The story behind the century-old Hollywood sign

The sign that adorns the hill of Mount Lee in Los Angeles was inaugurated on July 13, 1923. One hundred years later, the sign is still an iconic part of the city.

If there is one symbol that encapsulates the mecca of cinema and the spirit of Los Angeles, it is undoubtedly the Hollywood sign. The iconic sign that adorns the hill of Mount Lee in Los Angeles was inaugurated on July 13, 1923. However, the story of Hollywood began much earlier, specifically with a ranch in 1880 that bore this name. Its owner was Daeida Wilcox, the wife of a real estate developer from Texas.

It was she, recalls Clarín, who decided to give the name to her house, and that same name would later be used in 1903 by a small independent municipality. Seven years later, in 1910, Hollywood became part of Los Angeles. This happened to be the same year that the first Hollywood movie was shot. Titled "In Old California," it is a silent film just over 17 minutes long. It was the first feature film that was shot in what came to be known as the mecca of cinema.

A year later, the first production studio was established there, called the Nestor Film Company. The studio moved there since it did not have to pay the so-called Edison tax, a fee that studios located in New York and New Jersey had to pay to Thomas Edison as the inventor of cinema. A short time later, up to 15 more studios joined. They argued that, in addition to the Edison tax, both the climate and the enormous amount of sunlight were great incentives to make Hollywood their new home.

An advertisement turned Hollywood icon

The image of Hollywood as the mecca of cinema was thus created, but the iconic sign was was not established until in 1923.  The sign was just a bit different in those times; in fact, it read "Hollywoodland." Thirteen huge white letters were installed on Mount Lee, 50 feet high and 30 feet wide. National Geographic recalls that the sign was the idea of former Los Angeles Times Director Harry Chandler.

The goal was to promote a new residential neighborhood located on the outskirts of Hollywood that was to be called "Hollywoodland." Designed by Thomas Fisk Goff, the sign served to promote a neighborhood whose motto was: "Exceptional atmosphere without excessive costs in the hills."

It was there provisionally. The sign was only planned to stay for 18 months. Built by the Crescent Sign Company, its installation cost about $21,000 (equivalent to about $250,000 today) and was owned by the so-called "father of Hollywood," H.J. Whitley. He didn't know it at the time, but the Hollywood sign was there to stay and would become an icon of the American film industry, a mission it continues to fulfill to this day.

The dark side of the sign

However, the history of the Hollywood sign also has a dark side. The most tragic anecdote dates back to 1932. That year, El País recalls, actress Millicent "Peg" Entwistle was going through one of her worst moments. Excited, she had decided to move to Los Angeles to try her luck in the film industry. She had triumphed on Broadway at just 17 years old and wanted to make the leap to the screen.

However, seven years later, the 24-year-old had been financially ruined and didn't get a single chance in Hollywood. Desperate, on Sept. 18, 1932, she decided to write a note, which was later found by her uncle, which read as follows: "I am afraid, I am a coward. I regret what happened. If I had done this long ago, I would have saved a lot of pain. P.E." Right after, she climbed on top of the mythical H and jumped into the hillside.

The Hollywood sign's reforms and renovations

A few years later, the Whitley family decided to divest the sign property. It was 1949, and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce agreed to buy ownership of the sign for $1. There was just one condition: they wanted to remove the final four letters of the sign. That was the end of "Hollywoodland" and the beginning of the "Hollywood" sign.

That was the beginning of the sign's decline. In the '60s, recalls National Geographic, due to the inclement weather and its poor condition, the upper part of the D and the third O fell down Mount Lee. A short time later, an arsonist set fire to the bottom of the letter L.

It seemed that the end of the Hollywood sign was near. However, at the end of the '70s, a group of businessmen and artists from the Los Angeles neighborhood refused to let the emblematic icon go away. They spoke with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and dedicated funds for the sign to be renovatec. The reform cost $250,000. Each making a financial contribution, together they managed to make the Hollywood sign shine again.

In 1978, Hugh Hefner organized an auction at the Playboy mansion. In it, the letters were sold individually, and several artists such as Alice Cooper and Gene Autry now own some parts of the sign. For this they paid about $27,700 each, but, most importantly, they saved the sign again. As the years passed by, the sign went from being a simple advertisement to a monument recognized as an official landmark by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board.

Since then, it has had many reforms. The last restoration was carried out in 2022. NTN24 recalls that it ended on Nov. 1 of that year. It required the work of 12 people who for eight weeks applied a total of 1,500 liters of paint to make it as white as the day it was inaugurated.

In addition, the sign's security has been strengthened. It is illegal to approach the sign or touch the letters. The sign is now surrounded by a fence that, in addition, is protected by a security system that includes surveillance cameras and motion detectors. These measures were implemented to maintain the mythical Hollywood sign in top condition and, thus, be able to celebrate its 100th birthday.