The Hollywood Sign part 2
Echo Mountain, where the Hollywood sign stands, was a place in the old days where you could climb to the peak, picnic and yell down into the canyon to hear your echo. During the 1920s and 30s, when times were rough, it was a hobo hangout. On any given night you could catch the scent of stolen chickens roasting on a hobo campfire.
The road leading to the sign was unpaved and not very secure. If you hiked the dusty path, most often you would encounter hillclimbers—salesmen, workmen or students, taking a break and enjoying the view.
The sign itself was huge. Made out of wooden poles with wooden lattice work, it supported the 44-foot tall, 30 foot wide letters. At night 40,000 lightbulbs blinked in succession, each lighting up a section at a time—first Holly, then wood, and finally, land.
Although its builders intended it to last no more than 18 months, the sign has been there, off and on, for 80 years, mirroring the fate of Hollywood itself—once bright and shiny, later faded and crumbling, like the studios. During World War II, the 40,00 bulbs want dark as the sign’s owners went bankrupt; the letters began to fall apart and, in 1944, the sign was taken over by the city.
Before that, in the 1930s, the sign was growing its own folklore. It was at its best in the Hollywood-boom time, when talking pictures were new, but soon the Great Depression hit. Hollywood, like everywhere else, suffered economic woes. The studios developed the star system—the method of creating and promoting actors, with emphasis on image, rather than talent. The studios selected young, unknown actors and created glamorous personae for them, often inventing new names and even new backgrounds. Kept under contract for decades, these actors could be maintained at low cost. Though armies of hopeful young actors flocked to Hollywood, most of them, sadly, were rejected. In 1932, A young New York stage actress named Peggy Entwistle, determined to become famous, packed her bags and moved in with a relative who lived in a cottage virtually below the sign.
Though she auditioned and waited by the phone, Peggy failed to break into the movies. A long summer passed as Peggy’s depression deepened. Finally, one night in September, she said she was going to meet friends at the corner drugstore—which was untrue. Instead she climbed the treacherous path leading up to the sign. When she reached the top, there with the sign that promised wonderful dreams, Peggy threw herself off the letter H and fell to her death.
The tabloids detailed her sad story. She was only 24. She immediately became known as the Hollywood Sign girl. A few years later, a radio station and TV studio were built nearby, even though television was still years away. It was ironic that one day, television would knock the major studios for a loop.
Through all the years of Hollywood’s decline, no one ever thought of maintaining the sign. Year by year, it faded and crumbled away. In the early 1940s it had a major mishap. While driving at the top of Mt. Lee (as it became to be called) the sign’s caretaker had too much to drink, ran off the road and crashed into the letter H, sending it careening downhill. Fortunately, no one was hurt. In 1949, the parks department took over the upkeep of the road and did their best to keep the sign presentable. The lightbulbs were removed along with the four letters that spelled LAND—which was just as well because earthquakes had made that part weaker.
During the 1960s, Hollywood wasn’t Hollywood any more. Paramount was the only studio left within city limits; most of the other studios moved to the San Fernando valley. Massage parlors, adult book stores and x-rated video stores made the town look and feel seedy. The Hollywood sign was ugly, too. The paint was peeling and, by the 1970s, part of the letter D and the whole letter O fell down Mt. Lee. An arsonist set a fire that destroyed the second L.
The sign became the butt of pranks. It once read Hollyweed to celebrate marijuana, then later Holywood, when Pope John Paul 11 visited in 1977. Sometime in the last year of the wild 1970s, the Chamber of Commerce declared enough was enough. The sign needed rebuilding and it needed it fast. Charities were created to raise the $250.000 to rebuild it. At a benefit hosted by Hugh Heffner, the remaining letters were auctioned off for $27,000 each. The benefit was a big success; Gene Autry bought an L, Andy Williams bought the W, Alice Cooper bought an O—and soon all the money was in hand to start reconstruction.
For three long months in 1978, Mt. Lee had no sign at all. Then, after 194 tons of concrete, enamel and steel were in place, the famous sign was completed and ready for a new millennium.
Today it stands proud and tall in its shiny free paint job from Sherwin Williams. Through all its 80 years, starting as a billboard for a housing development, it endured neglect and decay to be reborn as today’s Internationally-known icon. The famous Hollywood sign stands as a symbol of creativity, hard work, and the magic of motion pictures.
Ric Pantale writer and director, is an independent film maker.