Hollywoodland, the History of a Landmark

In the beginning
Of course there were the indigenous people. A Spanish priest described Indian villages in the area in his diary in 1769. But like so much of the past, their fate has not been recorded. Mexico controlled the area until the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Then new people began to filter in to inhabit the area that was now called Rancho La Brea. At this site, people had built a tar refinery where workers kept finding numerous preserved fossil remains. Eventually the La Brea Tar Pits were given to Los Angeles County.

These people came from the East and the residents were made of pioneers, ranchers, and cowboys. One local "character" was "Greek George" who had a herd of camels (he had taken part in the discontinued US Camel Corps experiment). During the war, he released the camels which wandered through the area into the late 1800s.

In what might be seen as typical Hollywood style, the name isn't original. The area had been laid out for development in 1887 and the name came from the wife of the developer who had a friend in Chicago whose summer house had been named that. It was so liked that it was appropriated for the name of the ranch the couple lived on and eventually the town when it officially became a town in 1897.

Early Hollywood held no clue as to what it would become. There were still herds of livestock in the area (laws had to be written to prevent them from using the main streets in groups over 200). Liquor was only allowed if the person had a medical prescription (perhaps, that is a precursor...), bicycles were not allowed on the sidewalk. But that couldn't last forever.

The pictures come to town
The first people who would become an industry began arriving around 1907. The first studio—the Nestor Film Company—was built in 1911. At the time, the small studio's budget per week was $1200—for three films (actors had to rehearse by stopwatch in order to use as little film stock as possible).

The town soon inspired more movie people to arrive, having a wonderful climate and diverse locations. By 1912, there were fifteen film companies in the area. This was also induced by Thomas Edison attempting to sue people who were "bootlegging" his film technology.

Cecil B. DeMille came to town in 1913 and shot his first picture there. By 1916 aspiring actors and actresses from all over we traveling to Hollywood in search of stardom. It gradually grew from a dusty town, still occupied by barns sharing acreage with studios (DeMille leased as barn, using half while the other half was occupied by horses), to a thriving town with more and more modern conveniences and businesses.

The American entrepreneurial spirit of the entertainment business was matched by that of the real estate developers. And what better way for the Hollywoodland Real Estate Group to advertise and promote than to put on its own spectacle. In 1923, the company spent $21,000 to erect a huge sign in order to facilitate its promotion of some prime property.

HOLLYWOODLAND. Thirteen letters. Thirty feet wide and fifty feet tall, made of 3' x 9' steel squares. It was held up and together with "scaffolding, pipes, wires and telephone poles." There was a large "white dot" (35 feet in diameter) in front of the sign with lights around its perimeter, in order to "catch the eye." The sign was illuminated by 4000 20-watt bulbs spaced 8 inches apart. Originally, it lit up in sequence: HOLLY, then WOOD, then LAND. It was said to be visible 25 miles away.

A symbol in decline
Sometimes more significance is put on an event than it warrants because it makes a good story. So while it didn't "signal" anything, the story of Lillian Millicent "Peg" Entwistle seems like a nice place to begin the narrative of the deterioration of the monument.

Like so many actors, actresses, and others, she had been drawn to Hollywood with the hopes and dreams of becoming a star (having already had a taste of success on Broadway). But as so many stories like that turn out, success was not only elusive but nonexistent. Feeling rejected by the town and its industry, on 18 September 1932, she made her way up the hill and climbed to the top of the H. And jumped. Her suicide note reads: "I am afraid I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E."

The sign wasn't doing quite so well, either. The Great Depression bankrupted the developers and maintenance was discontinued in 1939 (America had more pressing matters, like the beginning of the Second World War). The light bulbs were stolen, vandalism and weathering left holes in the sign, and the area became overgrown. At the time, the local community began a campaign to have it removed (using a parody of the armed forces saying) claiming that "Loose Signs...Sink Neighborhoods."

While the town grew in size and reputation, the sign was sold off in 1944 by the bankrupt developer, along with 450 acres of land. In 1949, the downward spiral seemed nearing completion when the H fell down. But at that time, the Chamber of Commerce came to its rescue. They repaired the damaged letters and removed the LAND, making it the sign we are all familiar with today.

It may have been saved at that time, but the sign continued to wear throughout the decades (some claimed it reflected Hollywood's initial decline due to the explosion of television as an entertainment medium). But it was never forgotten. In 1973, it was honored by the Cultural Heritage Board with "landmark status." But, again, that wasn't enough to truly save the symbol. In 1976, some vandals made the sign say HOLLYWEED. Further deterioration befell it: the top of the D fell, the first O fell apart, the third O fell down the side of the mountain, and someone set fire to the bottom of the second L.

Saving the sign
The Chamber of Commerce decided that the sign needed to be rebuilt and put on a "Save the Sign" campaign. This would take at least $250,000 and was harder than anyone had expected. Part of it was what seemed terrible luck. A 1973 fundraiser featuring silent film star Gloria Swanson failed when fog rolled in. The band Fleetwood Mac attempted a concert in 1977 to benefit the sign, but was prevented by local residents from performing.

And along comes Hef. In a kind act of charity (or positive publicity), Hugh Hefner opened the infamous Playboy Mansion for a charity event to raise money for the sign. It was an astounding success, raising thousands of dollars. Alice Cooper reportedly "bought" an O in honor of Groucho Marx, singing cowboy Gene Autry an L, and Andy Williams "got" the W.

Work began in August 1978, during which the town was without its famous symbol. Three months later, the new sign, made of enamel letters (now 45 feet high) and supported by a steel frame, was ready for the public. In 1995, it was given a new paint job as a gift from Dutch Boy paints.

In true Hollywood fashion, the industry chose to make the sign its symbol for its part in the worldwide millennium parties of 2000 (as the mayor of Los Angeles noted, " New York has Times Square, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Cairo has the pyramids. Los Angeles' world symbol is our own Hollywood sign").

After months of planning and preparation, everything was set. The mayor of Los Angeles, standing along with Tonight Show host Jay Leno, was to flip a switch at 15 seconds to midnight to begin the extravaganza—a 450 foot platform had to be built in front of the sign in order to handle all the special effects and lighting. "Lightning strikes" special effect machines (using 250,000 watts of light—the total wattage being over 2,000,000) were first, followed by different lights that not only illuminated the letters but gave them a "dance of color and changing hues." Programmable strobe lights were in place to outline the letters.

Typical Hollywood flash and overkill, but not entirely inappropriate as a way to also honor its longest lived symbol.

(Sources: www.hollywoodsign.org/plotline, www.britannica.com, source of the suicide note was www.findadeath.com)

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