Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown
Hollywood Sign: Hiking & History
The Hollywood Sign is such an iconic structure that it never needs an introduction or description to first-time visitors who are guests. They know it well, having seen it untold times in movies, TV shows and news pieces. They’ve almost certainly seen a picture of it many times too. Interestingly if you next ask them if they thought Los Angeles was hilly in places, they’ll almost certainly say no – they though it was flat. Which is funny because the sign is clearly on a hill and we have a very well-known neighborhood here called Beverly Hills, but it does show how the real Los Angeles is often mistaken for its glamorous alter-ego – El Ay. The Hollywood Sign is of course real, the letters are nearly fifty feet high, but it’s central to the myth of Los Angeles and its local industry, mass entertainment.
A Short History of the Hollywood Sign
The sign was raised high in the Hollywood Hills in 1923. Like many ancient myths (which this clearly isn’t) its origins have become lost in the mists of time. No one knows exactly when it was unveiled, but it must have been sometime in October or November of that year as there was a piece about it in the Los Angeles Times in December and the article referred to it as having stood already for several weeks.
Another irony is that It was nothing to do with Hollywood the industry, or even with Hollywood the area, but was actually designed to advertise a housing development underneath it called Hollywoodland. It was festooned with bulbs that were fixed to the letters and would light up at night: HOLLY – WOOD – LAND and finally HOLLYWOODLAND. It just was an advertising billboard to sell homes, basically. The moving-picture business had only based itself in the Los Angeles area for just over a decade at that point and it wasn’t particularly associated with Hollywood anyway.
Originally the sign was only meant to remain in place for a year or so, time enough for the investors to sell the houses and move on, but it very quickly became a much-loved local landmark and stayed. In fact, it’s construction at that time was instrumental in the naming of the movie industry as ‘Hollywood’. What do I mean by that? Well, until then the movie-making industry wasn’t known as such and filmmaking was happening all over the LA area – Burbank, Culver City, Silver Lake, and many other neighborhoods had studios operating there. Any one of them could have had their name adopted as the catch-all term for the industry, and we could be saying ‘Silverlake’ or ‘Culver City’ instead of ‘Hollywood’.
Another key event to happen in 1923 that also solidified Hollywood as the name for the industry was the opening of a comedy movie called Hollywood in August. The film is lost, but the plot revolves around a young actress who moves to LA to become a star. She goes around town trying to get castings at all the major studios, but without any luck. In the meantime, other members of her family join her and each one becomes a successful actor. The grandfather becomes the old-timer in westerns, her younger sister becomes the ingenue – even her mother becomes famous. It’s one of the first films to be made about the entertainment industry in LA itself and it set the template for the many movies that would follow.
The other element to really mark the movie out as being unique for the time was the liberal use of cameos by the biggest stars of the day. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Fatty Arbuckle, Gloria Swanson and over fifty others appeared briefly in the film, and it was a massive success.
Ironically the career of the lead actress, the very appropriately named Hope Drown, mirrored that of her onscreen alter ego perfectly. The producers of the film had wanted an unknown actress for the role, mainly because there were so many appearances by famous actors and actresses, but although she lived until 1990 she never appeared in a single other movie.
Along with the creation of the Hollywood Sign a few months later it solidified in the public’s mind the idea of Hollywood as being the heart of the movie industry in the U.S. To capitalize on the public’s fascination the Los Angeles film studios began putting “made in Hollywood, California” in the end titles, even if the studio was actually in the San Fernando Valley, Echo Park or another part of the city. Soon afterwards one sees the term Hollywood start to be used as a name for the industry, not just the neighborhood.
Of course, it’s still used as such – even though it’s basically meaningless nowadays. The industry is so big and so spread out (not just around LA, but the U.S.) that thinking of it as a single entity is really anachronistic, but people like the idea of Hollywood – so they still use the term. The industry is almost unrecognizable from its early days, when there were only 10-12 major studios, and now there are so many different platforms – TV, internet, gaming etc (we should call It ‘the content industry’). In spite of what many people seem to think the industry does not have a hive mind and there are many different perspectives and viewpoints within it too. It’s as diverse as any other major industry.
Since the original Hollywood Sign was only supposed to be there for a short time it was only constructed out of wood and sheet metal – and quite soon parts of it started collapsing. One day an ‘O’ was knocked down in a storm, and not long after that the top of one of the others was blown off by the wind, so it looked like a lower-case ‘U’. Then one night the caretaker, who was living in a cabin on Mount Lee at the time, had a bit too much to drink. He was driving on a track at the top of the hill when he lost control of the car and it careened down the hill, taking out the “H” completely, meaning for a long time it read ‘OLLYW uDLAND’!
In 1949 the ‘LAND’ part was finally removed, as the city wanted it to name the district, not the development and that’s when it officially became the Hollywood Sign. It’s been renovated several times since then, but the big change was in 1978, when the old letters were finally removed and the ones we see today, which are made out of steel and set in concrete, were erected.
Historical preservation wasn’t the concern that it is today and – of all people – Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy, got involved in the fight to save the sign. He had a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills and some of his friends, including Alice Cooper and Gene Autry, contributed nearly $28,000 each to “buy” a letter.
Unfortunately, the sign is also famous for its connection to the darker side of Hollywood – as Hollywood Boulevard is often known as ‘the Boulevard of Broken Dreams’. In 1932 an actress called Peg Entwhistle (who was originally from the U.K.) moved out here to make her mark in the movies. She was a Broadway star and, after being given a contract with a movie studio, arrived in the spring and stayed with her uncle on Beechwood Canyon, right underneath the sign.
She had a small role as part of the female ensemble in the movie Thirteen Women, but most of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. As the summer wore on the call from the studio, with an offer of a great role, didn’t come and one night in September she made her way up to the sign and jumped to her death from the ‘H’. She was just twenty-four years old.
According to Hollywood legend, the next day a letter from the Beverly Hills Playhouse arrived, offering her the lead in a theatrical production – playing the role of a suicidal young woman! Life imitating art perhaps? When you read her suicide note now it seems obvious she was suffering from depression, but of course at the time these issues were not so well-understood. Since the 1980’s the sign has been fenced-off, so no one can get too close to it, partly because of Entwhistle’s tragic end.
And this is the reason the Hollywood Sign is, in many ways, the perfect metaphor for the entertainment industry in Los Angeles (which is perhaps why Entwhistle chose the landmark as the site for her suicide). The sign is real – it’s made up of forty-five feet high steel letters and you can see it from almost anywhere on the Westside (depending on visibility) – but you can’t touch it. It’s protected by high fences and motion detected cameras. It’s tantalisingly close, but always out of reach, looking down on you, taunting you with your own failure. It’s the story of Hollywood, the first movie about the film industry and – it sounds like – the best one for nailing its inherent, infuriating, unfairness and capriciousness.
Today the Hollywood Sign sits in pristine parkland. Mack Sennett, a successful early film producer (most famous for the Keystone Cops comedies and bringing Charlie Chaplin to Los Angeles), had purchased an eighteen acre lot at the top of Mount Lee, where the sign sits, in 1923. He planned a huge mansion, which would overlook the film-making community from the peak and, accordingly he levelled the top of the mountain (which is why it’s now a flat-top). However, the 1929 stock-market crash put paid to those plans and he sold the land to a Television pioneer, Tommy Lee, who installed LA’s very first TV studio there, as well as naming the peak after his father, Don Lee. As late as 2008 there were still plans in place to build luxury housing adjacent to the sign, but after a high-profile campaign (also assisted by Hugh Hefner) the land and sign were transferred to Griffith Park.
From time to time the sign has been altered, sometimes officially sanctioned, other times not. My personal favourite was when it was changed to read HOLLYWeeD in January 2017, by unknown persons, to celebrate the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in California.
The ONLY way to reach the Hollywood Sign is to hike up to it. There are NO tours, by any company, which go right up to the sign and, as discussed in this article, the Hollywood Sign itself is closed to the public. The closest you can get to it is at the back of the sign, on the top of Mount Lee. Don’t even think about climbing the fence – you will be arrested.
In its own way that may well seem quite bizarre. This is Los Angeles, famous for its commercialization of culture, yet we haven’t made an actual tourist attraction out of our most famous landmark? The French have done it with the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptians with the pyramids and the Brits with the Houses of Parliament for God’s sake! Nevertheless, there is something cool about the sign’s very inaccessibility and the fact that it is a decent hike to get up to it means that there is some kudos if you actually make it.
Mount Lee itself is at an elevation of just over 1,700 feet, so whichever way you go there is a significant climb to get up to it.
1. BURBANK PEAK TRAIL (FORMERLY THE WONDER VIEW TRAIL)
Although it’s only a three-mile round-trip, this one is the most challenging hike, but it offers the chance to visit the famous Wisdom Tree. It’s also the most fun if you fancy scrambling up the hillside and over the tops of the Hollywood Hills.
2. BRUSH CANYON TRAIL
At 6.5 miles round-trip this is the longest hike, but the trail passes very near Bronson Caves (the Bat Cave in the 1970’s Batman TV show), which is well worth the detour.
3. MOUNT LEE DRIVE TRAIL
This hike is about the same distance as the Burbank Peak Trail, but it’s significantly less challenging as the route is all on fire roads, and it has the best close-up views of the sign from below.
4. MOUNT HOLLYWOOD HIKE
Every day at 3pm in the winter, or 4 pm in the summer, we have an organized hike in Griffith Park. We start at the Greek Theatre and hike up through the Bird Sanctuary to to the peak of Mount Hollywood (at just over 1,600 feet elevation). From there we take the fire roads down to the Griffith Observatory. It’s one of the easiest hikes in the park and offers great views of the Hollywood Sign (although we don’t go to Mount Lee), as well as giving guests the opportunity to explore the Observatory, which is one of LA’s gems.
You can hike to the Hollywood Sign from the Griffith Observatory, but it’s about an eight mile return journey, so allow at least three hours.
Of course, with all of these hikes, if you ride-share to the starting point, you can exit at a different place, without needing to retrace your steps.
Some Final Words of Advice
PLEASE bear in mind these important things when planning your hike:
- Bring a full water bottle. There are spots to refill your bottle, but if you don’t bring it you will suffer. It gets very hot here in the summer and you will sweat heavily while climbing the hills, even in winter.
- Use plenty of sunscreen. There’s very little shade in the park and the sun here is strong.
- Wear appropriate, comfortable shoes. You don’t necessarily need to use proper hiking boots – good quality sports shoes will do – but don’t even think about rocking the flip-flops.
- Don’t leave the designated trails. Rattlesnakes abound in Griffith Park and visitors tramping across the parkland damage the environment for the animals and plants that live there.
- Take everything you brought back with you – in other words don’t litter!
- Please don’t start a fire!
Every time I hike in Griffith Park I come across dehydrated, lost, sunburnt tourists, who really aren’t having a great time anymore, so use this guide to ensure that it’s not you.
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– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)