Unknown today, Paul D. Howse was a pioneer in early entertainment and ballyhoo promotional methods. Thanks to his company’s domination of the electrical sign market and his prowess with promotion, Howse would help electrify the Hollywoodland Sign in 1923, helping turn it into a potent advertising weapon on its way to being a world-famous icon.
Born February 2, 1874, in Champaign, Illinois, Howse sought out opportunity and attention at a young age. As a student, Howse enjoyed entertainment and performing. While in high school, he sang Italian arias in concerts and recitals, getting the taste for the limelight and learning what attracted audiences. Understanding and selling amusement would remain in his blood the rest of his life.
After graduation, Howse turned to journalism in the mid-1890s, reporting for the Chicago Inter Ocean. Besides tracking down leads, he worked to solve as well as write about crime. Personable when interviewing witnesses or meeting the public, Howse was great at politics, running and winning a position in the Chicago Press Club in 1900.
By 1900, Howse switched careers, turning full time to entertainment. He served as superintendent of Sans Souci, one of Chicago’s first amusement parks, located on the city’s South Side at 6000 S. Cottage Grove Ave., opening in 1899 with the help of the Chicago City Railway Company. Closely affiliated with the 1893 Chicago World Exposition, it built on the fair’s mile-long “Midway,” a pure entertainment district. Featuring the original Ferris Wheel, the fair’s Midway also included unique rides, theaters, and even eating establishments. Its enormous success demonstrated the public’s interest in diverse entertainment, ushering in the age of amusement parks.
Sans Souci took the idea even farther, adding in other original attention grabbing spectacles. With a main entrance resembling a German beer hall, the park also included a Japanese tea garden, special landscaping, and most particularly, night time lighting and electric fountains with dancing waters. It was here Howse recognized his calling – capturing the public with eye-catching lighting and advertising.
By 1904, Howse’s ambitions expanded. Joining in partnership with Joseph Beifeld and Aaron J. Jones, he helped organize the construction of the massive White City Amusement Park, a takeoff of the original name for the 1893 Chicago World Exposition, constructed near the site of the original fairgrounds on land leased from J. Ogden Armour. Envisioned as Chicago’s answer to Coney Island’s Dreamland, White City was ablaze with spectacle, especially electric nighttime lighting. A forerunner to the original Disneyland, attendees purchased tickets to enjoy attractions.
Even then, Howse recognized that the unique and sensational were required to attract public attention and keep it. As he told Billboard in its August 11, 1906 edition, “The public appears to enjoy the sensational rather than the beautiful…the country over, inventors and managers, are seeking new devices to amuse the fickle public….”
By 1907, large painted billboards displaying the names of resorts and attractions served as potent advertising, luring guests and customers. Howse supported the most popular billboards employing the Gunning System, a high-class display. He erected the largest painted display billboards of any in Chicago, promoting other entertainment institutions, realizing how they spectacularly captured the eye and drew attention. This concept would stick in his mind when he would eventually turn to creating electric signs.
Looking for more control, Howse left White City in October 1908 to take over management of Forest Park, intending to turn it into the largest Chicago-area amusement park through his practice of entertainment management and showmanship. At the same time, Howse began investing in moving picture theaters, sensing an evolution in American entertainment. Hoping to expand his reach, he opened an office in 1910 to build parks and modernize aging ones. Later that year, Howse also turned to constructing scenic railways or rollercoasters for parks as well, offering a complete portable coaster for $6,500.
Howse purchased the concessions for the proposed Ocean Park Pier outside Santa Monica in 1911, moving his family west. He began construction of 10 buildings that spring, to contain roller coaster and other popular amusement rides on the largest pier then in existence in the world. His most popular concessions on the pier included Baby Incubators, an illuminated living volcano, and his mile long Grand Canyon, the largest “Scenic Railway” for the Frasier Million Dollar Pier Co. Making it even more of an attention grabber, what they called a mono-rail was illuminated with thousands of colored incandescent bulbs, a glowing Christmas tree at night. Other attractions included the tombs, hoop-la, old plantation, and bird store.
Howse suffered financial setbacks with the Ocean Park investment. Frasier misrepresented his financial interest in the pier, leading to Howse being forced to destroy some of his buildings. A fire destroyed the pier on September 4, 1912, ending Howse’s amusement park venture in California. Luckily, he had started developing a new business in August before the conflagration.
Realizing the importance of aspirational advertising for business, especially something eye-catching, Howse decided to establish an electric sign business in Los Angeles in August 1912. On November 7, 1912, Howse incorporated the Electrical Products Corporation with his wife, Catherine, and E. Sweeney for $20,000, establishing a plant on West 16th Street. One of the first electric signs the company erected was on Zephyr Avenue in Venice, where he served on the booster committee and previously operated his park ventures.
Realizing the growing popularity of moving pictures, Howse lobbied studios and theater owners to promote their businesses. In 1917, EPC constructed the largest metal electrical American flag of the time for the roof of Clune’s auditorium, employing 564 tungsten lamps in red, blue, and gold with lights that flashed to make it appear to wave. Taking three days to construct at a cost of $1,452, the sign measured 14 feet long, 10 feet high, and a 16-foot-high staff.
Such other major exhibitors as Sid Grauman and Fred Miller of the California Theatre hired Electrical Products Corporation to create electrical elements enhancing their display of films as well as luring in customers. The company produced a transparent electrical sign that spelled out the name of the current film playing at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre on Broadway, employing raised snow white glass letters. At Miller’s California Theatre, Howse’s Electrical Products Corporation provided one of the largest electrical rooftop signs, as well as interior lights for the border, floor, overhead, and proscenium, an interchangeable film name sign, and marquee display.
Electrical Products Corporation did well, erecting signs around the Los Angeles area. Growing sales would lead it to move headquarters a couple of times, always in search of more square footage. As it did well, Howse branched out, opening the 9,000 square foot lamp shop with the Gans Brothers at 621 Hill St. in 1919.
The company’s new plant undergoing construction in 1922 in the 1600 block of West Sixteenth Street also included a novel feature for lighting companies. To best promote their work, the establishment built a 25 by 90 feet motion picture sample theater with stage, boxes, seats, and every type of electrical device that could be employed so that potential theater owners and builders could actually visualize what their interior and its features would look like.
Master salesman Howse successfully promoted his company, which produced classy, high quality electric signs around Los Angeles and the west, including Hawaii, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, and even Central and South America. On February 19,1921, the company ran ads in the newspaper stating that it had erected the largest electrical sign in the city, as well as more than 1,300 of the 1,500 electrical signs erected around Los Angeles.
Just a week after the opening of the Hollywoodland real estate development, Electrical Products Corporation purchased an ad in the April 6, 1923, Los Angeles Herald advertising its work constructing and installing the large electric sign advertising National Automotive School atop its roof. The ad proclaimed that “95% of other large electrical signs in Los Angeles” were designed and erected by the company. Later that June, the company purchased ads promoting its “wonderful big illuminated signs” atop the Don Lee Building in newspapers.
Electrical Products Corporation’s outstanding promotional signs and potent advertising were evidently noticed and read by wily and ace Hollywoodland publicity man L.J. Burrud, recognizing a gigantic publicity opportunity. Other real estate developments around Los Angeles had constructed large billboard-like signs advertising their tract names at a time when many began finding roadside billboards an eyesore and nuisance. While others were illuminated at night in various dark colors, none actually existed on such a prominent location or in a more visible color like white. This idea alone would push them ahead of all other real estate projects, giving them a potential enormous boost in luring buyers. Not only that, the company was renowned for creating unique displays like their illuminated American flag, as well as for manufacturing gigantic displays.
The sign began construction of the letters and framing in November 1923, with outtakes of Movietone Newsreel footage dated November 27, showing workers, mules, and caterpillar tractors carrying sheet metal, telephone poles, pipes, and wire up the steep hill to construct the attention grabber. Sometime during the last week or so of construction it was electrified with bulbs by Electrical Products Corporation. Advertised and featured in print for the first time on December 8 in the Los Angeles Herald, the sign was unveiled and illuminated for the first time that night, at a ceremony that anyone could attend. The Los Angeles Examiner called it the “largest electrically outlined word in the world.” This unique billboard spelled out the name of the development, “Holly,” “Wood,” “Land,” “Hollywoodland,” in regular intervals, displaying the name Hollywoodland to the world.
After the Hollywoodland Sign’s unveiling and first illumination on December 8, Electrical Products Corporation and Howse purchased an ad in the December 12, 1923, Los Angeles Times thanking Woodruff for giving them the opportunity to engineer and install the sign, which they called “the largest electrical sign ever built.” Unlike other real estate signs they had constructed around Los Angeles, this featured the largest letters at 45 feet lit up in white, unlike others which featured colored lights, reducing the distance from which they could be seen. The Hollywoodland Sign also stood on one of the most visible hills around Los Angeles at the time, making it an even more valuable real estate display.
The company gained great recognition when Burrud promoted Hollywoodland and its sign in a September 1924 Practical Electrics magazine. The story called it “the mammoth Hollywoodland Electric sign,” going on to state, “the sign is over one-sixth of a mile long, and nearly 4,000 lamps are required to light it.” “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.”
Little did Howse or the Hollywoodland promoters realize in December 1923 that their giant illuminated temporary billboard would become as recognized around the world as the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, or the Statue of Liberty, even after illumination ended in the 1930s. While only illuminated for 10 years, the Hollywoodland Sign provided a great advertising boost to the tract, displaying the high quality electrical work of Paul Howse’s Electrical Products Corporation. The self-promoting Howse, renowned for ballyhoo and entertainment, helped devise a spectacular aspirational sign, beautifully selling real estate to a public which didn’t really need it.