The Hollywood 'Sign'

Philip J. Ethington

Every city has its symbol…what would Paris be without the Eiffel Tower…or London without the Tower Bridge...or New York without the Brooklyn Bridge or Empire State Building? And remember how upset the people of Copenhagen were when a vandal sawed the head off their beloved little mermaid? Well we have our symbol, the Hollywood sign, and the city wants to tear it down.
— KABC Talk Radio (AM 79) Display Ad, LA Times, 17 Jan. 1973
To mention it in the same breath with the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building is an insult to the intelligence.
— Charlotte L. Grable, LA
Times, 3 Feb. 1973

Figure 1
The Hollywood sign, with its distinctive dog-eared block letters and sinuous typography, is the mother of all backdrops, reproduced ad infinitum where Los Angeles is represented. It is not entirely clear whether Los Angeles has a leading icon. But the Hollywood sign is certainly a leading candidate, and no other city of world-historic scale has ever had such an unlikely visual moniker. The creators of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign (its original form) had no sense of historic destiny whatsoever: they built nothing more than a giant billboard. The 50-foot tall letters were erected in 1923 from telephone poles, wood framing and sheet-metal facing by the Hollywoodland Development Company — 'not designed to survive the sale of the last lot'.[1]

Colossal kitsch might be its formal aesthetic classification. Unplanned, unintended, unsigned and even uncreated in a profound way — in effect a 'found' object — it has nevertheless ascended to the very Pantheon of global urban icons. Considered as a structure, the Hollywood sign is the complete inverse of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, the Kremlin and Big Ben. From the ancient Colossus of Rhodes onward, urban icons have been monumental structures, built to make a very serious statement about their city’s grandeur. The HOLLYWOODLAND sign was built not to last: only to promote a single neighbourhood in a city that as yet had no grandeur.

Figure 2
Situated on the slopes of Mt Lee 1,000 feet above the city (1,700 feet above sea level), it can be read from a distance of 20 miles. It was originally illuminated by 4,000 light bulbs and was maintained for years by a caretaker named Albert Kothe, who lived in a cabin behind the first 'L'. Actress Peg Entwistle, despondent over her failure to achieve stardom in Hollywood, displayed a tragic sense of humour by killing herself in a jump from the top of the H in 1932. Fittingly, she was unknown (at first) in death as she had been in life:

Apparently having made a spectacular leap to her death from the top of the fifty-foot letter 'H' in the flaming electric sign 'Hollywoodland', which for years has flashed its message nightly over the city, the crumpled body of an attractive but unidentified woman was found in the Hollywood Hills last night by the police.[2]

It was a spectacle with no audience. Eventually, when the Hollywood sign emerged as an urban icon, Peg Entwistle would rise again as the patron martyr of Hollywood’s tragic failures.

The Hollywoodland development company’s maintenance fund ran out in 1939, so Mr Kothe was dismissed. In 1945 the development company (rather ungenerously) donated the sign and hundreds of surrounding acres to the Los Angeles City Recreation and Parks Commission, which never even considered maintaining it.

In 1949 a windstorm toppled the letter 'H' and the Commission immediately decided (not for the last time) to raze the eyesore. Faced with its loss, some Angelenos (and only some) were for the first time prompted to assess the value of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign. City Councilman Lloyd C. Davies 'said his district was sensitive about becoming known as ' 'ollywoodland''.[3] Not surprisingly, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce was the first to the rescue. The actual incorporated City of Hollywood had been absorbed into the City of Los Angeles long ago, in 1910, and the community had ever since struggled to maintain its identity. The sign’s second lease on life was secured in almost identical fashion to its first. The broad-minded businessmen of Hollywood understood the value of a colossal billboard. They cleverly offered to restore the sign (too cheaply, it turned out) provided they were permitted to delete the now-obsolete last four letters. It would have been much more expensive to tear it down, so the City Council and the Recreation and Parks Commission approved the proposal, and the unintended symbol remained erect for a few more decades.

Technically, then, the 'Hollywood sign' was never even created. It came into being through the decay of an earlier sign. The HOLLYWOODLAND sign (1923-49) was certainly well known, but there is no evidence that anyone considered it to be a metonym for 'Los Angeles'. In a passing reference in 1940 Hedda Hopper (the reigning movie columnist) referred to it as 'the famed Hollywoodland sign'. Prior to this there is virtually no mention of the sign in the Los Angeles Times, apart from the stories about Peg Entwistle’s 1932 suicide.[4]

Public discussion of the Hollywoood sign only began in the 1970s, when its decay once again reached a critical stage and the City once again announced plans to tear it down. But during the nearly quarter-century between the first (1949) and second (1973) attempts by city officials to tear it down, a different kind of discussion about urban icons took place, ignoring the Hollywood sign altogether. It was in just these years after World War II that Los Angeles emerged on the world stage as a recognized, if ungainly, metropole of global economy and culture. The 'golden age' of Los Angeles was taking shape. A few indicators of this include: the massive expansion that took place during the war; the constellation of émigré artists and intellectuals who, having taken took refuge there, raised its profile; the large internal migration in the 1950s to settle permanently in LA — drawn by cheap homebuilding and the spreading fame in the mass media of a 'Southern California Lifestyle'.

As if its residents had suddenly become aware that Los Angeles was something to be proud of, proposals began to appear in the press concerning the city’s need for a monumental icon comparable to the Eiffel Tower. Frequently mentioned was the colossal Christ of the Andes (1904), which stands at the border of, and commemorates the everlasting peace between, Chile and Argentina. In 1951 the sculptor Roger Noble Burnham was riding a wave of success after his commission to sculpt the 12-foot bronze statue of General Douglas MacArthur that stands sentry over MacArthur (formerly Westlake) Park. Burnham proposed a truly gigantic statue of Christ to stand at the very crest of Mt Lee. Burham’s design called for a 150-foot white marble Christ — nearly three times the height of the Christ of the Andes and 50 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty (measured from her toes — the base adds 50 feet). This statue, titled 'The Answer' was never built, but the renderings place it just behind and above the Hollywood sign, as if to rebuff that monument’s claim to symbolic status.[5] Still, 'The Answer', had it been built, would have been dwarfed, significantly, by the even more symbolic 500-foot television tower — one of the first commercial broadcasting ventures anywhere — that was built atop Mt Lee in 1939-40 by the now-defunct Don Lee Broadcasting Company.[6]

Several years later, a homesick ex-patriot Angeleno named George St George wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times, reporting 'a recurring dream' that 'had followed me from Egypt to Iceland to London'. He saw 'the outlines of the hills beyond the Hollywood sign, and upon the highest point, a magnificent statue of the Virgin Mary, somewhat in the style of the Christ statue upon the Corcovado in Rio, but more splendid and imposing. Her arms open toward the city named after Her'. St George opined 'that America’s fourth largest city deserves a distinctive landmark which could rival the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower'. Thankfully, these proposals apparently generated little enthusiasm.[7]

Through at least the 1950s, the HOLLYWOODLAND sign and the Hollywood sign mostly likely stood for little more than the original real estate development and the locality of Hollywood. That locality, of course, also stood for the entire motion picture industry. The conflation of 'Hollywood' with the movies took place quite independently from the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, constituting a complex story in itself.[8] That locality was indeed the birthplace of the American motion picture industry, but by the 1930s more movies were made in Culver City (M-G-M) and Glendale (Universal) than in Hollywood proper.

Figure 3
Doubtless, it was the global movie business that gave the locality its fame, and not vice versa. Once the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce truncated 'LAND' from the real estate sign, however, the sign’s anchor to the local ground was lifted, and it could now float freely to signify 'the movies'. The next step would be for the sign also to signify 'Los Angeles', which by transitivity involved the further conflation of Los Angeles with its most distinctive export. Regardless, however, of this symbolic detachment, the 50-foot letters remained at 1,700 foot altitude on Mt Lee, a vantage point visible from nearly every point in the metropolis south of Mt Lee. The chemistry of the sign’s association with the global movie industry and with the larger metropolis eventually crystallized into the urban icon we know today.

Sometime between 1949 and 1973, it is most likely that the Hollywood sign underwent its world-historic transformation from a mere local landmark of eccentric notoriety into an icon that stood for these two larger entities. It will take a serious research programme into the vast archives of historical postcards, commercial advertisements and global media to isolate the date at which this transformation from symbol to icon took place — something beyond the scope of this short essay. But it is clear that public discussion of the Hollywood sign by the early 1970s had reached a very different plane. 'What is the sign’s real value?' asked John Pastier in an insightful Los Angeles Times article of 1973. 'For one thing, it reassures tourists, in properly eccentric fashion, that Hollywood exists.' The 1949 intent of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce seems clearly borne out in this observation. Pastier’s next sentence is more significant: 'Even for many residents of long standing, Los Angeles would not be itself without those nine letters of confirmation; for 50 years, millions of Angelenos have seen the sign daily, and sheer longevity has made it rich with meaning.'[9]

The 1970s crisis of the sign’s decay produced a remarkable outpouring of public opinion, debate and at least one mark of a true urban icon’s birth: its arrival in serious art. If not the first, then certainly the most visible arrival was the sign’s treatment by the singer-songwriter Dory Previn, in her song 'Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign', written in 1972. Previn, along with her ex-husband André Previn (they separated in 1965), had a commitment to art that rode the boundary between the popular and the refined. Her lyrics from this period were intensely autobiographical. Identifying with Sylvia Plath, her thoughts often turned to the tragic. The 'Mary C. Brown' of the title is based on Peg Entwistle. 'I was going to have lunch with a friend one day in the Beachwood area when I saw the sign up close for the first time. It was like Stonehenge, the remnants of an old civilization, an ancient totem. I ran right home and wrote the lyrics.'[10]

The result is an ironic play on Emma Lazarus’ great epigraph on the base of the Statue of Liberty.[11] The first stanza invokes not the Statue of Liberty, but the Christ of the Andes — a remarkably common reference, as we have seen: 'you know / the hollywood sign / that stands / in the hollywood hills / i don't think / the christ of the andes / ever blessed / so many ills'. The poem/lyrics continue: 'Give me your poor / your tired your pimps / your carhops / your cowboys / your midgets'.[12] Before the year was out, Previn had teamed up with producer Zev Bufman to write and stage a Broadway play by the same name. The set design, of course, was dominated by huge letters (only the first six, due to their size). But the previews went horribly and Bufman cancelled the show before it even opened.[13]

'Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood sign' collapsed in New York, but it may have achieved for the sign just enough recognition to motivate Angelenos to embrace the sign in a serious way for the first time. In 1973 pranksters altered the sign to read, temporarily, 'Hollyweed': an indication of its newfound media attention. But the City officials were moved only to announce, once again, their intention to tear the dangerous shipwreck down. Then began a remarkable mobilization. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce once again spearheaded the campaign, teaming up this time with KABC Talk Radio. KABC and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce launched, on 17 January 1973, its 'Save the Sign' campaign. KABC ran a full-page ad in the LA Times with slogan 'Today the Sign, Tomorrow Grauman’s!'[14] Notice especially that by this point the public could understand 'The Sign' to mean 'the Hollywood sign'. The semiotic 'sign' had become 'The Sign'.

It only took $15,000 to reinforce the nine letters. As John Pastier observed, 'The city’s behavior is inexplicable: it has owned this landmark for 30 years, but has renounced all responsibility for its upkeep.' Indeed, the dilapidation of 'The sign' had no other cause than government negligence. City officials must have genuinely hated it. But the KABC campaign was a success. By April the donations to the 'Save the Sign Committee' topped $15,000. A month later, 100 cyclists completed a 20-mile fundraising race. And the Hollywood delegations to City Hall had their effect. The City of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board officially listed the sign as a historic landmark, 'Monument # 111'.

The ceremony celebrating the victory of the Save the Sign Campaign, hosted by Gloria Swanson, was ruined by a thick fog. But the fog may have been a courtesy, for 'The sign', like the silent film stars, was in serious decline. The $15,000, it turns out, was only enough to keep the bulldozers at bay. The decay was now so irreversible that the letters simply needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, at a cost of almost $30,000 per letter (a total of $180,000). By 1978, the top of the D and the entire third O fell to the ground, and arsonists badly burned the first L.

It was during this period of pathetic spectacle that Ed Ruscha realized that 'The sign' would serve well his experiments in (photo)graphic depiction of the vernacular landscape. In the mid- to late-1970s he executed a series of views of the Hollywood sign, such as The Back of Hollywood (1977).

Figure 4
Ruscha’s foray into the vernacular landscape was not an embrace but a rejection, at least of 'The sign':

I looked outside my window here and I saw the sign Hollywood and it became a subject for me. It only lasted for a while, so the actual remnants of the sign are not even important to me. I don’t even think it should stay. It doesn’t even mean landmark to me. It might as well fall down. That’s more Hollywood, to have it fall down or be removed. But in the end it’s more Hollywood to put it back up.[15]

Art Seidenbaum, the LA Times’ influential cultural columnist, looked down his nose with the headline 'Down with Hollywood', drawing a line between the refined and the vulgar. Seidenbaum’s mock-prophetic opening, 'I have seen the sign', promised a sarcastic paragraph:

I have seen the sign. It is shabby by disrepair. It has been used as a prop for Gypsy Boots in a bad movie called ‘Mondo Hollywood’ if bad memory is correct. It served as a background for some of the scenes in ‘The Loved One,’ which was Marty Ransohoff’s good-bad translation of Waugh’s novel on death as a production number. It was in the title of Dory Previn’s recent play which died before opening.
Not much of a cultural heritage.[16]

Seidenbaum’s column provoked days of letter-writing to the LA Times Editor. One woman sent a cheque with her personal motivation: 'My little girl in 1925 learned to spell from the sign.' Others quite agreed with Seidenbaum: 'The ugliness of the sign, which is so clear from our home below it, and its utter lack of worth are reason enough to tear it down.' But the ugliness of the sign was largely a function of distance. 'Sure it’s ugly up close', one reader pointed out, 'but so is an oil painting by Rembrandt.' Others hardly took the debate seriously: 'I think they ought to build up the sign and tear down Hollywood' wrote Joe Marr of Santa Monica. A few readers even reflected on the underlying issues: 'Perhaps in these days of rapid, disorienting change, wrote Elaine Burke of Los Angeles, it’s wise to retain familiar, comfortable symbols that are not positively unesthetic. In this, and in other matters, when it doubt, let’s not destroy.' That note of 'familiarity', no matter how 'unesthetic', is a common theme among the sign’s supporters. 'The Hollywood Sign has been a friend for seven years', Charles Allen of Los Angeles wrote: 'It tells me how clear the air is, or otherwise, on the way to work.'[17]

In the debate over the destruction or preservation of the Hollywood sign we may be witnessing the birth of an icon — that moment when it leaves the local and the particular and enters the global and the universal. It is especially telling that 'The sign' so emerged in such an accidental way, as if the sign, by default in the absence of any rival, and by common acclaim among locals who had adopted it as their visual landmark in an otherwise disorienting city. This seems to be one peculiar quality of genuine urban icons: they cannot be intended.

The period of the Hollywood sign’s detachment from the 'LAND' that tied it only to a place was the period of Los Angeles’s own 'Belle Epoque', the post-war era in which Los Angeles became a global metropolis: the 1950s—1970s. It would be difficult, in so short a space, to explain the qualities that characterized Los Angeles’s debut into the club of world-historic cities. The key elements, however, can at least be listed: aerospace and mass-cultural entertainment supported on a substrate of oil and consumer industries.[18] In 1970, California became the most populous state in the nation; Los Angeles was the nation’s second largest city; the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, had been born and raised in the metropolis; the richest man in the world, J. Paul Getty, also raised in Los Angeles, had built his empire of oil on the fortunes he pumped from beneath the city; the vehicles that had just carried men to the moon and back were designed and built in Los Angeles; and of course, movies and television spread images of Southern California living throughout the world.

Cities that excel in the innovative technological economic cultures of a given epoch tend to become exemplars of that epoch and often become lightning-rods of global culture.[19] So it is not surprising that the attention of the world was directed toward Los Angeles at this moment. And there was the sign, the lightning-rod for all that attention. That it was cheap and vulgar, redolent of the shallow façades of the back-lot 'dream dumps' that Nathanael West satirized, recommended it all the more to the exalted role of Urban Icon. If it 'said' Hollywood (as in the movie business), then it was all the more fit to stand metonymically for a metropolis whose fame was first and most globally spread by that industry. Another colossal structure may have served just as well, had any existed in such a salient, visible location. For size and location seem to be prerequisites of successful urban icons, and the Hollywood sign certainly had these. Los Angeles had already made itself into a global landmark; the world simply needed a universal way to 'see' it, and the Hollywood sign was not only there and visible, but it also said so much more about the way the city was 'seen' (as scene) than a statue of the Virgin Mary (Queen of the Angels) could ever have.

Urban Icons seem to crystallize just as a classic era of a given culture turns into the stone of 'the past'. The past of Classic Hollywood under the Eight Studios and the star system had just passed by the 1970s and the whole period from the 1920s through 1950s — essentially pre-televison — was celebrated in literature and ossified in movies like Chinatown (Dir. Roman Polanski, 1974) and That’s Entertainment ( Dir. Jack Haley, Jr, 1974).

The ultimate restoration (a complete rebuilding, as dictated by its longtime sponsor, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce) of the sign took place in 1978, as stars packed into Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion for an auction that should be portrayed someday in Sesame Street: 'individual Sign letters were "auctioned" off at $27,700 per letter…Alice Cooper "bought" an "O" (in honor of Groucho Marx), while singing cowboy Gene Autry sponsored an "L" and Paul Williams sponsored the "W".[20]

The Hollywood sign emerged in the 1980s as a shrine, carefully restored and fortified with barbed wire to deter further suicides and defacings. There are numerous websites devoted to it, led by the non-profit Hollywood sign Foundation, established by the successive Chamber of Commerce campaigns.[21] The Hollywood sign had become a billboard for Los Angeles, from 'The Industry' — as it is called here, to the City itself. A verbal sign, it is quintessentially visual: without its blocky, S-curve profile it only reads 'Hollywood.' Seen (not merely written) as a structure in the landscape, it means a Los Angeles that is epitomized by the mass visual entertainment transformation of world culture.

By forcing verbal signs into an irreducibly visual posture, the Hollywood sign represents the triumph of the visual over the verbal, but its legible form on the slopes of Mt Lee, catching the sunlight at sunset or shining like a daylight neon beacon through the smog — the only legible thing in that haze — the Hollywood sign also verifies — in a vaporous and even vapid way — the centrality of place in all urban cultural forms. It declares that from this place arose the mass visual culture that displaced print culture, represented by an icon that has no author.

[1] John Pastier, 'The Hollywood sign — one of the best of our Los Angeles symbols', Los Angeles Times, 6 Feb. 1973.

[2] Los Angeles Times, 19 Sep. 1932.

[3] 'Hollywood sensitive about dropped "H" on hillside sign', Los Angeles Times, 11 Jan. 1949.

[4] 'Girl leaps to death from sign', Los Angeles Times, 19 Sep. 1932; Hedda Hopper, 'Hedda Hopper’s HOLLYWOOD'. Los Angeles Times, 14 Apr. 1940. One instance suggests that it was still regarded as a mere l.

[5] Norris Leap, 'Colossal statue of Christ planned', Los Angeles Times, 8 May 1951.

[6] 'Station planned for television', Los Angeles Times, 9 Apr. 1939.

[7] George St George, 'He dreams of queen' (letter to the Editor), Los Angeles Times, 27 May 1957.

[8] For the rise of 'Hollywood' as the identity of the corporate identity of the Big Eight studios, see Steven J. Ross, Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton, NJ, 1998), 121-239.

[9] Pastier, 'The Hollywood sign'.

[10] Digby Diehl, 'Dory Previn’s poetic journey to sanity', Los Angeles Times 12 Sep. 1971; on Previn’s style in this period see Robert Hilburn, 'Discovering Dory Previn in Person', Los Angeles Times, 4 Dec. 1973.

[11] See 'The Statue of Liberty', in John Higham, Send These To Me: Immigrants in Urban America (Baltiimore, 1984), 71-80.

[12] Dory Previn, On My Way to Where (New York, 1971), pp. 89-90.

[13] Dan Sullivan, 'On the wreck of the "Mary C. Brown", Los Angeles Times, 3 Dec. 1972.

[14] The preservationist movement in Los Angeles dates in general from the 1970s as well. Its leading organization, the Los Angeles Conservancy, was founded in 1978, growing from the successful effort to save the Los Angeles Central Library from demolition. (last accessed 26 Jan. 2006).

[15] Quoted on website (last accessed 26 Jan. 2006).

[16] LA Times, 23 Jan. 1973.

[17] Pastier, 'The Hollywood sign'; 'Love Hollywood, Love That Sign?' (letters to the Editor), Los Angeles Times, 3 Feb. 1973; 'Hollywood sign' (letters to the Editor), Los Angeles Times, 14 Feb. 1973.

[18] Philip J. Ethington, Ghost Metropolis, Los Angeles: A Cartography of Time, 1900-2001 (forthcoming).

[19] Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization: Culture, Innovation, and Urban Order (London, 1998).

[20] 'The Hollywood sign', at, p. 10.