Logo Design Love

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A history of the Hollywood sign

I watched Argo in the cinema last night. A favourite of 2012.

There’s some brief footage of the Hollywood sign looking pretty rough, and as I’d no idea about its history I thought I’d read up.

Hollywoodland sign construction

The sign was built in 1923 as “HOLLYWOODLAND” as a promotion to sell real estate. It was flimsily made with wooden panels anchored by telephone poles, so it regularly blew over.

Hollywoodland sign construction

Hollywoodland sign construction

The letters were 45ft tall, and the characters were outlined by 4,000 light bulbs to make it flash in segments — HOLLY, then WOOD, then LAND, before lighting up entirely.

Hollywoodland sign at night

The total cost of the sign was $21,000 (about $265,000 today), and it was only expected to exist for 18 months.

Hollywoodland sign

In 1949, after the sign and land beneath it had been given to the city of Los Angeles, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with the L.A. Parks Department began efforts to repair the seriously deteriorated sign which had been abandoned by the Hollywoodland real estate group in the 1930s due to the Great Depression. It was decided that the LAND segment be removed, keeping HOLLYWOOD in order to promote the movie industry.

Hollywood sign disrepair

By the 1970s the remaining HOLLYWOOD section was a crumbling wreck (an “O” had fallen down and termites had infested the remaining letters).

Hollywood sign disrepair

Hugh Hefner held a fundraiser at the Playboy mansion in June 1978 where prominent people helped raise money toward the restoration.

Hollywood sign Hugh Hefner

After Hugh’s party, the Chamber Of Commerce decided to allocate one letter to each of the benefactors.

H: publisher Terrence Donnelly
O: producer Giovanni Mazza
L: Kelley Blue Book founder Les Kelley
L: actor/singer Gene Autry
Y: Hugh Hefner
W: singer Andy Williams
O: Alice Cooper, donating in the name of Groucho Marx
O: Warner Bros. Records
D: Thomas Pooley

The old sign was taken down on August 8th 1978, and the new sign was complete on October 30th that year, built to the same specifications.

Hugh Hefner’s helicopter was used to lift the steel sections into place.

Hollywood sign plans

Hollywood sign rebuilt

Names of the workers who rebuilt the sign in 1978 are preserved under the paint.

Hollywood sign workers 1978

Today the sign is protected and promoted by the nonprofit Hollywood Sign Trust. The most extensive refurbishment in nearly 35 years began in October 2012, and is due for completion in December 2012.

Hollywood sign close up

Hollywood sign

Sources:
A history of the Hollywood sign, on YouTube
Hollywood sign, on Wikipedia
hollywoodsign.org
The famous Hollywood sign, on Today I Found Out
The story of the Hollywood sign, on HOLLYWOODLAND
Hollywood sign to get a facelift, on KTLA

Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities, second edition

17 appreciated comments

  1. Funny- I thought the same thing when I saw Argo! I knew nothing of the history. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for this brief illustrated history. Interesting how an icon of this kind becomes an icon and how its meaning evolves. Thanks also for the sponsoring detail. Do you think Hugh got to pick his letter? It is right in the middle, and while I never thought of Y as sexy before, morphologically, I guess it is.

  3. Really interesting read, David. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Daniel Swanson

    There was a sequence in the film “Chaplin”, which starred Robert Downey Jr and Keviin Kline as Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks respectively, shot at the back of the sign. Wonder if that was factual.

  5. Karl

    I recall that during the 70s repair Alice Cooper “donated” one of the Os in his last name to replace the missing O in the sign. For a while there he went by the name Alice Coper because of that.

  6. Thank you David, you did the signs history justice. You’d be surprised how many “locals” living in the signs shadow are unfamiliar with its history, especially the “Hollywood Land” portion.

    To add to your history, there is the famous suicide of Peg Entwistle who leapt to her death from the top of the letter ‘H’, and whose spirit is rumored to haunt the sign still as “The Lady in White”: http://www.franksreelreviews.com/shorttakes/hollywoodland.htm

    There was also the recent “scare” surrounding the land behind the sign not owned by the city of Los Angeles that was being offered to housing developers by the private investors who owned it. The developers planned to build luxury homes in it’s place or along side it if they obtained the land. A $12.5 million campaign to protect the sign and the land behind it derailed that plan, with Hugh Hefner ultimately saving the sign for a second time through his $900,000 donation which granted the 138-acre site around the sign “protected” status. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/apr/27/hollywood-sign-hugh-hefner

    It was pretty big news around here, in fact it resembled an all out circus! At one point Danish designer/architect Christian Bay-Jorgensen submitted plans for a Hollywood Sign Hotel as an alternative to the property developer deal. While the concept was undoubtedly interesting, especially Jorgensen’s idea of converting the “unused spaces of America” into functioning architecture, I feel it would have ruined the iconography of the sign completely. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1273517/Could-Hollywood-sign-hotel.html

    Fortunately the sign still stands today as intended, as it will for the foreseeable future.

    And finally, this year added more to the sign’s grim history, when the head, hands, and feet of Hervey Medellin were found by the sign over a two week period January: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/hollywood-sign-body-parts-decapitation-head-371399

  7. Thank you for the history. It’s so interesting. I never knew that it was first meant to be temporary. How cool!

  8. Thanks for sharing that tad bit of history which I surprisingly found interesting. Since I never thought much about the sign aside from it being a big sign welcoming folks to Hollywood. But reading history has now given it a bit more appreciation for it and the character behind it.

    It definitely shows how much a simple advertising medium can turn into a historical piece of the city and industry surrounding it.

  9. Thank you for this article, but you forgot to say that the French artist “Invaders” put a mosaic on one of the pillars.This is part of Hollywood history I think :) Follow the link : http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/08/street-artist-invader-bus_n_780686.html

  10. Scott Fresh

    And on the day marijuana was ‘de-criminalized’, the last two ‘O’s were changed to ‘e’s to celebrate the occasion. The pranksters used black and white bedsheets to make the changes. The sign temporarily read “HOLLYWeeD”.

  11. Katleen D

    This entry is very inspirational to me because I did not know much about the purpose of the well-known “Hollywood” sign today. I did not know it was considered to be a logo and it was only supposed to be temporary. Also, the way each letter in the sign was dedicated to each benefactor is very interesting.

    California is like a second home to me because my mom lives there. Every time I visit her, we take a trip to Hollywood because it is one of a kind. Walking around on Hollywood Boulevard is so uplifting because of all the different architectural buildings, advertisements, and attractions. I have seen the Hollywood sign in person but I was not very close to it. But I know one thing on my bucket list is to actually be up there on those hills and stand right next to it!

  12. Did you know that in 2005, the original letter ‘H’ from 1923 sign was put up for sale on eBay? I think it shows that you can buy anything on ebay.

    The sign was only intended to last a year and a half.

  13. Paul

    I read a magazine article about the sign sometime in the 1960s. When it was originally put up, a caretaker lived in a little shack built against the back of one of the letters. He replaced light bulbs as they burned out. With 40,000 bulbs, some of them 45 feet up the sheer faces of those letters, it was a full-time job.

  14. Jon Z

    So, with all this great history, how come no one ever gives credit to the two young men who took it upon themselves to voluntarily fix the sign on their own.

    Cory Slater and his friend Stuart Levine decided the embarrassing looks of a neglected piece of history needed a restoration. If the city wasn’t going to do it, then they figured they would put their time and money into the project.

    They were interviewed by KLOS’ Larry Jacobs and KABC, where Cory worked at night as a guard. Other news agencies were on hand to spread the word. The two-man volunteer team even made front page of the Herald Examiner. And, at the time, governor Reagan cited them by name in his campaign for promoting ‘volunteerism’.

    That little tidbit of history is inspirational and should be included in and made a permanent part of the Sign’s story!

  15. Mark P.

    Very interesting article and history of this iconic piece of Americana. Also, the interesting comments posted only add more to the significance of what this structure holds to the film industry.

    I was surprised about who actually stepped up to the plate in funding the restoration as one would have thought it would have included some of Hollywood’s elite stars of that era. It certainly is in the ranks of great monuments like the Statue of Liberty as one of the most recognizable symbols of America known around the world.

    Having grown up and lived on the east coast, I was able to make a trip once to the L.A. area long before there was such a thing as a bucket list. But right up there along with the walk of fame, swimming in the Pacific, and flirting with pretty girls on the Santa Monica Pier was to hike up to the Hollywood sign. (Sigh.) It sure brings back good memories.

  16. adrienne

    Every time I visit LA I still get a kick out of seeing the sign.

  17. Sydboy

    The original 1920s sign had been eaten by termites… I think the author meant to say “Hollywoodworms.”


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