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Hollywood Sign History Part 1

HOLLYWOODLAND SUBDIVISION

The following is an excerpt from Mary Mallory’s book, “Hollywoodland.”

“In the early days, the area of Beachwood Canyon was either empty land or used for farming, as seen in photographs, and did not exist on maps. The eastern half of what became Hollywoodland first appeared in records when the federal government issued a patent to the Southern Pacific Railroad on February 9, 1884.  On September 26, 1890, the Railroad sold the land to Julia E. Lord for an undetermined amount, and four days later she leased it to Quong Yuen Chung “for the right to cut wood.” Deeds for mining interest first appeared on December 12, 1893, but were terminated by court action 1896. On February 8, 1900, Lord bought the western half of the Hollywoodland site from the federal government. As noted in a Los Angeles Times article dated December 22, 1968, she sold the entire 640 acres on July 8, 1905, for $10,000, to Eli P. Clark and his brother-in-law, Moses H. Sherman.” This property became known as the Sherman & Clark Ranch. (1)

Photo of Hollywoodland

On April 1, 1923, the Los Angeles Times reported that a syndicate had been formed to subdivide the 500-acre Sherman & Clark ranch. The real estate syndicate included, Eli P. Clark, Gen. Moses H. Sherman, Harry Chandler (Los Angeles Times publisher), Tracy E. Shoults and Sydney H. Woodruff.  Clark and Sherman turned development over to Shoults and Woodruff who would be responsible for sales and development/construction, respectively.  Title to the land was vested in Title Insurance Trust Company (Trust No. S-5975, dated and signed on March 8, 1923), which will issue all certificates of title. (1-1) The Western Construction Company, which built homes in the Windsor and Marlborough Squares in 1920, was reorganized in 1923 with W.H. Woodruff as president and M.H. Sherman as vice-president. (2) While the engineering was performed by the Engineering Service Company, Western Construction was responsible for all elements of construction for the new Hollywoodland real estate subdivision. (3)  Initial work was concentrated on grading the streets, requiring the demolition of some of the hills.  Men with pick-axes, steam shovels and mule drawn graders were used to develop gentle grades for the cement roads. They used rocks and aggregate from the nearby Clark and Sherman quarry for walls, cement roads and terraces. As the roads were being completed, buildable lots were graded and utility meters installed. Construction, also, began on the sales office at 2690 N. Beachwood Dr.  Work crews and stone-masons lived in tents on upper Beachwood Canyon while they worked on the tract and the Hollywoodland sign. The first tract of the subdivision was recorded on May15, 1923. In April, 1923, Shoults hired architect John L. DeLario to head the Hollywoodland design team. According to Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland” book, DeLario favored the feel and look of Spanish and Mediterranean homes but added a more modern feel to these styles.  Architectural styles were limited to English Tudor, French Normandy, Mediterranean and Spanish. (4)

When Tracy E. Shoults dropped dead in his office on July 6, 1923, S.H. Woodruff was named the lead for all phases of Hollywoodland’s development.  In early September 1923, Woodruff hired L.J. Burrud to be Hollywoodland’s advertising director and publicity manager.  (5)

Burrud used the mass media to his advantage and planned numerous events and stunts to place the name Hollywoodland before the public. On October 7, 1923, the Los Angeles Times reported that Burrud  arranged for the California Oakland Motor Company to send a new Oakland 6-54 model to Hollywoodland to test the new four-wheel brakes. Prior to this, all cars were built with two wheel brakes. With Harry Neville at the wheel, and Burrud observing, the car was driven to one of the steepest portion of the canyon walls.  Neville nosed the car over the edge into what like a certain nose-dive and the finish of the driver and car. As the L.A. Times article reported, “Instantly the car gained momentum and Neville applied the brakes. The effect was a revelation.  The Oakland came to a smooth stop within a few feet without so much as a sliding wheel.” To prove that a car with only two wheel brakes would fail the same test, they took a last year’s car out and did just that. The brakes failed and the car slid crab-fashion down the side of the canyon. 

Less than three months after Harry Neville drove the 1924 Oakland car down the steep hillside, L.J. Burrud boasted to his friends that “no  motor car would ever reach the big sign his company built until they put a road up around the mountains.”  The Oakland Motor Company accepted the challenge and Harry Neville volunteered to make the try. A December 30, 1923 Los Angeles Times article states: Under the guidance of Burrud, the car was driven up the trail made by the tractor on the very razor edge of the hogsback that leads upwards, the loose dirt offering little traction. It took quite few minutes to get the car up over the worst of the grade and then the task of turning it around presented itself.”  This dare-devil attempt was witnessed by a throng of people including workmen, thrill-seekers and salesmen.  As Neville allowed the car to roll forward, the spectators stood with fear and trembling as the loose dirt began to give way under the weight of the car.  But Neville stuck by the ship and permitted it to roll forward with the road at an angle of 45 degrees under the car. The L.A. Times article went on to say; “The four-wheel brakes were all that could have held the car on the tortuous descent. It is so steep that a man has to sit down and slide.  It was this way all the way down the incline until the Oakland rolled out onto the wide smooth roads of Hollywoodland,”

Hollywoodland Photo

Mary Mallory’s book, “Hollywoodland”, describes the sales efforts as follows; “To entice buyers, they promoted how fine the amenities were, even such basic ones as electricity, gas, water, sewers, telephone service, paved streets, ornamental street lights, trees, mail service, garbage collection, views and parking.  The developers particularly noted how Hollywoodland offered health-enhancing benefits like calmness, clean air, exercise and natural environment.  Developers promised scores of special features, such as tennis courts, swimming pool, community center, clubhouse with auditorium, locker rooms, children’s wading pool, tea courts, putting green and horse stable.  Out of these, however, only the tennis courts, putting green and stables were constructed.”

After several months of building roads and developing the first phases of buildable lots, Hollywoodland  “opened for business” in mid-1923. According to numerous newspaper accounts, the development was well received by the public and sales were brisk.

HOLLYWOODLAND SIGN’S CONCEPTION

As mentioned earlier, the Hollywoodland sign was completed in 1923 and was to help promote the sale of lots in the Hollywoodland subdivision. It’s uncertain who came up with the idea to erect the large advertising sign for the Hollywoodland tract.  After years of exhaustive research, which included reading hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, spending hours of viewing microfilm at the Los Angeles Public Library, reading scores of books that recount the history of the sign and performing countless hours of “Google” searches, I’m convinced we may never know who, unequivocally, first proposed the idea of building the Hollywoodland sign.  Over the years, there have been several version advanced about who conceived the idea of the sign.  One version is that real estate developer, Hobart J. Whitley called Harry Chandler and told him about the electrically lighted sign he had erected for his real estate subdivision called “Whitley Heights.” Supposedly, Whitley suggested to Chandler that he do the same for his Hollywoodland development. (6) To begin with, the Whitley Heights’ sign was not lighted and, secondly, it’s doubtful that Whitley would call one of his real estate competitors and make suggestion that would enhance their competitiveness.  Also, Chandler was not involved in the day-to-day operation of Hollywoodland – that was left to S. H. Woodruff.  Therefore, this version can be clearly discounted.

Photo of Hollywoodland center

The second, and most recent, version was advanced by John D. Roche at his 80th birthday party in January, 1977. His version borders on being ludicrous, as it’s filled with hyperbole, inaccuracies, and misinformation. On January 18, 1977, the Los Angeles Times newspaper published an article written by Lynn Simross, who interviewed Roche. The title of the article was “Man Behind the HOLLYWOOD Sign”. The first two sentences of the article read, “John D. Roche Sr. kept quiet about the Hollywood Sign for 54 years. Then, at a party Saturday evening in honor of his 80th birthday, he spoke up.”   Roche claims he was working on a brochure for Hollywoodland in the spring of 1923.  He said he had drawn in proposed homesites, streets and equestrian trails. Behind them, on the side of the hill, he penciled in HOLLYWOODLAND. He claims he showed the drawing to Harry Chandler who liked the idea and wanted to know if Roche could actually put up a sign that could be seen from all over Los Angeles. He further claims that he made large, ten-foot high sketches, and took them to Chandler, who supposedly said, “Go ahead and do it”.  (7)

It begs the question, why would someone keep quiet, for 54 years, about something as important as the Hollywoodland/Hollywood sign, unless he knew that someone would be able to disprove his claims. Secondly, Roche was 26 years old in 1923. If he was working on a Hollywoodland brochure, he would have showed it to S. W. Woodruff, not Harry Chandler.  As mentioned above, Chandler was not involved in Hollywoodland’s day to day activities – he left that up to Woodruff. Chandler was far too busy running the Los Angeles Times, much less having a 26 year-old brochure designer coming to him for approval. Also, Harry Chandler would have never said to 26 year-old Roche, “Go ahead and do it.”  That conversation would have been between Chandler and Woodruff.

In the same newspaper article, Roche said, “We didn’t have engineers or anything.” “We just got it up.”  Nothing could be further from the truth! Hollywoodland hired the Crescent Sign Company to design and engineer the sign.  It was the company’s owner, Thomas Fisk Goff, who designed the sign. (8) There are numerous articles and historical writing attesting to the fact that the Crescent Sign Company was responsible for designing and engineering the thirteen letter sign below the, then, unnamed peak.  The Electrical Products Corporation was responsible manufacturing the light boxes and installing the electrical/lighting system for the sign. (9)

Photo of Hollywoodland sign

However, it’s uncertain as to which company, actually, erected the sign. Neither the Crescent Sign Co., nor the Electrical Products Corp., had ever tackled a job this size. In fact, no one else had either.  Therefore, they probably didn’t have the number of workmen needed to erect the sign.  More than likely, they turned to the Western Construction Co., because they had a large crew, which was developing the Hollywoodland subdivision.  Once the sign’s structure was completed, including the installation of the long light boxes (manufactured by Electrical Products Corp.), the Electrical Products Corp. installed the electrical/lighting system.  In appreciation for being chosen to provide the light boxes and electrical system for the sign.  Paul Howse, President of Electrical Products Corporation, bought an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, in which he expressed his gratitude for bring given opportunity to engineer and install the lighting system and congratulated Mr. Woodruff for building the largest electrical sign ever built.  (9-1)

One of Roche’s most glaring inaccuracies was his statement that he recalls the sign being lighted but insists there were no lights on the original HOLLYWOODLAND sign.  He claimed, “They came sometime later.” Again nothing could be further from the truth!  There are photos in my photo collection that clearly show workmen carrying six inch wide light boxes up the hill to be installed on the sign, while it was still under construction.  The photos clearly show the light sockets (about six inches apart) on the light boxes.  Construction was finished in the first week of December.  A recently found Los Angeles Evening Express Newspaper article, dated December 8, 1923, stated “--- immense Hollywoodland sign, believed to be the largest in the world, will be illuminated tonight.”  The same article, also, stated that Hollywoodland’s fourth unit was opened and they were experiencing heavy sales. It’s very clear that Roche was not involved in the designing of the sign nor was he even knowledgeable about its construction and lighting.  Apparently, the fabricated story he told at his 80th birthday party was so convincing that he was appointed chairman of the 1978 Save The Sign Committee.  He was described as “builder of the original sign.” (10) He simply made up the story on his 80th birthday and passed it on to the Los Angeles Times article writer, Lynn Simross.

It’s clear that the two above-mentioned versions are not historically accurate.  Unfortunately, at the time the sign was built, it didn’t seem to be important enough for someone to chronicle its genesis. As mentioned above, we may never know, unequivocally, who originated the idea or concept of the Hollywoodland Sign. 

The largest collection of Hollywoodland photos is on the hollywoodphotographs.com
website.

 

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