The year was 1923, and the date was July 13. No one knew that the big housing development sign on the hill that read "Hollywoodland" would become LA's Iconic landmark, as emblematic to the city as the Golden Gate is to the bay or the Statue of Liberty is to New York.
Nope, it was just a big, huge advertisement on the hill.
Here's a picture of the big groundbreaking; that's Harry Chandler, publisher of the LA Times, facing the camera with the shovel under the sign that would become the most famous billboard in the world.
An NPR story says:
"In 1923, Los Angeles was in the midst of expansion, and the Hills beckoned those set on sniffing out opportunities to make a mint in the real estate game. Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, had involved himself in other real estate schemes previously. "
Chandler and his investors owned most of the San Fernando Valley," says David Wallace, author of the books Lost Hollywood and Hollywoodland. "They just grabbed desert land because they knew the minute that water came through with the weather in the Valley it would become a garden!"
...The HOLLYWOODLAND sign spelled out an invitation to up-and-comers and wishful thinkers alike that was hard to ignore. To enhance the effect, the sign was lit by 4,000 light bulbs; a nearby cabin housed a maintenance man whose sole job was changing them."
In fact, that guy lived in a little shack right behind the first "L" in "HOLLYWOODLAND" and the sign was visible at night for miles. A lot of people who come visit LA think it still is, and are surprised they can't see it at night. It said "Hollywoodland" until 1949, when, according to Wikipedia, "the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce began a contract with the City of Los Angeles Parks Department to repair and rebuild the sign. The contract stipulated that "LAND" be removed to spell "Hollywood" and reflect the district, not the "Hollywoodland" housing development."
See, the sign fell on some hard times -- not once, but twice. We all know what happened in1929 ... that was California's first real estate bust, accompanying the Great Depression. Hollywoodland subdivision went bankrupt, and the sign that was made of just barn roofing and telephone poles and supposed to only stand for 18 months started to come unraveled. There's a really great comprehensive story on the sign that I found on the San Diego Tribune website of all places, called "Grab yourself a piece of H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D" :
"By 1939, the unkempt sign was such an eyesore and hazard that local residents lobbied for its removal, their battle cry "Loose Signs Sink Neighborhoods." In 1944, the developers quitclaimed the sign and 455 surrounding acres to the city of Los Angeles.
Over the decades, the battered relic was repeatedly bandaged – in 1973 "Sunset Boulevard" star Gloria Swanson rededicated a spruced-up sign. But the letters became so termite-ridden, corroded and vandalized that chunks were often strewn along Mount Lee.
The top of the "D" fell, the first "O" toppled over and the second "O" collapsed. An arsonist set fire to the bottom of the second "L."
"It was slowly making its way off the hill," says Robert Nudelman of Hollywood Heritage, the historical preservation group."
The old sign was demolished and put in storage in 1978, that's one you see here on the left. Parts of the "H" have been chopped up and sold as keepsakes on the internet in the last few years. A guy named Dan Bliss had it in a super secret storage space, and showed it to reporter Norma Meyer in 2005, right around the time it was listed on eBay:
"At first sight, the weathered metal sheets stacked to the rafters look like debris from a jetliner crash..
But this tin put Tinseltown on the map. These are the history-rich, nearly forgotten remains of the 1923 original 50-foot-tall Hollywood sign that beckoned dreamers until its derelict letters began toppling down a hillside and were replaced by the current ones in 1978.
"This is from the 'H,' " says Bliss, the sign's new owner, as he drags out a 9-foot-long rusty graffiti-marred chunk of lore."
And we have an unlikely benefactor to thank for the Hollywood sign we see today. Shock-rocker Alice Cooper started a public "adopt a letter" campaign and bought the sign a new "O," and eight other donors gave more than $27,000 each to restore the sign. It was unveiled to a live television audience in November of 1978 to an audience of 60 million people.
The sign's "H" has lived a Hollywood story, for sure. You could look at it as a microcosm for the region it presides over. It was the victim of a drunk driving accident in the early 1940s when its caretaker careened off the cliff behind it in his Model A. It was the scene of a suicide in 1939 when a Broadway actress, despondent over her lack of work in tinseltown, jumped off of it to her death. It went for bright lights in its youth, aged more quickly than expected, then got a complete facelift that barely resembled its original self, to live on forever as a symbol of something impossible to define. Something much bigger than its 50 foot tall letters.
Something ... that started out as just an ad.
(Didn't more than a few Hollywood icons start out as commercial actors?)
Happy Birthday, Hollywood sign ... a day late, but we'll catch up and do lunch. Maybe next week.
Editor's Note: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, that sign has... well... a lot of flatterers in Portsmouth.