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Hollywood’s iconic sign gets a facelift before its 100th birthday

Hollywood sign
Hollywood sign   -   Copyright  DAVID MCNEW GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA AFP   -  
By David Mouriquand

The iconic Hollywood sign overlooking Los Angeles is getting a facelift just ahead of its 100th anniversary next year, with each of the nine massive letters atop Mount Lee receiving a new coat of paint.

The current set of white letters were last painted 10 years ago, and stand at 45ft tall (13.7 meters) and 350ft long (106.7 meters).

The repainting process, which will use around 400 gallons (1,510 liters) of paint and special rust-prohibitive primer, will be viewable on 24/7 webcam. The job is estimated to take eight weeks.

But how much do you know about the famous American landmark, beyond its status as a symbol of stardom and the movie industry?

Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library
HollywoodlandSecurity Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library

It was originally ‘Hollywoodland’ and had nothing to do with the cinema industry

First erected in 1923, the sign originally read ‘Hollywoodland’ until 1949. It was designed by painter Thomas Fisk Goff, who was born in London in 1890 and immigrated to the US in the early 1920s. He was commissioned to create and install the wooden sign by developers S. H. Woodruff and Tracy E. Shoults in order to advertise a new real estate development. The sign was meant essentially a huge billboard to draw new home buyers to the hillside.

It was quite an expensive real estate campaign, as the construction cost of the sign was around $21,000 at the time (over a quarter of a million dollars today).

It was studded with 4000 lightbulbs that would flash at night and timed to blink so that the words “HOLLY,” “WOOD,” and “LAND” each lit up consecutively, followed by the entire word. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression during the 1930s, which halted real estate development, the lights went dark. Caretaker Albert Kothe stripped the copper wiring from the sign and sold it for scrap.

Angeles Public Library
Peg EntwistleAngeles Public Library

It was the site of a suicide

Aspiring actress Peg Entwistle left New York City and moved to Los Angeles to become a film star. Despite her efforts, she failed to land any big roles after one part in a murder-mystery film, Thirteen Women.

On 16 September 1932, the 24-year-old climbed a ladder to the top of the ‘H’ and jumped to her death. Her body was discovered two days later by a hiker, who found a suicide note in Entwistle’s purse, which read: “I am afraid I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.”

In a cruel twist of fate, it is reported that a letter had been mailed to her just before her death, offering her the lead role in plat about a young woman who kills herself. She sadly never got the news…

In 2014, hundreds of people marked the anniversary of her death by gathering to a parking lot and watching Thirteen Women on an outdoor screen. Proceeds from the evening were donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Entwistle’s name.

Breva Storia del Cinema1
HollywoodlandBreva Storia del Cinema1

The sign was almost torn down completely in 1949

In 1944, the city of Los Angeles purchased 455 acres from the Hollywoodland developers, including the land on which the Hollywoodland sign sat. The city decided to tear it down in 1949, but residents who had come to love the sign protested its removal.

The Chamber of Commerce agreed to salvage and repair it, with the understanding that they would shorten the sign by removing the last four letters so that it represented the community, not a real estate development.

Wally Fong AP
Hollywood sign in poor healthWally Fong AP

Playboy gets involved

Despite the 1949 restoration, the Hollywood sign began to deteriorate. The third 'O' 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.

Construction began later that year, with structural improvements such as steel footings rather than telephone poles.

The benefactors for each letter were as follows:

H - Terrence Donnelly (a newspaper publisher)

O - Alice Cooper (rock star, who donated in memory of comedian Groucho Marx)

L - Les Kelley (businessman and creator of the Kelley Blue Book)

L - Gene Autrey (singer and actor)

Y - Hugh Hefner (founder of Playboy magazine)

W - Andy Williams (singer)

O - Giovanni Mazza (Italian movie producer)

O - Warner Bros. Studios

D - Dennis Lidtke (businessman, who donated in the name of Matthew Williams)

Gabriel Olsen Getty Images
HollyweedGabriel Olsen Getty Images

A site for mischief

On 1 January 1976, Cal State Northridge student Danny Finegood and some friends trekked to the Hollywood sign with black and white fabric, which they used to make it read “Hollyweed” in celebration of a state law that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

He did this as part of an art project for which he reportedly received an A.

Finegood would go on to change the sign three more times: once to read “Holywood” on Easter, another to read “Ollywood” in protest of Oliver North’s Iran-Contra testimony, and the final time to read “Oil War” in protest of the Persian Gulf War.

Since then, the Hollywood Sign Trust was created in 1992 and continues to care for the sign today. Public access to the site is prohibited and security cameras have been installed, along with a razor-wire fence and motion sensors. Still, that hasn’t deterred a few intrepid scamps over the years, the most recent of which are a group led by model Julia Rose who rechristened the sign “Hollyboob” to promote breast cancer awareness, and a Los Angeles-based rock band called Junior Varsity, who put a cow face over the first 'O' as a promotion for their single ‘Cold Blood’.

Twentieth Century Fox
The Day After TomorrowTwentieth Century Fox

The sign has been destroyed in movies

The Hollywood sign has appeared in dozens of movies and many directors have enjoyed destroying it on screen.

The first instance is in 1974’s Earthquake, which sees the letters fall down Mount Lee one by one.

The signs break during an earthquake in Superman (1978); a rocket pack crashes into the sign in The Rocketeer (1991); it catches fire in Escape From L.A. (1996); it perishes in the alien attack in Independence Day (1996); a tornado destroys it in The Day After Tomorrow (2004); it doesn’t survive 2009’s Terminator Salvation (neither did Sam Worthington’s career, to be fair); the zombie apocalypse in Resident Evil: Afterlife left it in bad shape (2010); and 2013’s Sharknado does one hell of a number on it.

Let's hope this year's makeover makes directors more respectful.

Video editor • Theo Farrant