned to Lake Arrowhead press man L. J. Burrud to devise unique ballyhoo gimmicks to land stories and photographs of the Hollywoodland development in newspapers and magazines across the United States. Copying tactics from his past as a newsreel cameraman, actuality and documentary filmmaker, Burrud conceived of one of the first mass media campaigns to brand the special nature of the community. Besides planting stories in newspapers, the publicity man shot a film documenting construction of the Hollywoodland demonstration home, arranged for sports motor cars to traverse the rough, unpaved hills, and even created a Hollywoodland Community Orchestra to play grocery store openings and radio shows.
In later years, advertising man John Roche claimed in interviews that Times publisher Harry Chandler asked him to design a gigantic billboard visible from miles away, but it seems strange that someone would wait decades to state such information. Unfortunately no paperwork from the Hollywoodland development exists, so until it shows up, there is no definitive proof of who conceived the look of the sign and when. While virtually all other major real estate developments built thin, red-colored name signs, Hollywoodland’s would be gigantic 45 foot letters spelling out the world Hollywoodland, making it much more visible all over Los Angeles. Falling back on his filmmaking experience, publicity chief Burrud conceived the brilliant idea for newsreel coverage documenting the construction of the sign, a gimmick to help announce the opening of their stupendous development to the world.
Holly Leaves, November 1923.
I discovered that construction of the Hollywoodland Sign began in November 1923, after finding a photograph taken from the Hollywood Athletic Club published in the November 16, 1923 Holly Leaves revealing a barren hillside above the development, devoid of any sign or construction equipment. Fox Movietone newsreel footage exists of the Hollywoodland Sign’s construction, revealing workers, mules, and caterpillar tractors laboring to carry sheet metal, telephone poles, pipes, and chicken wire up the precipitous slopes to build the giant sign in a jagged line on the steep hill.
Realizing that filmmakers usually employ a slate in front of their footage listing title, date, and running time, I contacted Greg Wilsbacher, director of the Fox Movietone Newsreel Collection at the University of South Carolina, to inquire about a slate or paperwork for the newsreel footage shot of this event. Wilsbacher revealed that cameraman Blaine Walker shot the Sign’s construction, stating that the undeveloped negative arrived at the Fox Movietone Newsreel office dated “November 27th-23,” with the punch record of the New York Fox office also showing a late November 1923 date. Train travel across the United States took approximately three days at that time, meaning the footage would have departed Los Angeles on November 27 and arrived at the end of the month. As Wilsbacher also stated, a newsreel cameraman’s job was to get unique footage first and rush it to production offices for immediate distribution to theatres, meaning Walker filmed it immediately before sending it off to New York.
Not only were the developers constructing an enormous billboard to advertise Hollywoodland by day, but also one to blaze its name at night. They hired Crescent Sign Company to devise a way to build the Sign on the hill, and Woodruff hired Electrical Products Corporation to illuminate it with electric lights, creating what the December 9 Los Angeles Examiner calls the “largest electrically outlined word in the world.”
Historian Torrence discovered the actual date of first illumination when investigating when the letter “H” was actually blown off the Sign after a question posed by a reader. He, I, and everyone else mistakenly believed the letter was demolished by winds in 1949, though his examination of Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Los Angeles Times proved it actually happened in 1944.
A worker stands in crossbar of the letter “D” in the Hollywoodland Sign, Practical Electrics, September 1924.
While there, he decided to peruse the November/December 1923 Evening Herald to find information on the final days of the Sign’s construction after my discovery of the November date for the newsreel footage. He discovered the missing link, connecting the Sign’s November/December 1923 construction to its first electric illumination. Torrence came across a December 8, 1923 Evening Herald story stating that the sign, “believed to be the largest in the world,…will be illuminated tonight.” The article includes photographs showing the full length of the sign as well as an image of a worker dwarfed by the gigantic letter “D” he stands in.
On Saturday, December 8, 1923, S. H. Woodruff and his crew flipped the switch turning on the illuminated lights which spelled out the words “Holly,” “Wood,” “Land,” “Hollywoodland,” with Woodruff stating in an article in the December 9 Examiner, “it was only fitting that the first blaze of electric lights to shine forth from the tremendous sign should be in commemoration of some important event in the development of Hollywoodland,” namely the opening of Unit No. 4 to sales. In an ironic twist, the Los Angeles Herald and Los Angeles Examiner note the first lighting of the Hollywoodland Sign, while the Los Angeles Times, owned and published by Harry Chandler, one of the major partners in the development, failed to report it.
An ad in the Dec. 12, 1923, Los Angeles Times notes the completion of the Hollywoodland Sign.
Paul D. Howse, president of Electrical Products Corporation, bought an advertisement in the December 12, 1923, Los Angeles Times with an illustration of the electrified sign. He congratulates Woodruff for completing the stupendous sign, declaring “You had the vision to undertake and accomplish the greatest realty enterprise in California…” and then stating, “…We thank you, Mr. Woodruff, for having given us the opportunity to engineer and install this great electrical sign. May your expenditure be appreciated by those who love to see Los Angeles lead in enterprise and really “big” things.
A description of the Hollywoodland Sign in Practical Electrics for September, 1924.
Further sealing the November/December 1923 construction date, the September 1924 issue of Practical Electrics provided me by another historian describes what it calls “the mammoth Hollywoodland Electric Sign” in detail, noting its eight months of display. The article employs some creative hyperbole to state that “the sign is over one-sixth of a mile long, and nearly 4,000 lamps are required to light it.”
It reports that the billboard is visible at a distance of more than twelve miles, supported by a framework of telephone poles 60 to 80 feet high. “Two by six inch timbers, placed 16 to 24 inches between centers, are the horizontal elements of the frame. To this the letters, made of galvanized iron, are nailed. Each stroke of a letter is 13 feet wide. To illuminate the 13 great letters 3,700 10-watt lamps are used, placed along the edge of each stroke….There are 55 outlets to each circuit and the wiring is all open on the back of the structure. Everything centers in a junction box near the center of the sign…Taken on a straight line, the sign is 975 feet long and the letters are 45 feet high.” While the letters were 45 feet high, it’s very doubtful the sign was that long.
While erroneously reported to have been constructed in July 1923, thanks to these discoveries, we now know that the Hollywoodland Sign was constructed in November/early December 1923, and illuminated for the first time on Saturday, December 8, 1923. Paraphrasing Electrical Products Corporation President Paul Howse, Hollywoodland not only conceived the largest electrical sign in the world in 1923, but one that now serves as the iconic representation of Hollywood and its film industry while also reigning as Los Angeles’ most popular tourist attraction today