The Time Before the Sign: The Western Frontier

Imagine a time when the only stars in Hollywood were found in crystal-clear night skies arching over rolling hills. This was home for the area’s native people, the Gabrielinos. Later, before Hollywood became the world’s entertainment mecca, it resembled other western frontiers – a landscape of farmers, cowboys, prospectors, bandits, and mostly undeveloped land. However, with Easterners drawn sunny skies and mild, dry weather, the area’s bedrock industry – real estate – soon kicked into high gear. By the end of the 19th century Hollywood was a town with a name inspired by Daeida Wilcox, wife of Hollywood founder Harvey Wilcox. 

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The Dream Factory Awakens 

All was quiet until 1907, when bad weather drove a small Chicago film company westward to complete a shoot. The first real studio, Nestor Film Company, soon followed from New Jersey, cranking out three pictures a week – one ‘western,’ one ‘eastern,’ and one comedy – for a grand total of $1,200. By 1912, word of Hollywood’s ideal film-shooting climate and landscapes spread, and at least 15 independent studios could be found shooting around town. Old barns were turned into sound stages and Hollywood’s quiet time was over.

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Hollywood Becomes Tinseltown

By 1915, America was officially film crazed, and Hollywood was shaping into the glamorous landscape we’ve come to know and love. Hopeful actors and actresses filled the streets, dazzled by a new American dream: film stardom. Studios, meanwhile, sprung up like wildfires and engaged in a cutthroat battle for survival. As the industry matured, many of these independent companies merged, forming the big studios that would shape and control the industry. By 1920, 40 million Americans were going to the movies each week. The rise of the film aristocracy meant new restaurants, nightclubs and extravagant movie palaces in Hollywood.

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A Sign is Born

Hollywood, which by now represented not just a city, but also an industry, a lifestyle and an aspiration, was crowned when the “Hollywoodland” sign was erected in 1923. Built by Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler as a $21,000 billboard for his upscale Hollywoodland real estate development, the Sign soon took on the role of giant marquee for a city that was constantly announcing its own gala premiere. By the end of 1923, the Sign was fully erected, a high-profile beacon for the fast-growing metropolis. Intended to last just 18 months, the Sign has endured nearly 100 years. 

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Mt. Lee and the Birth of Television

Mount Lee, the home of the Hollywood Sign, is named for an entrepreneur who transformed a ridge in Griffith Park into one of the most important sites in television history. Don Lee was a businessman who launched L.A.’s W6XAO in 1931. In 1938, the Don Lee Network  purchased a 20-acre site behind the Hollywood Sign and built a state-of-the-art broadcast studio and transmission tower that could reach the San Fernando Valley and more. When the facility was completed in 1939, it boasted the highest elevation television transmission tower in the world, ushering in a new era in Hollywood’s storied history.

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Sign of the Times… Tragic Suicide Off the 'H'

Peg Entwistle, a New York stage actress, became the symbol of the dark side of the Hollywood dream. Emboldened by her Broadway success, the ambitious young actress set her sights on the silver screen. She packed her bags for Hollywood and moved in with her uncle in the shadow of the Hollywood Sign. Unfortunately, Peg failed to make a splash, and on September 18, she hiked to the Hollywood Sign, climbed 50 feet to the top of the “H,” and plunged to her death. Peg Entwistle – dubbed by tabloids as the “The Hollywood Sign Girl” – was only 24 years old.

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Hollywood Goes To War

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hollywood mobilized to become a full-time war industry. Stars like Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Victor Mature quickly enlisted, and patriotic films dominated the silver screens. As the War progressed, Hollywood pulled together to feed, shelter and entertain returning soldiers. However, by the early '40s, the Hollywoodland real estate development went bust. The Hollywood Sign, which hadn’t been maintained in years, quietly became property of the city in 1944. The Sign had made an unheralded transition from billboard to de facto civic landmark, but salvation would have to wait until after the War.

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The Postwar Years

The film industry’s high profile made it vulnerable in the postwar climate of anti-liberal hysteria. By the early 50’s, 400 actors, writers, directors and producers were blacklisted, and paranoia prevailed. By 1948, box office receipts plummeted 45% from wartime highs due to television. Filmmakers and distributors responded with a series of gimmicks: wider screens, 3-D, Technicolor, stereo sound, even free dishes. With characteristic resilience, Hollywood soon managed a successful transition to the small screen. TV companies flocked westward and snatched up old studios and lots, and by 1950 more sound stages were producing television than movies.

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The Sign It Is A’Changin’: Turbulence and Decay

During the 1960s, Hollywood residents departed to the San Fernando Valley—along with film power centers. Crime soared, and the town’s storied boulevards were ravaged by urban decay. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s once-proud Sign now served as a glaring badge of dis-honor – rusted, dilapidated, soon to literally crumble under its own weight. In 1973, the City of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board gave the Sign official landmark status but during the 70s, the top of the “D” and the entire third “O” toppled down Mt. Lee, and an arsonist set fire to the bottom of the second “L.”

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A Sign is Reborn

By the late 1970’s, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce determined that the Sign required a complete rebuilding – carrying a price tag of a quarter million dollars. Thankfully, some of showbiz’s biggest names came to the rescue. In 1978, Hugh Hefner hosted a gala fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion, where individual Sign letters were ceremonially ‘auctioned’ off at $27,700 per letter to celebrity sponsors including glam-rocker Alice Cooper and cowboy star Gene Autry. The old Sign was scrapped in August ’78, and 194 tons of concrete, enamel and steel later, the Sign was re-born, poised and polished for a new millennium.

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A Hollywood Comeback

The Sign’s rebirth was one important step in a successful Hollywood revitalization effort that continues to this day. In 1980, a $90 million federal grant enabled Hollywood to launch a slew of redevelopment projects. In ’89, Disney Studios began a museum-grade rehabilitation of the El Capitan Theater. Ten years later, part of the Egyptian was restored to its glory. The Roosevelt Hotel and Pantages Theater all received well-deserved makeovers during the last decades of the millennium.In short, Hollywood was moving forward, in part by wisely reinvesting in the monuments of its past.

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The Sign Prepares for Its 100th Anniversary

Hollywood’s civic restoration, which began in the 1970’s, picked up steam in the ensuing decades, fueled in part by a growing reverence for a monument that had become a universal metaphor for ambition, success, glamour —and an industry and dream called H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D. And as Hollywood re-blossomed, so too did the Sign, which benefited from a range of new preservation efforts. In 2012, the Trust worked with Sherwin Williams to give the Hollywood Sign a complete makeover. Today, the Sign is poised to celebrate it 100th Anniversary in 2023 when Hollywood’s biggest star receives accolades from fans around the world. 

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