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Hollywood Sign History #6

HOLLYWOOD SIGN HISTORY #6

HOLLYWOODLAND TO HOLLYWOOD

For years, the date of 1949 has been accepted and written as the date the letter “H”, of the Hollywoodland sign, was knocked to the ground. The most accepted story was that it was blown down in a windstorm in 1949.  Of course, the tale about Albert Kothe driving, while drunk, over the summit and knocking down the letter “H”, is totally apocryphal. While viewing microfilm at the Los Angeles Public Library, I found a April 12, 1947 Los Angeles Evening Herald article which showed a photo of the letter “H” lying on the ground. The caption read, “ --- where the H used to be before a wind blew it down five years ago.”  I then located a Los Angeles Times article, dated March 27, 1944 in which actor, Pat O’Brien stated, “ --- that a recent windstorm made a cockney out of Hollywoodland. The big sign now reads OLLYWOODLAND.”  Therefore, it’s clear that the letter “H” was not blown down in 1949, but knocked down in March 1944, by a windstorm.

Hollywood sign photo

For nearly six years, the letter “H” laid on the ground and the weather continued to deteriorate the rest of the sign.  In 1947, the City’s Recreation and Parks Commission advocated tearing the whole sign down.  However, residents in the Hollywoodland tract protested removal of the enormous sign. Hollywood Chamber of Commerce president, John B. Kingsley entered the argument by offering, on behalf of the Chamber, to finance the re-erection of the “H”, provided the last four letters were removed. (28) The estimated cost was $5,000. For nearly two years, the battle continued with Hollywood residents and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce on one side and the Recreation and Park Commission on the other.  Finally, in April 1949, the Commission granted permission to the Chamber of Commerce to rebuild the letter “H”, remove the last for letters (LAND) and refurbish the rest of the sign. (29)  On September 26, 1949, Mayor Fletcher Bowman and John B. Kingsley puffed their way up the mountain trail and had wind enough to swing a pick-ax for the groundbreaking ceremony.  Kingsley predicted the rebuilding of the letter “H” would be completed within three weeks. (30) And it was.

HOLLYWOOD SIGN PHOTOS

The hollywoodphotographs.com website has the largest collection of Hollywoodland and Hollywood sign photos. There are photographs of the sign's constructeion, illumination, alteration, and deterioration. All photos are available for purchase.

Hollywood and sign photo

HOLLYWOOD SIGN’S FACELIFT

During the twenty years following the 1949 sign restoration, the sign continued to be subjected to ravages of the weather. Wind, rain and the sun took its toll on the sheet metal face of the sign. In addition, wood-rot and termites caused further deterioration.

By the early 1970’s, the Hollywood sign was, again, in severe disrepair.  The weather had damaged the fifty-year old structure and it was falling apart.  There were those who felt the sign was at the end of its life and should be torn down.  In 1973, even in its dilapidated condition, the sign was designated as Historic-Cultural Monument #111, by the Cultural Heritage Board of the City of Los Angeles. (31)  Again, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce came to the sign’s rescue.  To assist the Chamber in bringing awareness to the sign’s deteriorating condition and to raise funds for its restoration, two committees were formed; Save the Sign Committee and Friends of the Hollywood Sign Committee.  There were concerts, and other events to raise the desperately needed money.  The estimated cost to restore the sign was $15,000.  The Association of Motion Picture and Telephone Producers donated $1,500, which was followed by a $10,000 donation from Les Kelley, automobile dealer and founder/publisher of the Kelley Blue Book.  In addition to his generous donation, Kelley pledged $1,000 for the Save The Sign Committee to establish a perpetual maintenance fund. Contributions were solicited from the general public who received a tee shirt, given free with every donation of $5 or more.  By mid-April 1973, the committees received contributions from more than 4,000 individuals and companies. (32)

At the end of September 1973, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce announced that the contract for the “facelift” of the Hollywood sign was awarded to the Neon Products Signs.  The facelift was to commence immediately and should take approximately five to six weeks to complete. For the next several weeks, the workmen braved the wind and the sharp edges of the sign, which is made of sheet metal pocked with holes to cut down that very wind resistance. Missing or badly damaged pieces of sheet metal were replaced. For a few days in August, the sign was obliterated as a green rust resistant primer, which blended into the hills, was applied by the painters swaying in a bosun’s chair, strung from the top of each letter. Three more coats of white paint were added to that. (33) It should be noted that because the structural integrity of the sign seemed to be relatively intact, little, if any, structural repairs were made to the sign. The focus of the repairs was on the face of the sign.

On the night of August 31, 1973, during the restoration of the sign, someone altered the sign by draping a large canvas over the entire letter “D”.  On the canvas was a color image of singer, Leon Russell. Below the image were the words, “Save The Sign.” (34) This was the first known vandalized alteration of the sign.  Since then, there have been numerous unauthorized sign alterations.

On the night of the unveiling of the restored sign, on Friday, September 14, 1973, actress, Gloria Swanson was to turn on the floodlights to illuminate the sign. The floodlights were only for the unveiling and not for permanent lighting of the sign.  After the pre-illumination cocktail party at the Holiday Inn, the guests boarded two buses and were taken up the narrow and winding streets of the Hollywood hills to a location opposite the sign. From here they would witness the sign’s unveiling.  The whole event might be termed a complete success except for one thing – the fog that sneaked up the top of the hills and complete obliterated the sign’s premiere.  Apparently, it was tried again, Saturday night – this time the sign was visible. (35)

Hollywood sign photograph

SIGN ALTERATIONS

As mentioned above, the Hollywood sign was first altered on August 31, 1973 when someone draped a large canvas, with a color image of Leon Russell, over the letter “D”.  Since then, there have been several unauthorized alterations made to the sign.  

Over the past forty years, at least a dozen alterations have taken place.  On January 1, 1976, the same day California’s relaxed marijuana law took effect, Cal State Northridge student, Danny Finegood and three other students altered the sign to read HOLLYWEED. Two days before the alteration, they went to the sign and threw ropes over the top of the two letters “O”s.  At 1 AM on January 1st the boys returned to the sign, attached the white and black cloth material to the ropes on the front side of the sign. Then, they pulled the ropes from the back of the sign, thus hoisting the cloth material over the center and right side of the two letter “O”s. (36) Ironically, the sign was, again, altered on January 1, 2017 to read HOLLYWEED, to reflect California’s recent vote to legalize recreational marijuana. (37)

On April 18, 1976, the sign was altered to read HOLYWOOD to commemorate the Easter Sunrise Service, at the Hollywood Bowl.  Eleven years later, in September 1987, the sign, again, was altered to HOLYWOOD to honor Pope John Paul II’s visit to Los Angeles. (38)

Two months before the 1987 alteration, which honored the Pope’s visit, the sign was altered to read OLLYWOOD when national attention was turned to former White House aide, Oliver North’s testimony during the Iran-Contra hearings. (39)

Some of the other unauthorized alterations included: GO NAVY (1983), CALTECH (1987), PEROTWOOD (1992), and GO UCLA (1993)(40)

The best history of the Hollywood Sign is on the hollywoodphotographs.com website.  

 

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