18 January 2013

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The Bizarre History Of The Hollywood Sign

The most famous sign in the history of mankind is the one that graces the side of the hill above Hollywood, California. As famous a landmark as the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio De Janeiro, the Eiffel Tower in Paris France, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, The Church of the Savior on Blood in Saint Petersburg Russia, and the Statue Of Liberty in New York City, the Hollywood sign is known around the world as the symbol of the American movie industry.



The most famous sign in the history of mankind is the one that graces the side of the hill above Hollywood, California. As famous a landmark as the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio De Janeiro, the Eiffel Tower in Paris France, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, The Church of the Savior on Blood in Saint Petersburg Russia, and the Statue Of Liberty in New York City, the Hollywood sign is known around the world as the symbol of the American movie industry.

The Early Years of Hollywood
Mrs. Daeida Wilcox, the wife of the town's founder, Harvey Wilcox gave Hollywood its name in 1887. Mrs. Wilcox had met a lady on the train, who had explained that the name of her summer home in Florida was called, "Hollywood". Mrs. Wilcox took a real fancy to that name and so Hollywood California was born.

Hollywood remained a small farming community until 1907, when a Chicago film company left Chicago due to bad weather and went to Hollywood to finish shooting its movie. Soon after, the Nestor Film Company from New Jersey moved to Hollywood and converted a barn into Hollywood's first movie studio.

Soon the word got around about Hollywood's year-around good weather and the diverse landscapes in the area, and the early players in the fledging movie industry flocked to Southern California to make movies. By 1912, there were 15 movie studios situated in Hollywood.

Between 1915 and 1920, many independent film studios started operation, and after a few cutthroat years, many of the small film companies merged to create many of the big studio names we recognize today.

Hollywoodland Is Built
Hollywood's rapid growth was fueled by the astronomical growth of its film industry and the 40 million Americans who went to the movies each week. The region also owes its existence to the Owen's Valley Aqueduct and its designer, the famous William Mullholland, head engineer of the Municipal Water Authority, who ensured that the water would continue to flow into the City of Hollywood and the Los Angeles basin.

The Los Angeles Times publisher, Harry Chandler, began to use his wealth to invest into real estate developments. In 1923, he built a development in Hollywood called Hollywoodland. In order to promote his new housing subdivision, Chandler built a sign on the side of Mount Lee in the Hollywood Hills, which read HOLLYWOODLAND, at a cost of $21,000. Even today, $21 thousand is a lot of money, but back then it was a huge amount of money.

Each of the 13 original letters of this billboard was 30-feet wide by 50-feet high. The original sign was lighted by 4,000 20-watt light bulbs, and there was a dot at the end of the word, as if the word was punctuated by a period. During the Roaring Twenties, the night sky of Hollywood was first lit by the word "HOLLY", then "WOOD", then "LAND", and punctuated by the period. Then the lighting sequence would repeat itself.

When it was originally built, the HOLLYWOODLAND sign was only intended to remain on Mount Lee for 18 months.

Ownership Transferred To The City of Hollywood
After the Roaring Twenties crashed with the stock market, the Great Depression, and the United States' entry into World War II, the Hollywoodland real estate development went bankrupt. The Hollywoodland sign that went without maintenance for most of the years of the Great Depression quietly passed its ownership to the City of Hollywood in 1944.

In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce came to the rescue of the sign. It repaired the "H" that had toppled over, removed the "LAND" and its period from the site, and restored the billboard to its current glory in the form we now know it to be.

The "Weed" Generation
During the 1960's and 1970's, the Hollywood sign nearly came to an ugly end once again.

The late 1940's and 1950's took a toll on Hollywood, as many of Hollywood's top film stars were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. During the 1960's, many of the film studios moved operations to the San Fernando Valley. By 1970, Paramount Studios was the only major film company to still call Hollywood home.

The exodus of the film studios from Hollywood left the city in a state of decay and depression. The city simply could not afford the upkeep on its iconic sign, and the weather began to take its toll on the billboard known around the world.

In 1973, the City of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board got the sign declared as an official historical landmark. But this declaration did not slow the destruction of the sign.

During the 1970's, the "D" and the third "O" collapsed and fell down the mountain. Shortly thereafter, an arsonist set the second "L" on fire. Then protesters, who wanted California to loosen their marijuana laws, changed the second and third "O" to an "e". In an evening, "HOLLYWOOD" was transformed into "HOLLYWeeD".

The sign was changed one more time, in 1987, this time for the visit of Pope John Paul II. As a temporary salute to the Pope, the sign was changed for the Pope's visit to read, "HOLYWOOD".

The Revival Years
During the late 1970's, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce set out to restore the sign once again. During the exploratory period of this potential restoration, it was determined that it would take one quarter million dollars to restore the sign to its original pristine form.

Facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce wondered how they would be able to raise the money. Then some of the biggest names in entertainment came to the rescue of the sign.

The rock band Fleetwood Mac started things off by offering a benefit concert. But, Fleetwood Mac was prevented from performing in Hollywood due to local residents stopping the show.

One year later in 1978, Hugh Hefner hosted a gala fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion, and raised the money by auctioning letters for $27,700 per letter. Among the contributors were Glam-Rocker Alice Cooper, singing cowboy Gene Autry, and Andy Williams.

For three months in 1978, the HOLLYWOOD sign was missing from the Los Angeles skyline, while the old sign was torn down and a new sign was built. With 194-tons of concrete, enamel and steel, the sign was reconstructed to survive well into the next century.

Entering The 21st Century
To prevent a repeat of the past, the California Attorney General assigned rights and responsibilities to three government agencies in 1992 for the sign. The City of Los Angeles owns the land where the sign stands. The City of Hollywood owns the licensing rights for the image of the sign. And the Hollywood Sign Trust was assigned to maintain, repair, and perform capital improvements to the sign for the benefit of the public.

In 2000, the Hollywood Sign Trust hired Panasonic to install a state-of-the-art security system, with a large closed circuit, Internet-based surveillance network, which can be monitored 24/7 over the Internet, to protect the sign from vandals and fire. The security system was upgraded again in 2005. Since the security system is Internet-based, anyone on the Internet can watch over the sign 24 hours a day on its live web cam, located at: www.hollywoodsign.org/Webcams/




About Today's Contributor:
Morris Timlen maintains the Bronze Plaques Blog, which specializes in the study of the history and style of commercial signs, and the many materials used in architectural lettering, including bronze, plastic, neon, acrylic, aluminum, brass, zinc, stainless steel, wood and glass. 


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