Accidental Icon: How the Hollywood Sign Became a LA Mainstay

Recently Patrick, myself, and some friends decided to conquer the Hollywood sign hike. We hiked up steep dusty trails that wove their way for over three miles through Griffith Park, finally reaching the peak and it got me thinking about the amazing history of this accidental symbol of Tinseltown.

The Hollywood sign from below, with nothing but bushes surrounding the area.

As America entered the roaring 20s, Los Angeles was a boomtown, and Hollywood had become the entertainment capital, producing movies to charm the masses. In 1923 a housing subdivision syndicate was created, Hollywoodland, which advertised itself as a place to enjoy “clean, mountain air,” and unintentionally created an icon, the Hollywood sign.

The architecture of the development were much like Hollywood movie making, creating a faux European neighborhood, with fanciful homes in the English Tudor, French Normandy, Mediterranean, and Spanish styles. To sell homes a small reality office opened at the base of Mount Lee, with a pair of stone gateways just in front, marking the start of the Hollywoodland subdivision.

A small green Tudor style building that is the Hollywoodland Reality office.

One of the stone gateways to Hollywoodland. Made up of grey stones, an arched walkway with a tower above.

The stone archway on the sidewalk that marks the entrance to Hollywoodland. A sign reads "Hollywood Est. 1923" and another sign below reads "Two Stone Gates 1920s Declared Historic Cultural Monument No. 20 by the Cultural Heritage Board Municipal Art Department City of Los Angeles."

A white arched sign reads "Hollywoodland Realty Co." in gothic blue letters.

To further advertise the brand new homes, they built a massive sign reading “Hollywoodland” across Mount Lee. The letters were made of sheet metal, held up with wooden poles. Both the sheet metal and poles were hauled up the side of the hill by a tractor, but the last 75 yards proved too steep, and mules were used for the last little bit. Aware of the intense winds of Southern California, the sheet metal had small holes drilled throughout it to allow the wind to flow through. If 45 foot tall letters were not enough, the sign was lit with 3700 bulbs, first lighting up the hills on December 8, 1923.

Originally only suppose to last roughly a year and a half, the sign added to the sense of community, becoming a beloved icon, but not without its darker elements. On September 18, 1932 a female hiker was near the Hollywood sign and found a woman’s shoe, jacket, and purse, which contained a suicide note. The woman looked up and saw the body of a woman. The hiker collected the items, left them on the doorstep of a police station, and then phoned the police, telling her story, but refusing to give her name. Police trekked up to the sign and discovered the body of Peg Entwistle. Entwistle had enjoyed success on the New York stage, even amid an unhappy marriage followed by divorce. In Hollywood she was cast in an RKO film, Thirteen Women. Her role originally had a lesbian storyline, but the Hayes Code nixed it, reducing her role to a few lines. Depressed she made her way to the Hollywood sign, leaping to her death from atop the H.

The following year the Hollywoodland reality syndicate dissolved, and the unsold property and the sign changed hands. In the years that followed various letters were blown down, including the H in 1944, which remained down for six years. Also in 1944 the sign and the surrounding 425 acres were donated to the city of Los Angeles. By 1947 the sign had become a tattered eyesore of long gone real estate company, and the Recreation and Parks Commission wanted to tear it down, but those living in the original Hollywoodland homes fought to keep it. A compromise was made, fix the sign, but remove the “land” portion. The sign received minor fixes, before falling into disrepair just a few decades later.

The sign’s status as an icon was solidified in 1973 when it was designated a LA Historic-Cultural Monument, but Mother Nature didn’t seem to care. On February 10, 1978 a massive windstorm damaged all of the letters, and completely knocking down the “O.” The original wooden poles that held up the sign had suffered from decades of being a buffet for termites, and the entire sign needed to be replaced. Celebrities stepped up, donating and fundraising as part of the “Save the Sign” campaign. Hugh Hefner hosted a $150 per person fundraising party at his Playboy Mansion. Meanwhile rocker Alice Cooper pledged $27,700 for the “O” in honor of Grocho Marx. Other donors included Les Kelley (of Kelley Blue Book fame), cowboy star Gene Autry, singer Andy Williams. The new sign was completed on November 11, 1978, with brand new steel support and metal letters, but instead of thousands of bulbs lighting the edge of each letter, it was instead lit up with flood lights.

Close-up of the Hollywood sign.

Standing in front of the Hollywood sign, wearing a cowboy hat, white peasant blouse and blue jeans.

In 1992 the California Attorney General granted legal rights to three entities to look after the sign, which included the City of Los Angeles, who owns the land, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, responsible for the licensing rights of the sign’s image, and the Hollywood Sign Trust, left with the maintenance and care of the sign itself.

Over the years the sign has received many fresh coats of paint, various fences, and security systems to help preserve it. Today, hikers can take a variety of trails up to the sign, which offer majestic views nearly the entire way before arriving at a chainlink fence just a few feet behind the letters. A little further up you reach the peak, standing above the sign and with a spectacular view of Los Angeles on one side, and Burbank on the other.

Sign reading "Camp Hollywood Land" at the start of the hike.

Green rolling hills give way to the Los Angeles landscape in the background.

Green hills feature tan dirt pathways crisscrossing through the hills.

Hills of green sagebrush and bushes, in the distance Los Angeles's streets.

View overlooking Forest Lawn cemetery that then gives way to Burbank.

The skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles peek from behind green hills.

Back of the H

Perched on a hill on the left is the domed building of Griffith Observatory. Past it the tall skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.

Myself looking out toward the city. The letters of the Hollywood sign below me.

Standing at the top, wearing a cowboy hat, white peasant blouse and blue jeans, the letters of the Hollywood sign behind me, and small houses of the hills past that, and then the streets of the city.

For our hike we chose the Brush Canyon Trail, which is roughly six and a half miles round trip, gaining over 1,000 feet in elevation. Despite being a popular trail, we were able to distance ourselves from other hikers and work masks for most of our journey, taking them off for a handful of photos away from other sightseers.

Hike to the Hollywood sign by way of the Bush Canyon Trail, starting at 3200 Canyon Drive in Los Angeles. The parking lot is the same one I recommend using for visiting Bronson Canyon as well, which you can see and read about that journey here. I also recommend taking a bottle of water or two!

Sources
Hollywoodland Sign” Hollywood Realty Company
Our History” Hollywood Realty Company.
Owen, Martha. “Death in Hollywood: the Peg Entwistle Story.” BBC, 1 October 2011.
The Saga of the Sign: The Rise, Ruin and Restoration of Hollywood’s Biggest Name. Hollywood Sign Trust.

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