The Hollywood Sign and the Finish Line


The Hollywood sign is only slightly younger than the district itself.
Harvey and Daeida Wilcox founded Hollywood in 1887 as a community for likeminded followers of the temperance movement. No one knows for sure why they chose that name. One theory is that Daeida met a woman on a train with a summer home called Hollywood. Alternatively, it may have been a reference to the area’s abundant toyon, a red-berried shrub also known as California holly. Either way, Hollywood was incorporated as a municipality in 1903 and merged with Los Angeles in 1910, the year before the first film studio moved there.

The sign was created as a real-estate advertisement.
By 1923 Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler had decided to invest in an upscale real-estate development called Hollywoodland, which capitalised on the growing recognition of Hollywood as a movie-industry mecca. In order to promote the project, Chandler and his partners put up $21,000 (over $250,000 in today’s money) for 45-foot-high white block letters that were anchored to telephone poles and illuminated by 4,000 light bulbs. At night the billboard flashed in four stages: “Holly,” then “Wood,” then “Land” and then the entire word, “Hollywoodland.” Newspaper articles from the time show that the sign was completed in 1923; however, the exact date is disputed.

A struggling actress took her life there.
Although the Hollywood sign symbolises glamour and stardom, it can also represent broken dreams. In spring 1932 stage actress Peg Entwistle moved from New York City to Los Angeles to try her luck with movies. Soon after she received a part in a murder-mystery film, but the studio reportedly did not renew the option on her contract upon its completion. That September the 24-year-old allegedly climbed a ladder to the “H” on the Hollywoodland sign and jumped off. Her body was later discovered in a ravine downhill. Various newspapers cited her failing acting career as the reason she killed herself. Ironically, a letter had been mailed to her just before her death offering her the lead role in a play about a young woman who commits suicide.

Four letters on the sign were eventually removed.
Regular maintenance on the sign stopped when the Hollywoodland real-estate development went under due to the Great Depression. The “H” even toppled over, so that it briefly read “Ollywoodland.” After ownership of the sign passed to the city in the mid-1940s, the L.A. Recreation and Parks Commission apparently wanted it razed. But the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in, and in 1949 it removed the last four letters and restored the rest.

A new sign replaced the old one in the 1970s.
Despite the 1949 restoration, the Hollywood sign eventually began to deteriorate once again. The third “O,” for example, tumbled down the side of Mount Lee, and arsonists set fire to the bottom of the second “L.” In 1978, Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner held a gala at his mansion, where he and eight other donors, including rock musician Alice Cooper, pledged nearly $28,000 each to fund a replacement. After a three-month period without a sign, construction finished up later that year. The new sign was the same size as the old one, but with structural improvements such as steel footings rather than telephone poles. Since then, it has periodically received a fresh coat of white paint, most recently in December 2012.