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The Hollywood Sign Turns 100

Laura Puttkamer
Los Angeles

The Hollywood Sign is managed by a non-profit organisation called “The Hollywood Sign Trust”. It works to preserve the landmark, which is an international symbol of filmmaking – and it just had a century on its back.

For its 100th birthday, the sign received a paint job and there are plans for a visitor centre too. Image: Unsplash

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The famous sign in the hills above Los Angeles, the Hollywood Sign, is turning 100 years old. But it is not so easy to visit.

International symbol for filmmaking

The famous Hollywood Sign is one of the most famous signs in the world. Films, careers, and dreams, but also quite a few nightmares have been made under its watchful letters. If you hike in the mountains and approach the letters, you will find warning signs threatening arrest and fines if you climb the sign. There are also warnings about mountain lions and rattlesnakes.

But still, the lettering has an almost magical effect. The letters, which are about 13 metres high and up to 12 metres wide, are among the most frequently photographed motifs in Los Angeles. They also regularly appear in Hollywood films themselves and have found many imitators around the world. The lettering is particularly visible from the hiking trails in Griffith Park.

The Hollywood Sign is managed by a non-profit organisation called “The Hollywood Sign Trust”. It works to preserve the landmark, which is an international symbol of filmmaking.

The Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles is the city's most famous landmark. Image: Unsplash

A Y from Hugh Hefner, an O from Alice Cooper

The letters have adorned the difficult-to-access site since 1923. Workers hauled the material up the mountain, using donkeys as well. Old wooden telephone poles and pieces of sheet metal were used to create the original lettering. It was a little longer than the one we know today: “Hollywoodland” could be read back then. This was originally a publicity stunt by a brokerage firm to sell more properties in the uninhabited Hollywood Hills. The billboard was lit up at night with 3,700 light bulbs. And a German named Albert Kothe was responsible for maintaining the lights.

The billboard quickly became an icon, but it also brought sad stories. In 1932, for example, the young actress Peg Entwistle, who could not find work, threw herself to her death from the letter H. As far as is known, this is the only suicide from the Hollywood sign.

Over time, the letters weathered and partially toppled over. The paint peeled off until the Hollywood Sign no longer looked pretty. Some wanted to tear the sign down, but in the late 1940s the iconic lettering prevailed: It was refurbished by the city and shortened by four letters, so that henceforth “Hollywood” could be read in the hills.

In 1978, another facelift by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and prominent donors followed. The letters were completely wiped out.

Each of the letters is up to 13 metres tall. Image: Unsplash

Visitor centre planned for anniversary year

The large letters above Los Angeles always invite hijinks and jokes. When Pope John Paul II visited the city in 1987, the lettering greeted him with “Holywood”, meaning holy forest. In films, the Hollywood Sign is often destroyed, with increasingly creative variations being used.

For the anniversary year 2023, there are more serious plans: a visitor centre is to be built at the sign so that visitors can learn more about the history. The sign already received a new coat of paint in autumn 2022. 1,500 litres of white paint were needed to spruce up the Hollywood Sign in time for the anniversary year.

Various celebrations will now take place in 2023 to celebrate the history of the Hollywood Sign. However, there is no current news on the new visitor centre. Those who want to visit the sign in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains can go hiking in the mountains: For example, you have a very nice view of the sign from the Brush Canyon Trail or the Griffith Observatory.

Hiking to get close to the Hollywood sign is not easy. No one is allowed to touch it. Image: Unsplash

Hollywood Sign: An arduous hike

With ongoing debates and complaints about Hollywood culture, gender equality in the industry and actors’ pay, many associate Hollywood with a critical view. As early as the 1930s, the Guardian reports, Los Angeles faced harsh criticism because, after all, the city did not (and still does not) have a café culture like, say, Paris or Berlin. The city’s most famous landmark is located outside in the mountains, is monitored by cameras around the clock and is not directly accessible to the public.

So even though the Hollywood Sign has had a varied and sometimes critical history, it is still the most recognisable monument in Los Angeles. It can be seen in the first few minutes of numerous films. And anyone visiting the city can’t help but take photos. The hike is arduous and even the people who get close to the sign are not allowed to touch it – a bit like Hollywood itself, isn’t it?

Most news from Los Angeles that are not related to Hollywood are about wildfires.

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