In the late 1800s, Southern California was much like the Wild West of the movies. The mainly empty landscape was scattered with land prospectors, cowboys and bandits until Easterners decided to venture out for the sun and dry weather. Daida Wilcox, the wife of the town’s founder Henry Wilcox, requested that the name of the town be "Hollywood" after the name of an acquaintance’s Florida summer home.
By 1912, independent studios were using old barns as soundstages and so began the Hollywood film scene. The city became the place actors and actresses came to find fame. By 1920, approximately 40 million Americans were going to the movies each week.
Hollywood had become more than a place where people lived and worked, it represented the dreams and efforts of people in the film industry. To showcase what was clearly becoming an icon in American culture, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler built the $21,000 "HOLLYWOODLAND" sign in 1923 on Mount Lee, atop the picturesque real estate developments that were now in full swing.
The sign was constructed out of metal and held together by pipes, scaffolding, wires and telephone poles. It originally blinked with 4,000 20-watt light bulbs in a three-part process – first "HOLLY," then "WOOD" and finally "LAND."
In 1932, actress Peg Entwistle (the "Hollywood Sign Girl") plunged 50 feet to her death after mulling over the fact that she had not gotten a decent acting job all summer. Ironically, the next day she received a letter offering her a lead in a play about a woman driven to commit suicide.
During World War II, the city took possession of the landmark that hadn’t been properly taken care of since the beginning of the Great Depression; the "H" fell down and the sign read "OLLYWOODLAND."
From the ’50s to the early ’70s, the sign became weathered and slowly began to crumble. Some letters toppled and fell down Mt. Lee.
In 1973, pro-marijuana "activists" changed the sign to read "HOLLYWEED." The letters were also altered to read "HOLYWOOD" when Pope John Paul II visited.
In the late ’70s, the original sign was torn down and a new one was built out of concrete and steel at a cost of $250,000. To raise money for the project, Playboy’s Hugh Hefner auctioned off letters of the old sign to create the icon that stands today.
Not much has been done since the renovation. In the ’90s, the sign got a fresh paint job and in 2000 a state-of-the-art security system was installed. Although the sign has all but lost its original function since its humble days as a real-estate billboard, the sign has served a much greater purpose by truly making Hollywood one of the most recognized cities in the world.
The Hollywood Sign is located atop Mt. Lee, in the Hollywood Hills, northeast of downtown Hollywood. For the best view, take Beachwood Drive north up into the hills. The sign can also be seen from the Hollywood & Highland Center, at the corner of Beachwood Drive and Glen Holly, and at the northwest intersection of Franklin Avenue and Gower. For more information and to see the sign live via Webcam, visit www.hollywoodsign.org.