No one thought things would turn out the way they did. It was just that back in 1923, real estate developers S.H. Woodruff and Tracy Shoults had a problem: Most people in Los Angeles at the time were living downtown, south of Wilshire. Sales for their new housing development, nestled at the foot of the Santa Monica mountains, were sluggish.
So, businessman Jeff Zarrinnam says, they had an idea: “They came up with this gigantic sign that said Hollywoodland. It was only supposed to last about 18 months.”
That 18 months has stretched out to 100 years. It’s a story only Hollywood could write, about a “temporary” real estate ad that’s become one of the most iconic images on planet Earth.
And it’s still here, thanks to Zarrinnam and his fellow members of the Hollywood Sign Trust. “Some people ask me, ‘How did you get this job?'” Zarrinnam said. “It’s not really a job. It’s a volunteer position. There’s no pay in maintaining the Hollywood sign. I do this for the love of Hollywood and for sheer joy of doing it.”
Part of why the sign is so iconic is the sheer number of times it has shown up in movies and TV over the years. The sign has also drawn countless dreamers to Los Angeles, looking for their moment in the spotlight, which is where Adam Burke comes in. He runs the L.A. Tourism and Convention Board. “Hollywoodland was really about putting L.A. on the map as being one of the creative capitals of the world,” Burke said. “So, it was really designed to become what it really has become, which is a global marquee for, not just L.A., but for the film and television industry.”
Burke thinks this might be the most valuable sign in the world. “Last year alone, visitors to the broader L.A. area generated $34.5 billion of business sales to our local community,” he said.
Some of which ends up in Chris Nye’s pocket. Nye is a tour guide who leads groups of excited tourists up to a spot near the sign on most days. He says those tourists are excited because seeing the sign is like seeing a celebrity: “They need something, sort of a cliché, to say, you know: Live from Los Angeles, from Hollywood! So, they keep taking the same pictures of these nine stupid letters on the side of Mount Lee over and over and over again. That’s why it’s become so iconic.”
Burbank asked, “Now, you say ‘nine stupid letters,’ but you’re leading tours up there. So, you must think it’s pretty cool?”
“Well, what I enjoy is the enthusiasm that people have of seeing the sign for the first time and sharing that with people,” Nye replied.
We were enthusiastic as well, and thanks to Jeff Zarrinnam, our CBS crew was allowed to go right down to the base of the sign, to see just how large these letters are.
You notice that the letters are not on the same plane, but rather are offset from one another, each facing a different direction. In fact, it’s that undulation, determined by the hillside, that allows the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to trademark the sign. Otherwise, it would just be a word.
The first version of the sign was made of wood and sheet metal, and covered in thousands of lights. But by 1944, high winds and weather had taken their toll. Even the H had fallen down. “It said Ollywoodland for a long time,” Zarrinnam said.
By the late 1970s, the letters L-A-N-D were long-gone, and the sign was in grave disrepair. So, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce went looking for $250,000 to replace it, and got the money from some unlikely benefactors. Rock star Alice Cooper was the first one to donate $27,777, as did Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, singer Andy Williams, actor and cowboy Gene Autrey, and car dealer Les Kelley, who invented the car price guide, “The Kelley Blue Book.”
Of course, this is Hollywood, home of the facelift, and the Hollywood Sign has had its share over the years.
Burbank asked, “Do you think it’s going to be here a hundred years from now?”
“One hundred percent,” said Burke. “The audaciousness of the project to me is really still symbolic of the way L.A. approaches anything. We don’t do things halfway. It’s really, go big or go home.”
As it turns 100, the Hollywood sign is (as they say around here) “ready for its next closeup.”
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Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: George Pozderec.