A History of the Hollywood Sign

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Podcast Transcript

Located in the hills above the Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, is one of the most iconic signs in the world. 

The sign consists of just nine letters, made out of steel and painted white. Each letter stands 45 feet tall, and together they represent the entire motion picture industry. 

Yet, this historic sign was never intended to become an icon or even represent where it is located. 

Learn more about the Hollywood sign and the area known as Hollywood on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The very word “Hollywood” has become synonymous with motion pictures. If you “make it big in Hollywood”, you aren’t referring to getting a well-paying job in a particular neighborhood in Los Angeles, you’d probably be referring to making it in the movies. 

This episode is not about the motion picture industry, at least not directly. In past episodes, I’ve discussed how and why this industry wound up in this particular place. 

To summarize, Hollywood was about as far away as you could get from Thomas Edison and his attempts to enforce his patents on motion pictures. It was also close to Mexico if early filmmakers needed to run to the border, and of course, the weather was nice. 

The history of the area, which is known as Hollywood, for the purposes of this episode, dates back to the 19th century. 

Los Angeles barely existed as a city in the 19th century. Most of the land, which is today one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, was nothing more than agricultural land. 

The beginning of Hollywood as a residential area began with a Canadian businessman, Hobart Johnstone Whitley, who migrated to California in 1893. 

He purchased a 480-acre ranch from one Eli Hurd. Whitley envisioned turning the ranch into a suburb of Los Angeles, which at the time only had a population of about 50,000 people. 

Prior to Whitley, the area now known as Hollywood was rural with a population of 18 people. 

The name Hollywood came from a woman by the name of Daeida Wilcox. She and her husband also had a ranch in the area that they purchased in 1887. She was originally from Hicksville, Ohio, and in her travels, she came across someone with a farm in Illinois named “Hollywood,” which she liked. 

When she and her husband purchased the ranch, she named it Hollywood. She later said, “I chose the name Hollywood simply because it sounds nice and because I’m superstitious and holly brings good luck.”

So, the name Hollywood doesn’t mean anything. It was a totally arbitrary name. 

Just as an aside, Daeida and her now second husband began to divide their ranch into plots of houses around the same time as Hobart Whitley. She envisioned Hollywood to become a utopian Chrisitan community free of gambling, alcohol, and prostitution. 

On that score, she failed. 

The area now known as Hollywood began growing alongside its larger neighbor Los Angeles. By 1900, Los Angeles had a population of 100,000, and Hollywood had its own newspaper, churches, and schools. 

In 1903, by a vote of 88 to 77, the citizens of Hollywood decided to incorporate into a formal city. A few months later, they also decided to ban all alcohol sales, at least temporarily making Daeida Wilcox’s dream come true. 

By 1910, Hollywood decided to merge with the greater city of Los Angeles to get access to water and sewer services. By this time, Los Angeles had grown to a population of 300,000. 

Hollywood, however, was still sparsely populated, and plenty of land was available, making it attractive to the new motion picture studios who could set up large lots necessary for production. 

As the motion picture industry exploded, there was more demand for housing for all the workers who were part of the business. 

In 1923, the real estate development company ??Woodruff and Shoults hatched an idea for a new residential subdivision called Hollywoodland. 

Hollywoodland would be in the Hollywood Hills overlooking Hollywood, which is situated to the south. 

The Hollywoodland development would be Spanish-style homes with all the latest amenities, including running water, gas, and electricity. 

One of the promotional pieces for the Hollywoodland project read, “Where will you live when the second million has come (to Los Angeles)? Will your family enjoy a delightful home in the clean, pure mountain air of Hollywoodland, with its wonderful climate, broad open spaces and plenty of ‘elbow’ room—or—will you live in a ‘dwelling’ in the flat, uninteresting houses-in-a-row sections of the City, your family’s freedom hampered by this maelstrom of human existence?” 

One of the major investors in the project was the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Harry Chandler. He thought it would be a great promotional idea to create a giant sign for the development that was placed on the hill just above where the development was.

It would simply spell out “Hollywoodland” in giant letters large enough to be seen throughout all of Los Angeles. 

They commissioned the Crescent Sign Company to erect 13 large letters spelling out Hollywoodland on the side of the mountain. 

The cost of the sign in 1923 was $21,000. Each letter in the sign was approximately 30 feet wide and 50 feet high and supported by telephone poles. 

When the sign was erected, it was believed to have been the largest sign in the world at the time.

What most people don’t know is that the original sign actually had 3,700 lightbulbs embedded in it. The lights would blink at night, illuminating each part of the sign in succession: HOLLY, WOOD, LAND.

Just as a side note, the Hollywoodland neighborhood is still there. It is just below the sign in the hills, and they even have a homeowners association.

The sign wasn’t a big deal when it was erected, and there were no contemporary accounts of its construction. It was literally just a billboard for a real estate company, so it wasn’t considered worthy of attention. 

The sign was originally only supposed to be temporary, and it was to be taken down after 18 months. 

Over time, the meaning of the sign began to change. In 1924 a group of businessmen placed a 30-foot white dot underneath the sign. The significance of the white dot was due to maps produced by the US Chamber of Commerce in the 1920s. On their maps, cities would be represented by a black, grey, or white dot representing the business climate. 

This was part of a larger campaign to keep Los Angeles a clean and crime-free community.

The dot wasn’t there very long, although there are photos of it. What it did was shift the meaning of the sign. The word Hollywoodland by itself was devoid of context and meaning. If you didn’t know about the real estate development, you’d have no idea that was what it meant. 

With the economic and cultural importance of the motion picture industry increasing, the sign came to represent the Hollywood community as well as the abstract idea of Hollywood.

The greater meaning of the sign was hammered home with the sad case of Peg Entwhistle. Peg Entwhistle was a Welsh actress who moved to Hollywood to find success in motion pictures. After a series of failures, on September 16, 1932, she climbed a ladder on the back of the letter “H” and jumped to her death. 

The newspapers called her the “Hollywood Sign Girl.”

While the sign wasn’t taken down, it also wasn’t given any upkeep. It was never designed to be a permanent structure. 

In 1933, the Hollywoodland syndicate was dissolved and the land that the sign was on was granted to the M.H. Sherman Company. The company found the sign to be more of a burden than an asset, so they made the decision to just cease maintenance. 

In 1936, the second “O” collapsed, and in 1939 the company did spend $2,177.43 to repair the sign. 

However, in 1944, the letter H was destroyed in a storm. 

In 1945, the sign and the land it was on were sold to the City of Los Angeles for the token amount of $1. 

For almost six years, the sign read “OLLYWOODLAND” because of the missing H. 

By 1949 there were demands that the sign be taken down because it was becoming an eyesore.

It was at this point that the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in. They offered to pay to repair the sign under the condition that the last four letters “LAND” was to be removed, as the sign was now representing the community of Hollywood, not just a real estate development anymore. 

In September 1949, the HOLLYWOODLAND sign became the HOLLYWOOD sign.

The Hollywood sign became entrenched as the iconic symbol of Hollywood throughout the 1950s and 1960s. 

However, by the early 1970s, the sign was once again in a dilapidated state. In fact, it was worse than it was in the 1940s. 

The first O had broken in half to look like a lowercase u, and the third O had completely collapsed. It now read “Hullywo d”

In 1973 the Sign was designated a Historic Cultural Monument by the Cultural Heritage Board of the City of Los Angeles. That fact in and of itself didn’t do anything to fix the sign, however. 

There was a series of fundraising events in 1973 to restore the sign and they did manage to raise $15,000 to restore the sign. The sign was fixed, but it was only a short-term solution. 

The fact remains that the sign was only intended to be up for 18 months, and it was now up for over 50 years. 

This point was hammered home on February 10, 1978, when a wind storm damaged almost every letter on the sign. 

A structural analysis of the sign after the storm found that the telephone pole which was originally used to support the sign were rotted and infested with termites. 

It became clear to everyone that the sign didn’t just need to be repaired, it needed to be replaced. 

The Save the Sign Committee was formed to raise the $250,000 needed to replace the sign with a more permanent structure.

The leader of the campaign was the publisher of Playboy, Hugh Heffner. The goal was to get all nine letters in the sign sponsored. 

In short order, they all were. Some were sponsored by celebrities like Alice Cooper, Andy Williams, and Gene Autry. Other letters were sponsored by companies like Warner Brothers Records.

On August 8, 1978, the old sign was destroyed, and construction began on the new sign, which was designed to look just like the old sign. 

The new sign has a foundation of 194 tons of concrete, and embedded in the concrete are 20 vertical steel support beams. 

The letters themselves are made out of corrugated baked enamel sheet metal panels.

The new sign was unveiled in a televised ceremony on November 11, 1978.

Today the sign is a joint project of three different groups: the City of Los Angeles, which owns the land that the sign sits on, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce which owns the licensing rights to the image of the sign, and the Hollywood Sign Trust which does repairs and maintenance on the sign.

The sign was repainted in 1993, 2003, and in 2013, with paint donated for the project each time. 

The biggest investments in the sign have been in the area of security. 

If you have seen a movie where someone is sitting up at the sign looking out over the city…..you can’t do that. 

Because the Hollywood sign is the signature landmark for the city of Los Angeles, many people tried to walk to the sign. The problem was, that the areas closest to the sign were residential neighborhoods that couldn’t handle the traffic.

Also, the trails going to the sign really aren’t very safe.

To discourage vandalism, the entire sign is now enclosed in fencing and there is a 24/7 security system in place to catch trespassers. 

Over the years, pranksters have changed the sign to say something else. This has included “Caltech,” “Hollyweed,” “Holywood,” “Go NAVY”, and others. 

Likewise, the sign has been copied around the world. The Dollywood amusement park was based on Dolly Parton envisioning the sign with a D instead of an H. 

There is a large sign over Bra?ov, Romania, with the word “Brasov” overlooking the city. Likewise, a large Marseille sign was erected over the town of Marseille, France

There is even a small Hollywood sign over the tiny village of Hollywood in County Wicklow, Ireland

There are dozens of city signs inspired by the Hollywood sign all over the world. 

Of all the great iconic landmarks around the world, the Hollywood sign might be the oddest of them all. It was never intended to be a landmark, let alone a permanent structure. It was supposed to just sell houses. 

100 years later, perhaps it was the fact that it wasn’t supposed to be a landmark is the thing that makes it the perfect landmark for Hollywood.

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Seth Louviere over on Castbox He writes,

Wow, what an amazing podcast! I consider myself someone who enjoys learning, and this show definitely teaches me new and interesting things every day. I have finally caught up to the newest episode and joined the completionist club! As a Cajun myself, my favorite episodes were the ones on the Acadian expulsion and Mardi Gras. I’m happy that you got the full experience, Gary! Laissez le bon temps rouler!

Merci beaucoup, Seth!  I did enjoy my Cajun Mardi Gras experience in Lafayette, and I’d love to go back an experience it again someday. As for Louisiana-themed episodes, I have a few on my list. One would be former governor Huey Long, who was a fascinating character, and another would be the city of New Orleans itself. An incredible amount of history is located in one of the worst geologic places in North America to put a city. 

Remember if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.