Erected sometime in 1923, the Hollywood sign has long welcomed aspiring actors looking to make it big in Los Angeles. And despite decades of run-ins with vandals, pranksters and developers, among others, it has managed to hang on to its prime location near the summit of Mount Lee in the Hollywood Hills. As the sign celebrates its 90th birthday, here are eight things you may not know about how it came to be, and its brushes with disaster.
1. The Hollywood sign is only slightly younger than the district itself.
Harvey and Daeida Wilcox founded Hollywood in 1887 as a community for likeminded followers of the temperance movement. No one knows for sure why they chose that name. One theory is that Daeida met a woman on a train with a summer home called Hollywood. Alternatively, it may have been a reference to the area’s abundant toyon, a red-berried shrub also known as California holly. Either way, Hollywood was incorporated as a municipality in 1903 and merged with Los Angeles in 1910, the year before the first film studio moved there.
2. The sign was created as a real-estate advertisement.
By 1923 Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler had decided to invest in an upscale real-estate development called Hollywoodland, which capitalized on the growing recognition of Hollywood as a movie-industry mecca. In order to promote the project, Chandler and his partners put up $21,000 (over $250,000 in today’s money) for 45-foot-high white block letters that were anchored to telephone poles and illuminated by 4,000 light bulbs. At night the billboard flashed in four stages: “Holly,” then “Wood,” then “Land” and then the entire word, “Hollywoodland.” Newspaper articles from the time show that the sign was completed in 1923; however, the exact date is disputed.
3. A struggling actress took her life there.
Although the Hollywood sign symbolizes glamour and stardom, it can also represent broken dreams. In spring 1932 stage actress Peg Entwistle moved from New York City to Los Angeles to try her luck with movies. Soon after she received a part in a murder-mystery film, but the studio reportedly did not renew the option on her contract upon its completion. That September the 24-year-old allegedly climbed a ladder to the “H” on the Hollywoodland sign and jumped off. Her body was later discovered in a ravine downhill. Various newspapers cited her failing acting career as the reason she killed herself. Ironically, a letter had been mailed to her just before her death offering her the lead role in a play about a young woman who commits suicide.
4. Four letters on the sign were eventually removed.
Regular maintenance on the sign stopped when the Hollywoodland real-estate development went under due to the Great Depression. The “H” even toppled over, so that it briefly read “Ollywoodland.” After ownership of the sign passed to the city in the mid-1940s, the L.A. Recreation and Parks Commission apparently wanted it razed. But the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in, and in 1949 it removed the last four letters and restored the rest.
5. A new sign replaced the old one in the 1970s.
Despite the 1949 restoration, the Hollywood sign eventually began to deteriorate once again. The third “O,” for example, 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. After a three-month period without a sign, construction finished up later that year. The new sign was the same size as the old one, but with structural improvements such as steel footings rather than telephone poles. Since then, it has periodically received a fresh coat of white paint, most recently in December 2012.
6. Pranksters have used the sign for all sorts of mischief.
On January 1, 1976, Cal State Northridge student Danny Finegood and some friends made their way to the Hollywood sign with about $50-worth of black and white fabric, which they used to make it read “Hollyweed” in celebration of a state law that essentially 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, once to read “Ollywood” in protest of Oliver North’s Iran-Contra testimony and once to read “Oil War” in protest of the Persian Gulf War. Other pranksters have changed the sign prior to college football games, and to express support for the third-party presidential candidacy of Ross Perot. In addition, people have both dangled from the letters and vandalized them. As a result of such shenanigans, public access to the site is prohibited and security cameras have been installed, along with a razor-wire fence, motion sensors and microphones.
7. Luxury homes almost went up around it.
Eccentric business tycoon Howard Hughes bought 138 acres west of the Hollywood sign in 1940 with the intention of building a mansion there for himself and his girlfriend, the actress Ginger Rogers. Those plans were abandoned, however, after Rogers broke up with him. Nothing more happened with the land until 2002, when Hughes’ estate sold it to a Chicago-based investment firm. To prevent luxury homes from going up, a number of movie studios, actors and foundations raised the $12.5 million asking price, with Hugh Hefner providing the final $900,000. The site is now protected parkland.
8. The sign has been destroyed in several movies.
The Hollywood sign has appeared in dozens of movies, from Gangster Squad (2013), Argo (2012) and Friends with Benefits (2011) to older flicks like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and Down Three Dark Streets (1954). Directors seem to especially enjoy destroying it: In Earthquake (1974) the sign’s letters fall down Mount Lee one by one; in Superman (1978) it bends during a quake; in 1941 (1979) a pilot shoots it up; in The Rocketeer (1991) a villain with a faulty rocket pack crashes into it; in Escape from L.A. (1996) it appears to be on the verge of catching fire; in Mighty Joe Young (1998) a gorilla breaks off an “O” and chucks it; in The Day After Tomorrow (2004) a tornado eviscerates it; and in Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) a zombie apocalypse leaves it in tatters.