Hollywood: The Sign of All Signs
If a survey was conducted anywhere in the civilized world as to what man-made “sign” was the most recognized sign in the entire planet, I believe that the “Hollywood” sign out in Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, California would win hands downs. In fact, I would almost bet the farm on it. The Hollywood sign‘s history dates back to 1923 when it was erected as an advertisement gimmick to promote real estate development, not the movie business as most tourists might have imagined. The sign was somehow left up inadvertently and indefinitely. It soon became a permanent fixture in the hills overlooking Los Angeles. Little did George Eastman know how many pictures of the Hollywood sign would eventually end up on his preloaded camera boxes all around the country and perhaps even the world to some extent. Talk about a Kodak moment!
The enormous white letters stood 45 feet in height and over 345 feet in overall length. The original sign actual read “Hollywoodland” but was later changed to its current iconic nine letter word, “Hollywood”. This was long before Vanna White was turning letters for Wheel of Fortune. “Give me a vowel Vanna.” The sign became famous and was featured as the background for an endless number of movies, television shows (aka TV shows) and countless advertisements. That is one sign I truly wish I owned the rights to today. I would not have to worry about my 401K quite as much!
During my time out in Hollywood I became so fascinated by that sign and even believed that those nine letters possessed some type of powerful magic and if I could somehow see them up close, maybe even touch them I would become the next Fonz, or perhaps even the next DeNiro or Pacino. It’s true, I became so obsessed from staring up at those seemingly far away magical letters from my insignificant one room rental that I began plotting in my mind a way to get up to the Hollywood Hills and actual touch that famous sign in person. It would be a symbolic gesture that would be almost guaranteed to catapult me to the top of the acting heap so to speak. I tossed and turned many sleepless nights as I played this scenario over and over again in my mind until one day I finally worked up the courage to actual move forward with my plan. I would be fearless in my one man quest and conquer my inhibitions once and for all.
Finally, the morning arrived and I carefully packed a nutritious, yet light lunch, and filled my water bottle with ice cold water and attached it to my ten speed inside the bottle holder. I doubled checked my tire pressure on both the front and rear tires, then secured my air pump, tire patch kit and finally snapped my tennis racket into its bike clip (for protection) and I was soon pedaling down Santa Monica Blvd towards the Hollywood Hills.My plan was to simply ride my bike up and around the Hollywood Hills and approach the sign from the rear. I was in very good shape back then from all the bicycling and tennis matches I played as well as a little body surfing (boogie-boarding as we called it down in Huntington and Venice Beach). I eventually reached the summit and after walking my bike the last few hundred feet I decided to slowly but cautiously maneuver closer and closer to the tall chain-linked fence that stood between the sign and myself. Once I reached the fence line I simply found an area that seemed most accessible to get through or in my case over the fence. I then simply leaned my ten-speed up against the fence (thank God it wasn’t an electric fence) and hopped up on the seat and scaled the fence and leaned back over and pulled myself and my bike up over the fence and down the other side.I was now inside what I can only describe as sacred grounds in my mind. There were no electric fences, no alarms, no guard dogs, no fancy camera monitors. There was nothing except my bike, myself and my heart beating loudly through my chest as I proceeded cautiously down the worn path toward the Holy Grail!
My heart started pounded louder and louder as I finally approached the sign in awe and wonder of what I would actually do once I came upon it. I biked a short distance further and rode out into a small clearing and up behind the towering sign. I jumped off my bike and ran up to the sign and reached out and touched the “H” thinking somehow it would be a pivotal moment in my life. I felt nothing as I finally exhaled, so I decided to climb up the ladder behind the first “O” and then I stood up inside the letter and looked down over Los Angeles and yelled, “Here I am Hollywood.” I heard a faint echo repeating my words back to me almost as if in mockery of my feeble attempt to conquer the city with a few mortal words. I was probably not the first over-zealous fool to echo those words and I somehow knew I wouldn’t be the last either! I finally sat down inside the “O” and gazed out over the city daydreaming about what might be in store for me now that I made the trek all the way up to the famous Hollywood sign and actually stood inside its massive letters. There I sat high upon the Holy Grail, looking down at the movie kingdom at my feet. It would soon to be beckoning to me like Winnie the Pooh to his favorite jar of honey, like Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire, like Laurel and Hardy or perhaps Bogart and Bacall.
After the excitement finally subsided, I climbed down from my perch and wondered why in the world I didn’t bring my 110-Instamatic Kodak camera to document this historic moment and realized in my excitement that I completely forgot the most important piece of equipment next to my ten-speed bike.
Reluctantly, I ate my snack, then drank some water and proceeded down the front side of the Hollywood Hills on my bike and began pedaling back down to reality. I stayed on a well worn path that indicated there were plenty of sign seekers before me and most likely many more to follow in my footsteps. I began to pick up more speed on my exhilarating trek, gaining more and more momentum the further down the hill I rode. As my bike turned a sharp corner I came face to face with a man and woman in the most compromising position imaginable and not knowing who was surprised the most, I just kept pedaling my bike as fast as I could. The girl let out a loud shriek and I think I pissed my shorts a little after I stopped screaming as well. Damn it, all I could imagine was being shot in the back or stabbed to death by some sex maniac up in the Hollywood Hills. I was thinking to myself how much I really didn’t want to be killed so I never looked back all the way down the hill. Now that would have made a great movie plot at the time, and I might have missed my big chance for my own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Today, the same Hollywood sign I sat upon is now considered a National Landmark and has 24hr camera surveillance and any trespassers would be fined and possibly jailed if caught anywhere in the vicinity of the sign.
Following the 1978 public campaign to restore the sign, the following nine donors gave $27,777 each (which totaled $250,000):
- H – Terrence Donnelly – publisher of the Hollywood Independent Newspaper
- O – Giovanni Mazza – Italian movie producer
- L – Les Kelley – originator of the Kelley Blue Book
- L – Gene Autry – singer, actor and businessman
- Y – Hugh Hefner – founder of Playboy magazine
- W – Andy Williams – singer
- O – Warner Bros. Records
- O – Alice Cooper – singer, who donated in memory of comedian Groucho Marx
- D – Thomas Pooley — donated in the name of Mathew Williams
The sign is located on rough, steep terrain, and is encompassed by barriers to prevent unauthorized access. In 2000, the Los Angeles Police Department installed a security system featuring motion detection and closed-circuit cameras. Any movement in the marked restricted areas triggers an alarm that notifies the police.
Whether or not you agree about who should own the rights to the Hollywood sign, or who should be allowed to “own” a letter in theory and pay for its perpetual upkeep; we might all have to agree that the Hollywood sign is perhaps the most televised “Sign of all Signs.”
Stay tuned for another post from The Hollywood Contender!