The face of Hollywood is about to get a facelift; and this is not a reference to any actor, music star, or director. The ubiquitous and primary icon of Hollywood has always been the Hollywood sign. Before the 100th anniversary of its installation, in 2023, the sign is about to get a paint job and general maintenance.
The sign is perhaps the most frequently featured landmark and cultural signifier in Hollywood films. We have seen it getting destroyed in countless landslides, floods, and storms. It has served as a gateway to Hades, and a venue for gangland shootouts. Musicians have started their music videos atop its individual letters; and video games have weaved it into side-quests and bonus challenges. Nothing spells Los Angeles (LA) and its effervescent cultures like the 45-foot-tall and 350-foot-long bold white lettering of the Hollywood sign.
A hundred years ago, however, the icon started as most gigantic lettered signs do — an advertisement, a banner, and an announcement. Spelled “Hollywoodland” back then, the sign was first commissioned by real-estate developers SH Woodruff and Tracy E Shoults, who were promoting a new housing development in the hills above the Hollywood district of LA.
They commissioned the building to the Crescent Sign Company. The sign was designed with 13 white wooden block letters, each 30-foot-wide and 50-foot-high. It was also studded with approximately 4,000 light bulbs, which flashed “HOLLY,” “WOOD,”, “LAND”, and the whole in a loop. The light display can be seen in the “Hollywoodland” episode of the television series Timeless, digitally recreated.
The sign was also highlighted by first one, and then two searchlights — a reference found on the opening 21st Century Fox and Searchlight motion picture film banners.
The “Hollywoodland” sign cost more than $20,000 but was designed to last only a year or so.
However, more than a real estate boom, it was the gradual but definite shift of the American film industry to first the West Coast and then to southern California, which gave rise to Hollywood as we know it today.
With cheaper lands, a friendlier climate, and therefore lower production costs, Hollywood and LA soon became not just favourite destinations for filmmaking but also for the film stars and their lavish lifestyles. By this time, “Hollywoodland” had endured well over a quarter century, riding on its iconic association with the Golden Age of American Cinema and the migration rush to suburban California in the post-World War II years.
By the end of the 1940s, however, the sign had deteriorated, losing the “H” altogether in either an act of vandalism or windstorms. While many of its affluent residents complained against the dilapidated sign, calling it an eyesore, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce (HCC) entered a contract with the Los Angeles Parks department for the sign’s restoration.
In September 1949, therefore, the suffix “land” was removed, and the sign was restored to reflect the district and its culture, rather than the vestige of an old real estate project. Neither the HCC nor the LA Parks wanted to bear the cost of lighting up the gigantic sign the way it was done in the 1920s.
This wasn’t the most glamorous, not even the most recent, restoration of the sign, however.
Around 30 years later, some of the biggest names associated with the Hollywood film industry and the LA popular culture would get together for another overhaul of the iconic landmark. By now, the sign had lost its third “O”, while the first had its top broken off, spelling out “HULLYWOD”.
Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine and one of the most influential celebrities in the industry back then, launched a campaign for its restoration in 1978. Nine donors — including Hefner, actor Gene Autry and singer Andy Williams, among others — contributed $27,778 each to sponsor the replacement of individual letters, with new ones made of steel supported by steel columns on a concrete foundation. The total donation came to $250,000 (see box: The 1979 Donors’ List).
And if you thought restorations were the only cause for editing or changing the Hollywood sign, think again. From “HOLLYWEED” to “JOLLYGOOD”, the sign has been altered on several occasions by protesters and promoters alike.
For instance, the sign was altered to “Hollyweed” in 1976 to protest a state law decriminalising cannabis, and then again on New Year’s Day in 2017 to celebrate California legalising recreational cannabis. In 1987, the second “L” was covered to mark the visit of Pope John Paul II, changing the sign to “Holywood”.
In 2003, as part of the traditional “pranks” by Caltech senior students, the sign was changed to “Caltech” on the centenary of the district’s incorporation as a municipality.
Most recently, on February 1, 2021, the YouTuber Joogsquad and Instagram influencer Julia Rose changed the sign to “Hollyb**b” to protest censorship on Instagram and other social media.
The sign’s preservation is overseen by the Hollywood Sign Trust, a non-profit chartered in 1992. According to an LA Times report, the sign is repaired and repainted every 10 years. It was last painted in 2012.
The upcoming paint jobs will take 10 people about eight weeks, and will start on October 3, wrapping up in early November.
Here’s looking forward to a jolly good-looking Hollywood sign in its hundredth year of iconicity!