The Hollywood Sign: A Community Icon

Photograph accessed from lamag.com

Hollywood is an equal parts star-studded and cut-throat sort of place, a land of dreamers turned movie stars and screenwriters and producers—glamorous and creative people that earned their way into the competitive and remarkable movie and television industry via talent, hard work, and luck. This community is idolized in the United States and around the world as a film and television artistic mecca, brandished by the classic white HOLLYWOOD sign atop Mt. Lee.

The Hollywood sign has, in some ways, become as iconic and recognizable to the community as the industry. With this iconic status in mind, it is worth asking: where does the sign come from, and why does its presence matter to Hollywood? And what does the preservation of the Hollywood Sign say about the value of historical landmarks in crafting and maintaining a city’s identity?

In my research, I was surprised by the parallels I noticed between the Sign’s history and the Save the Showbox efforts currently underway in Seattle, Washington. It is a situation that has captured my interest as of late, and I wrote about it in a previous blog, available here. 

In the case of the Showbox Theatre, a space of arts and culture in Seattle since 1939 and at risk of removal and replacement with a luxury apartment complex, I raised a series of questions about memory and place. What is worth saving when we think about historical landmarks, and should we only be concerned about the landmarks in our own area or community? And how important is a physical, historical place in maintaining the heart and soul of a community? Why is the loss of a historical place like the Showbox so upsetting? These questions shape the way we think about the Hollywood Sign, too. Though the Sign is not at risk of removal at present, we should consider why renovation efforts and upkeep (whether major or minor) are considered worthwhile to members of the community.

The Hollywoodland Sign was constructed in 1923 by a real estate developer in order to attract attention to the growing community: “to help promote the sale of lots in the Hollywoodland subdivision” (according to Bruce Torrance, whose work we will discuss further in a bit). Thus, the sign was very much like a billboard: “Please move to Hollywoodland! It’s a wonderfully unique place to buy a lot and build a house!” (so to speak, of course). This is fascinating, because even as the Hollywood Sign did not initially seek to present itself as a representation of movie-star-glamour Hollywood, its initial intention was to iconize itself, only in a different way. 

The sign underwent numerous changes and renovations over the years, and its security as a vital piece of Hollywood’s landscape was not certain in the way it is today. In 1944, for example, the “H” of the sign toppled in a windstorm, and the poor letter remained in its dilapidated state for six years before repairs took place. In 1944, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce president agreed to pay for repairs, so long as the “-land” was removed from Hollywoodland. In 1973, the financial generosity of Les Kelley allowed for what Torrance describes as a “facelift” of the sign. Unfortunately, however, agony befell the now-iconic sign again after damages from another storm in the 1970s. This, to me, is where it grows particularly interesting.

The community’s response to the poor state of the sign in the 1970s serves as a means of indicating citizen’s changing perceptions of the landmark. The sign’s damages led to profound renovation proposals: the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce formed a Save the Sign committee that called for a dramatic overhaul of the sign—over $250,000 of proposed repairs. With the help of Hugh Hefner’s fundraising event at the Playboy Mansion (yes, really) and fundraising efforts by the Save the Sign committee, appropriate funds were reached. Fleetwood Mac held a benefit concert, free T-shirts were offered to donors of even five dollars…it was all very 1970s Hollywood. Upon the completion of successful fundraising, the Hollywood Sign underwent its dramatic update in 1978. 

This Save the Sign effort is rather reminiscent of Save the Showbox efforts. Just like Seattle citizens (and artists and others around the country) believe in and fight for the cultural and historical value of the Showbox, Hollywood locals believed that the Sign was a piece of what made (makes) Hollywood what it was and is. If the Sign was removed or left to rot in the 1970s or was removed today, would Hollywood still be Hollywood? Sure, but what would be missing? What will Seattle lose if they lose their historic Showbox?

The small updates to the Hollywood Sign throughout the mid twentieth century were relatively low-cost and low-pressure in the long run. It seems that many lacked a strong opinion of the sign, but the efforts of a few (particularly the Hollywood City Council) ensured the sign remained intact. The major renovation project of the late 1970s, however, is an entirely different story. This was a rather star-studded and creative fundraising process.

At what point is a landmark a permanent fixture in a community—one that is worth thousands upon thousands of dollars of fundraised money? At what point did the Hollywood sign become a point of interest for the likes of Hugh Hefner and Andy Williams? At what point did the Showbox Theatre become a point of interest for the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and Pearl Jam? And why does the presence of the Hollywood Sign remain so relevant and so integral to the community’s image, while the likes of the Showbox Theatre in Seattle risk destruction by the grip of luxury apartment complexes? Ultimately, the Showbox provides a service to the community, while the Hollywood Sign’s function is to proclaim that “This is Hollywood.” Is one more important than the other, and does that matter?

Ultimately, the history of this landmark raises important questions as we think about which historical sites and landmarks communities (or states or nations) find valuable and worth preserving. Perhaps both the Showbox Theatre and the Hollywood Sign can bring us a few steps closer to answering the sorts of historical questions these situations raise.

For further reading, I invite you to skim through these additional sources if you so choose. The bulk of my exploration came from the work of Hollywood historian Bruce Torrance, available here. This is a lengthy and (admittedly) peculiar-at-times document, but Torrance’s decades of investment in the history of the Hollywood Sign are evident in this  document. If you wish for further and detailed reading, I do recommend giving it a skim.

This timeline is also an effective (and briefer) way to engage with the history of the Hollywood Sign, specifically in its approach of the preservation efforts in the 1970s.

Finally, the timeline available here provides more information about the continued updates and renovations to the sign in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Certainly, the Hollywood Sign remains very much a classic tourist spot and defining piece in Hollywood’s landscape.

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