Shortly after the moving picture went mainstream, cinema became the dominant cultural art form, replacing literature and theater by a wide margin. The nexus of world cinema was, and still is, to a lesser degree, the United States of America. With movies, millions of men and women could be primed to fight wars, citizens could be swayed to favor one political ideology over another, and patriotism could be imbibed in the population at a scale and effectiveness the world had never seen before. More than domestic cohesion, though, Hollywood became the center of several global revolutions. People from the world over were raised in American cinema and grew up with a strong fondness for American values. The dreams that Hollywood sold motivated immigrants to show up on the shores of New York and helped rewrite the history of the world many times over. It made sense to commemorate this cultural power of Hollywood by entrenching it and making it ubiquitous. Thus, the Hollywood Sign was born.
The Origin Of the Hollywood Sign
The Hollywood Sign was commissioned in 1923. At the time, due to the success of cinema, a great many people in the film industry got rich quickly. This new class of rich Hollywood hotshots naturally wanted to live in close proximity to the home of the cinema, and so there was an immense demand for upscale housing in the area. The Hollywood Sign was to be a promotional advertisement for a new luxury housing settlement called "Hollywoodland." The first iteration of the Hollywood Sign was an advertisement up high in the hills of Mount Lee in Los Angeles that spelled 'Hollywoodland.' The project cost $21,000, which, adjusting for inflation, amounts to $360,000 today.
Interestingly, the sign was built entirely out of wood, perhaps because steel was still being rationed in the wake of World War I. It was built with thousands of bulbs that flashed to attract attention at night. The words 'Holly,' 'Wood,' and 'Land' would flash one at a time for maximum impact. There were two spotlights below the sign to further draw attention to the spectacle. The entire structure was only meant to stay up for one year as part of the marketing campaign for the housing complex, but due to the rapid rise of the Golden Age of Cinema, the sign went from a marketing stunt to a cultural and economic landmark. For the next couple of decades, the Sign would remain in its wooden form, retaining its outdated suffix.
The architect, Thomas Fisk Goff, was an English painter who moved to Los Angeles during the economic boom and founded the Crescent Sign Company. His company was trusted enough to design this historical icon. Today, despite his monumental legacy, he is mostly recognized for his paintings, which can be purchased at various exhibitions.
Eventually, as Hollywood became an internationally recognized brand, the powers that be decided that since it no longer served as an advertisement for a housing settlement, this Sign should serve as an advertisement for Hollywood as a whole. In 1949, the 'Wood' was removed, and thus the iconic Hollywood Sign as people know it today was born.
Deterioration & Restoration
As time went on, the wood began to rot, and the foundations were attacked by termites. The 'H' collapsed, and the 'O' became disfigured. One story goes that the Sign's caretaker, Albert Kothe, was driving up Mount Lee while intoxicated and lost control of his car. He crashed into the 'H' and totally destroyed it, adding further damage to the already crumbling structure. Luckily, old Albert was unhurt.
It wasn't until the 1970s that there was a concerted effort to fix the sign. Prominent residents of Hollywood footed the cost. Donors included Alice Cooper, Hugh Hefner, and Warner Bros. Nine donors, each contributing one letter, donated a total of $1.1 million (adjusted for inflation). This restoration was far more expensive than the original construction, as this time around, the letters were made of steel.
Over the decades, pranksters and guerilla artists took turns adding their own alterations to the Sign. Famous alterations have included 'Hollyweed,' 'Oil War,' 'Caltech,' and 'Ollywood.' However, ever since the metallic restoration, alterations have become close to impossible as the letters require heavy equipment to alter or replace. In one case of defacement post-restoration, a group of marines pulled the 'H' back so that it was out of view; This was done to bring attention to the Oliver North and Iran-Contra hearings.
Restricted Access & Viewing Points
Repeated alterations have pushed the county to restrict access to the Hollywood Sign. This has become a point of controversy as many activists have argued that the public should have access to the sign since it is tax dollars that maintain it. Nonetheless, there are two official viewing points where visitors can get a good look at the Sign without breaking any laws. Go to the Griffith Park Observatory or the Hollywood and Highland Center to get a solid view of the sign. Both locations are listed on Apple and Google Maps.
The easiest way to see the sign from the ground is to go to 'The Last House on Mulholland', which is near the intersection of Ledgeway Drive and Mulholland Highway.
In the future, there might be better ways to access the Hollywood Sign. Warner Bros. offered to build a $100,000 tramway that would take tourists right up to the sign, but nothing concrete has been put into action.