Hollywood Gets a Face Lift

Nestled adjacent to the city communication towers. Photo by Carol Littleton.

Now that the Sherwin-Williams Company has completed its painting of the HOLLYWOOD sign on Mt. Lee, it glows as never before. The final touch was the application of its High Reflective White paint, (SW 7757, according to the promos).

The “makeover” began in early October with a thorough hand stripping of up to five coats of old paint, followed by a power wash to clean the corrugated metal base. An anti-corrosion primer was then applied, followed by two coats of the Emerald Exterior high reflective paint. That same process is being done to the sign’s backside, which has been subjected to decades of graffiti and tagging. It is estimated that this restoration will require 110 gallons of primer and over 275 gallons of white paint.

Workers scraping off old paint. Oct. 2012. Photos by Alex Pitt and Duff Ferguson.
Stripping the first L, Oct. 2012.

This effort, however, is only the latest chapter in a near 90-year saga of the sign’s ongoing struggle to survive nature’s (and man’s) ravages.

When the HOLLYWOODLAND sign was dedicated on July 13, 1923 it was expected to last only 18 months as a promotion for a new real estate development in Beachwood Canyon. The letters, each 45 feet high, were anchored by wooden telephone poles. All materials were hauled to the site by pack mule. This included some 4,000 20 watt light bulbs that at night blinked “Holly” “Wood” “Land” before a full display of the 450 ft. long name.

Spray painting from the scaffold.

In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce contracted with the Parks Dept. of the City of Los Angeles to rebuild the sign, with the condition that the LAND element be removed. Thus, the sign became an internationally recognized logo for the city and for the motion picture industry. By then, the sign had witnessed significant human trauma—from a suicide leap atop the letter H by the actress Peg Entwistle on September 16, 1933, (her terse note reading, "I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.)— to the outright destruction of the same letter in the early 40s by its official caretaker, Albert Kothe. Driving on the road above the sign while drunk, Kothe lost control of his Ford Model A and took out Ms. Entwistle’s death perch. The car was totaled but, typically, its drunk driver was not injured.

Headshot of Peg Entwistle.

The sign’s deteriorating state reached its nadir in 1978. By then, the initial O looked more like a U and the final O had virtually collapsed. Its 55-year career seemed to be over, one of the longer runs of any Hollywood celebrity.

"Hullywod" in 1978.

But two unlikely heroes emerged to not only repair the sign, but to completely rebuild it, this time out of steel, in a full-scale “remake” of the original. These two unlikely bedfellows were Playboy founder Hugh Heffner and rocker Alice Cooper, sans snake. Seven more donors each contributed $27, 777 to restore one of the nine letters. Hefner chose the H; Cooper chose the demolished O, dedicated in the name of his friend, Groucho Marx who had died the year before

The sign has undergone several minor cosmetic redos since then, including a 1995 paint job with Sherwin-Williams rival, Dutch Boy paints. It will be interesting to see if the latest makeover lasts longer.

So much for the history and the physical details of the sign. More than anything else, though, the HOLLYWOOD sign is a kind of societal meme. It represents not just the symbol of the film industry, but it is a beacon, a kind of light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s pier, that draws people from around the world. For the residents of Beachwood Canyon, however, the traffic up to the sign is a curse that constantly clogs their streets.

A brief history of the Hollywood sign and its lore, including some archival film footage, is included in a two-part video produced by Hope Anderson; it includes a spooky re-creation of Peg Entwistle’s last role—as a jumper:

Part two opens with a slight overlap of the final seconds of part one. It has compelling footage of the dismantling and rebuilding of the sign in late 1978. An oddly inappropriate comparison of the sign to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. trivializes both icons. The clip ends with actor Bill Pullman narrating a montage of visitor “photo ops.”

A highly regarded history of the sign and its significance as metaphor for the world of movies is Leo Braudy’s compact study The Hollywood Sign.

Amazon.com—The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon

When I’m on location filming, and crewmembers ask me where I live, I say “Hollywood.” “Really?”  Yes, I live in an area called the Los Feliz Oaks in the hills above the American Film Institute—halfway between the Griffith Observatory (site of an iconic scene from Rebel Without a Cause) and the Hollywood sign. I see the sign every day as I return home from the flats of downtown Hollywood. Looking north from almost anywhere in Hollywood, you see it, as you also do on a clear day on the approach to LAX if you are at a window seat on the right side of the plane.

I did film the sign at night once, with an array of Xenon lights—for a TV documentary logo. It was in the early 70s before the final O had collapsed.

But for all of us who actually live in Hollywood, it is a daily visual clarion to the city of dreams and hopes, of myths and illusions—that Carol and I call HOME.

Sign in the sun, Summer, 2012. Photo by Carol Littleton.

Here is a newly posted time lapse video of the recently completed "facelift."

NEXT: A two part essay "A Century Ago: Films of 1912" at the Academy's Dunn Theater.



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