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100 Years of Hollywood: The Sign that Defined a City
How a giant billboard became LA’s most iconic landmark.
It’s not uncommon for cities to plant their initials up on a hillside for all neighboring municipalities to ogle at. The giant “M” above Missoula, or the Azusa “A”, for example, practically beg locals and visitors alike to make the pilgrimage up the mountain to see them up-close. Some towns go one step further and turn their name into an influencer photo-op like “I Amsterdam” or “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas”. But if you happen to be in Los Angeles, driving North on Gower Street past the iconic Paramount Studios and across the legendary Sunset Boulevard, you’ll be greeted with a dead-on view of perhaps the most famous hillside city label in the world: The Hollywood Sign.
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Los Angeles’ most well-known landmark turned 100 years old this year. The towering sign in the foothills of Griffith Park is as much a part of Los Angeles culture and history as the Dodgers and the 405 freeway. But despite how popular it is, most people have no idea how it got there, what it means, or why LA still feels the need to label itself with a giant sign on a hillside. Here are a few things you probably never knew about LA’s famous sign:
The Hollywood sign was LA’s largest ad
In 1923, virtually zero advertising laws existed limiting the size of billboards and roadside signage, so when Hollywoodland Realty was dreaming up ways to advertise their new luxury housing development in the Hollywood foothills, the sky was the limit — literally. They dreamed up the idea to slap a 500 foot wide, 50 foot tall billboard across the face of the entire hillside. And if that wasn’t enough, they lit it up with 4,000 light bulbs, blazing out over the city for all to see.
Contrary to many people’s imaginations, today the Hollywood sign is not illuminated at night. There are spotlights installed around it, and the city does have the capability to light it up if they want to (more on that in this LA Times article) but if you’re hoping to sneak a peek, plan to get your glimpses during daylight hours or you’ll be disappointed by a dark hillside.
Hollywood is a neighborhood in Los Angeles
Although “Hollywood” has become synonymous with the US film industry, Hollywood itself is actually a neighborhood in Los Angeles county, incorporated in 1887. Daeida Wilcox coined the name, saying she “chose the name Hollywood simply because it sounds nice and because I'm superstitious and holly brings good luck."
In the early 1900s, four major movie studios opened up shop in Hollywood, mostly as an attempt to evade Thomas Edison’s camera and equipment patents that were shutting down productions on the East Coast. The Hollywood Sign didn’t make its appearance for 35 more years, but by then the name “Hollywood” was already tied to the glittering image of movie stars and fame.
The Hollywood sign is not located on Mount Hollywood
While common sense might lead one to believe the Hollywood Sign lies atop Mount Hollywood, the sign itself is actually located on the Southeastern face of Mt. Lee, a 1,708 ft peak in Griffith Park. Mount Hollywood is a slightly less prominent peak about a mile Southeast of the sign.
If you want great views of the Hollywood Sign, however, Mount Hollywood is where you want to go looking. The trail to the top of Mt. Lee leads hikers directly behind and slightly above the Hollywood sign, which can be a disappointing view if you were anticipating the iconic full-frontal view of the sign. Modern Hiker has a great guide to get you to 16 incredible views of the Hollywood sign, if that’s what you’re after.
The Hollywood sign is missing four letters
The original Hollywood sign read “Hollywoodland”, but by 1949 Hollywoodland Realty had gone out of business, the “H” had toppled over, and the sign was in a complete state of disrepair. The Recreation and Parks commission of Los Angeles ordered the sign be demolished.
But by then, the sign had become a beloved landmark, and residents couldn’t bear to part with it. City council overruled the decision to tear down the sign, opting instead to refurbish it — with the stipulation that the last four letters be dropped so that the “Hollywood” sign would refer to the municipal district, rather than the flopped real estate company.
The Hollywood Sign still exists thanks to Playboy Magazine
It’s true, Hugh Hefner himself saved the Hollywood sign from disappearing forever from the hillside not once, but twice! In 1978, the Los Angeles chamber of commerce needed $250,000 to renovate the sign, so Hugh organized a fundraiser to auction off the old letters to movie stars and celebrities who wanted a piece of history for themselves. He raised enough money to fund the renovation, and the Hollywood sign lived on.
Several decades later in 2010, 134 acres around the sign went up for auction to a developer, bringing the future of the sign into question once again. Who stepped in at the last minute with a one million dollar donation to save the sign? You guessed it: Los Angeles legend Mr. Hugh Hefner himself. Vanity Fair wrote a neat article on it when Hefner died in 2017, if you’re interested in further reading.
The Hollywood Sign is a prankster's paradise
Being such a prominent part of Los Angeles culture, it only makes sense that the Hollywood sign has attracted a range of troublemakers and street-artists hoping to leave their mark. All owe their inspiration to Danny Finegood, a Cal State Northridge art student who turned HOLLYWOOD into “HOLLYWEED” in 1976 (a prank which would be revisited in 2017, after California legalized recreational marijuana).
In 1985, an obscure rock band called The Raffeys altered the sign to read “RAFFEYSOD” which, ironically, became the most publicly viewed work the band ever produced. Over the years, football teams and artists continued to prank the sign until an upgraded security system was installed in 2005, at which point the pranks drastically decreased in frequency. The LAist has a great history of all the times the sign has been pranked if you’re curious to read more.
The sign is getting smaller
I mean, not minute-by-minute or anything. No laws of physics are being defied at the Hollywood Sign, as far as I know. But the letters have indeed shrunk since they were first installed. In 1923, the letters were 50 feet high and 30 feet across. After several renovations and a full rebuild in 1978, the current letters stand only 45 feet high and range between 31 feet and 39 feet across.
The Hollywood sign just underwent a deep-cleaning and restoration to get it photo-ready for its 100th birthday, so if you’ve never made your way to Griffith Park to sneak a peek, now is your perfect opportunity to go for a hike, drive, or bike ride. The sign is shining brighter than ever, reminding you that you’re in a place where movie stars roam the hills and giant signs make sure you’ll never get lost.