When it comes to the Hollywood sign’s history, only a few people have cared about it. What is now one of the greatest landmarks in Los Angeles and recognizable sign throughout the world, in the past was just an eyesore for the residents that just wanted to be torn down. Hugh Hefner was one of the few people who gave a damn about the sign and It took a public campaign to save it in the 70s.
This is the long, strange history of the Hollywood sign.
The truth is, the Hollywood sign was never meant to last for decades. It was placed as a temporary advertisement to publicize a new real estate development. The massive sign overlooking the Los Angeles basin was erected in 1923.
The sign was in the spotlight during the night. Each letter was 30 feet wide and 50 feet tall, altogether the sign had 4,000 light bulbs that flashed “HOLLY,” “WOOD,” and “LAND.”
The caretaker of the sign, Albert Kothe, lived behind the two LLs, and regularly climbed up to replace burned-out light bulbs.Despite the huge publicity, the planned development never really took off. By 1939, he maintenance funds had been used up and Kothe moved away. The sign quickly deteriorated. Vandals stole all of the lightbulbs and the metal framing began to rust and disintegrate. The painted plywood began to buckle. The “H” blew over in a storm in 1949.
In 1944, the developers of the sign deeded Hollywoodland to the city of Los Angeles. The residents weren’t thrilled about this and began agitating for the sign’s removal and by 1949 the city agreed. However, in the last minute the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in and pledged $5,000 to replace the “H” and tear down the “LAND.” It was soon serving as the backdrop to movies once again (like the 1954 film “Down Three Dark Streets”).
During the Iran-Contra scandal, when Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council testified before Congress, the Hollywood sign became “OLLYWOOD.”
Over the years, the sign has been “modified” many times. In 1976, activists revised the sign to celebrate a new California law that changed the charge for possession of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor.
The award for most significant editing of the sign goes to the pranksters at Caltech, who in 1987 hung plastic sheets over the sign to write the name of their university.
By the late 1970s, the wooden structure was really starting to disintegrate. Half the first “O” had splintered apart while the third “O” had completely crumbled.
Unprompted by the city, Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner launched a fundraising campaign to replace the sign with something more sturdy. “Clearly the town had forgotten it, or it wouldn’t have been in such terrible disrepair,” he said later in an interview about the sign. He eventually raised $250,000 to replace the wooden sign with one made from sheetmetal and steel.
After 92 years turbulent history, countless series of modifications, and being rejected by its own residents, the Hollywood sign now still stands strong as a trademark and symbol of Los Angeles.