The Hollywood Sign
The sign we’re all familiar with stands proudly on Echo Mountain, in an area Northwest of Los Angeles called Hollywood. Since 1924, it’s been the symbol of a place that conjures up fantasy and excitement—the movie industry.
It is a collection of 9 gigantic letters that spell, in gleaming white opulence, Hollywood. For many, the sign has meant dreams both realized and broken. It should also be noted that the sign was not really built to advertise the film industry, but was conceived as a temporary billboard to promote the area’s real estate. The sign originally read Hollywoodland, standing as an advertisement for a brand new suburban housing development that was taking shape on a huge plot of land right below it.
Over the years, the sign’s appearance and meaning have changed—sometimes drastically—but it never lost the appeal that came to symbolize, not just a place, but a fantasy of the mind. As they say, you might think you know the story, but to find out the real truth you have to go back to the beginning.
In the late 1800s the area now known as Hollywood was a dry, deserted area covered with scrub, home to an assortment of wild life that included rattlesnakes and coyotes. The area was crossed over by cowboys, Mexicans and Indians—each with a personal goal of migrating further North towards San Francisco. The great Eastern Migration was winding down and some of the settlers, mostly out of money, were trying to farm the land. Though dry, the climate was pretty good, the soil could be cultivated and, best of all, the acreage was very cheap.
The growing city of Los Angeles was selling off land in the area to raise money to build an aqueduct to provide desperately-needed water for its residents. At the start of the 20th century, one E.C. Hurd sold off a 700-acre ranch to a H.J. Whitley; Whitley planted orange and grapefruits trees. His wife, Daeda, heard of a place a little farther North called Holly Canyon. She liked the name so much she and her husband named their big fruit farm Hollywood.
By 1903 Sunset Boulevard was a dusty dirt road running through the ranch. The Whitleys began selling the land piece by piece to developers. That same year Hollywood was incorporated as a municipality. It grew by leaps and bounds and, in 1907, Nestor, a small Chicago film company, was driven by bad weather to complete a film in a place with abundant sunshine. Finally, the fledgling but growing movie industry that was located primarily in and around Fort Lee N.J (due to its proximity to Broadway), began sending scouts to California to see if the area would be suitable for film production which, at that time, needed lots of daylight. Word got back that Hollywood was perfect, and best yet, the land was cheap. The movie migration was on; soon every studio back East was buying up property in Hollywood. An added benefit was the fact that, since it was mostly farmland, the plots usually included ranch houses (perfect for offices) and barns (to convert to sound stages).
By 1915, America was officially confirmed as movie crazy. In 1920, forty million Americans were going to the movies every week. As the industry grew, small companies merged into the huge studios we know today. Restaurants, roads and hotels sprang up overnight. A housing development
offering mid-level-to-expensive homes soon took shape. Harry Chandler, a newspaper publisher from L.A., financed the project. Harry needed something big and brash to advertise it, something befitting the glitz and glamor of the Movie Capital Of the World. He came up with the idea to use Echo Mountain, a worthless hill that was often threatened by wildfires, to construct a gigantic billboard. It would be temporary and it would be electrified and it would spell out HOLLYWOODLAND.
It would also cost $21,000—an unheard-of sum for that time.
PART 2—next month: How the sign evolved