THE LATE HUGH HEFNER PAID for the “Y,” Alice Cooper sprang for an “O,” and Gene Autry picked up the tab for an “L.” This was in 1978, when the Playboy magazine founder held a fundraiser at his Holmby Hills mansion to repair the Hollywood sign (at $27,777 per letter), which was collapsing down the side of Mount Lee.
Originally, the sign read “Hollywoodland”—erected in 1923 as a three-dimensional, bulb-lit advertisement for a tract-house subdivision by the same name—and was abbreviated, in 1949, to simply “Hollywood.” But by any other name, it eventually became the most famous billboard in history and an iconic, definitional addition to the Los Angeles skyline: the Eiffel Tower of L.A.
As it happens, though, billboards had been around long before the Hollywood sign. In fact, they were a big, splashy part of this city’s drive-scape even before residents were driving. As far back as the 1880s, hand-painted graphics promoting food products, hotels, and political candidates were plastered all over L.A., especially in Skid Row. Stroll through that area today, and you can spot faded promotions on some older buildings’ walls—“ghost signs,” they’re called—which still shine through. The lead paint of olden days never seems to entirely fade away, no many how many times it’s painted over.
In the 1920s, as the automotive business started picking up speed, L.A’.s billboard business really began to boom, with some of the signs growing to outlandish proportions.
Advertisements for silent-film releases sometimes stretched as long as 75 feet. Most were positioned at can’t-miss windshield level, as more and more Angelenos started tooling around backwater roads—streets with names like Fairfax, Wilshire, and Sunset—in their shiny, new horseless buggies. By the 1930s, billboard companies like Foster & Kleiser were operating airport-size factories and employing hundreds of artists to work on hand-painted signs.
But the billboard’s twentieth-century heyday had to be the ’70s and ’80s, when music labels employed them to promote concerts and albums, often in new and inventive ways, designing signage with towering cutouts, moving parts, and other eye-popping gimmicks. A local rock station actually constructed a treehouse-like home inside one of its billboards and held a contest to see how long listeners could last living inside it. One contestant made it a whole two months amid the fumes and honks.
“We all worried the person would get drunk up there and fall off,” says 81-year-old Brian Kennedy, who, with his 79-year-old brother, Drake, co-owned Regency Outdoor Advertising, one of the premiere billboard companies in L.A. Regency’s been leasing primo locations since the 1970s, including the space in front of the Chateau Marmont where, for years, a giant Marlboro Man puffed clouds of steam into the hotel’s boulevard-facing suites. It was their spot on Sunset, too, where Maker’s Mark once erected a life-size oil rig that appeared to be dispensing bourbon into a giant bottle. “It was far more creative than people give it credit for,” notes Kennedy of that golden era of outdoor advertising. “Some billboards were really sensational.”
Around that same time, in the 1980s, a certain blond bombshell in a Barbie-pink Corvette began popping up on L.A.’s billboards. Decades before the rise of the internet influencers, Angelyne was pioneering the art of self-promotion by using roadside signage to turn herself into a virtual celebrity. She’s now in her seventies, and her billboards are still fixtures around Hollywood.
For years, a giant Marlboro man puffed clouds of steam into the Chateau’s boulevard-facing suites.
Although Sunset is where most of the tentpole billboards have tended to land—as close to a city center as L.A. has—there’s always been some action in other parts of town. Farther south, on Wilshire, you can find at least a few of those eye-catching (and sometimes head-scratching) lawyer billboards (“We didn’t meet by accident,” announces one for the Pirnia Law Group) that first started popping up in the 1980s, after a Supreme Court decision finally allowed attorneys to advertise themselves.
In the ’90s and aughts, high fashion began to dominate the billboard business, especially back on Sunset, with 20-foot-tall supermodels slinking around the skyline in Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci. Perfumes were big back then, too, with an enormous cutout of Elizabeth Taylor’s face (hawking her Passion scent) competing for motorists’ attention with colossal bottles of Chanel and Jean Paul Gaultier perfumes.
The state of California got involved in the billboard biz around then as well, all but bullying the Marlboro Man with a series of anti-smoking public service ads, including one along Sunset that featured an enormous coffin that periodically opened and closed. (The bullying, by the way, worked; the Marlboro Man was taken down in 1999.)
Of course, like every business, the billboard industry took a major hit during the pandemic, with sales initially dropping about 50 percent for Regency and its competition—businesses like Lamar, Outfront, and Clear Channel. Sales have picked up again, but, still, the billboard game isn’t what it used to be, even on Sunset Boulevard.
These days, Netflix has an Orwellian grip on the Strip, thanks to a $129 million deal that Drake Kennedy signed, against his elder brother’s wishes, with the streamer in 2018, giving Netflix a 35-billboard near-monopoly on that most precious stretch of advertising territory. Last February, Brian Kennedy bought out Drake to acquire 100 percent of the company, but the rift between the two over the Netflix deal apparently hasn’t entirely healed. “He sold the Strip,” Brian notes dejectedly.
Plenty of companies still peddle their wares with outdoor signage. HBO, Disney, CBS, Amazon, Hyundai, Delta Air Lines, and F/X are just a few of the businesses on Regency’s client list at the moment. But the era of the billboard as an art form seems, sadly, to have passed. Today, it’s all about newfangled electronic signage—barely visible during the day, blindingly oppressive at night—that comes dangerously close to turning L.A. into a Las Vegas-like hellscape. The billboards in Los Angeles haven’t actually become smaller in recent years, yet somehow it feels that way.
If only the Marlboro Man would take up smoking again.
This story is featured in the August 2022 issue of Los Angeles