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Culture Re-View: The Hollywood sign didn't always look like that

The HOLLYWOOD sign on the hillside overlooking Hollywood, Ca., is shown in 1981.
The HOLLYWOOD sign on the hillside overlooking Hollywood, Ca., is shown in 1981. Copyright AP/AP1981
Copyright AP/AP1981
By Jonny Walfisz
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13 July 1923: The HOLLYWOOD sign is first resurrected

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At the dawn of the 20th century, Hollywood, Los Angeles was completely unrecognisable. Instead of lavish homes in the hills overlooking grand movie studios pumping out blockbusters, Hollywood in 1900 was farmland, vineyards, and orange groves.

The LA neighbourhood had just a single post office, newspaper, hotel, and two markets. The land had been purchased by a group of real estate developers in the late 1880s to create a new community. It was named “Hollywood” after Daeida Wilcox suggested holly brings good luck.

Over the first two decades of the 20th century, filmmakers came to LA to avoid the patent lawsuits Thomas Edison would file against them to protect his company Motion Picture Patents Company’s control of filmmaking equipment.

On the west coast, filmmakers were free to set up their own companies. The Nestor Film Company was the first to be established in Hollywood in 1911. By the 30s, Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO, and Columbia would all set up studios in the area.

As a way of advertising real estate to new developers while the region was still establishing itself, real estate firm Woodruff and Shoults came up with the idea of a sign.

The sign, erected on this day in 1923, didn’t just say “Hollywood” like the famous landmark does now.

Wally Fong/AP
Workmen prepare to take down the letter "D" in the famed "Hollywood" sign, the last one to be removed from the sign that has stood in the Hollywood Hills overlooking LAWally Fong/AP

Instead, Woodruff and Shoults’ had decided they would advertise the area with a wink to the new nickname of “Tinseltown”. The full original sign read HOLLYWOODLAND.

The Crescent Sign Company built the original HOLLYWOODLAND sign for the hills looking over Hollywood. The 9.1 m and 15.2 m white block letters were illuminated with around 4,000 lightbulbs. The sign would light up for the words “Holly”, then “Wood”, then “Land”, before lighting up the whole phrase.

Although the sign was only intended as a short-term project for 18 months, the attention it brought to the area, combined with the growing role of Hollywood in US filmmaking, meant it stayed by popular demand.

In 1933, the lights were turned off due to their high expense. Then, in 1944, the letter H on the sign was destroyed. There are conflicting reports as to whether this was by erosion or vandalism.

As the sign had deteriorated to an unusable degree by the end of the 40s, it was decided that the sign would be demolished by a local resident petition. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in and offered to repair the sign.

Now made with metal instead of the original wood, the new sign would represent the district and not the original housing development, dropping “Land” from the sign. In 1949, the HOLLYWOOD sign was erected as you know it today.

For many years, it was assumed the original HOLLYWOODLAND sign had been destroyed. But in 2005, producer/entrepreneur Dan Bliss sold it on eBay to artist Bill Mack. Mack used it for an artwork on stars from Hollywood’s Golden Era, constructing his own replacement H.

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