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The many facelifts of the Hollywood sign | Bartell's Backroads

An inside look at the beauty regimen of Tinseltown's biggest icon, and the story of how the Hollywood sign became the world's most famous billboard.

LOS ANGELES — The Hollywood sign is LA's most photographed billboard and an icon for the motion picture industry, but like any celebrity in Tinseltown, it’s highly protected. Motion detectors, cameras and loudspeakers are mounted all over the place to fend off anyone trying to touch or climb it. 

According to Jeff Zarrinnam of the Hollywood Sign Trust, this is what would happen if you trespass: “Helicopters would be summoned, the police are viewing you from downtown and up at the bunker and the ranger station."

For the general public, the closest you can get to the sign is on top of Mt. Lee about 50 yards away, behind a chain link fence. 

“You get a great view of the back of the sign and the city of Los Angeles,” Zarrinnam said. 

It wasn’t always so hard to get to the Hollywood sign. In fact, when it was put up in 1923, the builder didn’t expect it to be around this long. 

“It was only designed to last a maximum of two years,” Zarrinnam said.

Originally, the sign read “Hollywoodland.” It was a publicity stunt to advertise an upscale real estate subdivision at the base of what is now Mt. Lee. Back then it was lit up with about 4,000 lightbulbs. 

“There were lights on the sign, and they flashed Holly-wood-land, then Hollywoodland,” Zarrinnam said.

Credit: Hollywood Sign Trust
The Hollywood sign originally spelled out "Hollywoodland" when it was first erected in 1923.

The sign soon became a beloved icon to residents in Hollywood and the motion picture industry, but, in 1932, some tragic news surrounded the sign and a young actress. 

“Peg Entwistle was her name, and she wasn't making it in Hollywood--was a little distraught. She climbed up to the top of the 'H' and plunged to her death,” Zarrinnam said.

By the late 1930s, the sign became neglected and fell into disrepair. 

“It was an eyesore; it was falling apart. So, the Chamber of Commerce stepped in and said, 'We'll pay to fix it,'” Zarrinnam said. 

That began a long series of face lifts. In 1945, the City of Los Angeles acquired the land that the sign sat on. In 1949, the sign was restored and shortened to just "Hollywood," but by the 1960s, the sign was falling apart again. In 1973, it was restored again, but a few years later, the wood rotted away. 

Finally, in 1978, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce got some financial help from a well-known California playboy. 

“Hugh Hefner came in, donated the Playboy mansion to do a fundraiser -- I think they made about $275,000,” Zarrinnam said.

Once the old wooden sign was removed, the brand-new all-metal sign was flown in by helicopter letter-by-letter and cemented into the side of the mountain. Zarrinnam said each letter is 45-feet tall.

The bigger the sign, the bigger the target for vandals, and over the years the sign has been modified many times by pranksters. 

“It’s been changed to Holly-weed twice, once in the 1970s and again in 2001. It was also changed to Holly-Boob,” Zarrinnam said.

Despite its many face lifts, the film industry continues to cast the sign in countless movies, and next year the sign turns 100 years old. A big celebration and a new paint job are in the works, which will make it even more visible from afar. 

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