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A behind-the-scenes look at one of our most beloved (and mysterious) icons: The Hollywood Sign
Graphic by Bryan Christie
In 1923, developers hoping to attract home buyers to their rustic hilltop attached wood-and-tin letters to a bunch of telephone poles and erected the city’s most famous billboard: HOLLYWOODLAND. Built to last one year, the nearly nine-decade-old landmark has gone from flashy (and flashing) ad to dilapidated relic to global symbol.
The City of Los Angeles owns the land, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce owns the sign, and a nonprofit called the Hollywood Sign Trust supervises maintenance, working with an annual budget of $150,000. The letters are copyrighted.
There have been two incarnations of the sign. The original, which was sold to the city in 1949 (and changed to HOLLYWOOD), fell into disrepair. In 1978, Hugh Hefner raised funds and had it rebuilt from scratch, at $27,000 a letter.
Each standing 45 feet tall, the letters are made of corrugated metal and were assembled on site, affixed to girders, and staggered along the hill to duplicate the positions of the originals. Their washboard texture protects them from heavy rains and strong winds.
From the sign you can see nearly all of L.A. and as far away as Catalina. There’s no official viewing spot for the sign itself, but two good vantage points are Griffith Observatory and the dog park on Lake Canyon Drive.
The letters are anchored by steel girders that extend 13 feet underground and are bolted to concrete. At 225 tons, the structure is sturdy: No major repairs have been required in 34 years.
The Security System
The Hollywood Sign Trust has spent several hundred thousand dollars on security in the last five years. The first system was a $15,000 fence installed in the ’80s that has expanded to include cameras (some are attached to the letters) with night vision and infrared displays. The cameras are monitored 24 hours a day.
Other than regular touch-ups, there have been only three complete paint jobs: in 1978, with oil-based paint; in 1995, with Dutch Boy latex; and in 2005, with elastomeric coating. There are plans to strip and repaint in the next 18 months.
The sign is located 1,700 feet above sea level in Griffith Park, near the top of Mount Lee (named after car dealer and radio station owner Don Lee). The road to the sign is accessible only by foot, and while there are many trails, hiking to the letters is illegal.
Video courtesy of Hollywood Sign Trust/Music by Quantum Jazz