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Issue: Winter 2013-14

Hollywoodland Revisited


Hollywood… is a different place for everyone.  It’s a place where the past and the present coincide with the real and imagined, where memory and metaphor beckon abstractions and ideals, where dreams and aspirations merge with faith and resignation. It’s a living, changing continent, both physical and imagined.  — Paul Zollo

When people around the world see the Hollywood sign on the Mt. Lee hillside, they usually think “glamour, excitement, movies”.

The real history of the sign is decidedly more grounded than this popular belief.  Ninety years ago the sign was built as an advertisement for a new hillside subdivision following in what became a long standing Los Angeles tradition the sales and marketing of its real estate.

In his book, Hollywood Remembered, Paul Zollo writes:

“Hollywoodland was a 1924 real estate development on 500 acres of hillside land at the north end of Beachwood Canyon . Financed by L.A. Times owner Harry Chandler and his partners, the same guys who were integral to buying up most of the San Fernando Valley just prior to its transformation by aqueduct, Hollywoodland  was envisioned as a little storybook community “above the traffic congestion, smoke, fog, and poisonous gas fumes of the Lowlands,” as newspaper advertisements promised at the time.

To promote Hollywoodland to those who lived and worked in those very lowlands, Chandler came upon the unique notion of erecting an immense billboard of sorts in the hills above the tract. At a cost of $21,000, thirteen gargantuan letters that spelled out HOLLYWOODLAND were constructed high on the chapparal-covered southside of Mt. Lee ,  held in place by a ramshackle scaffold of pipes, wires and telephone poles. Each letter was thirty feet wide, fifty feet tall and made of sheet-metal panels painted flat white. Four thousand 20-watt bulbs ran around each letter, illuminating each syllable of the name in sequence:  HOLLY…WOOD…LAND.

Though the sign certainly won the attention of Angelenos and in time became one of L.A.’s most famous landmarks, Hollywoodland itself failed to become as popular as its investors had hoped, and many of its parcels of land remained unsold.  It’s the reason previously proposed by David Horsley for the construction of Lake Hollywood in the dell beneath Hollywoodland, to lure those “hillside suckers” to build their homes on these vacant hillside lots, which suddenly offered stunning view of the crystal blue lake below.

The total conception of Hollywoodland was never completed, due to the stock market crash of 1929, which drained the coffers of the investors and literally halted the development in its tracks. To this day, one can see where the process of paving the road abruptly was discontinued at the top of Hollywoodland. A dirt road cut into the canyon remains, which would have been the continuance and completion of the development.”

This wasn’t the only development underway at the time.  Nearby, developers of Canyon View Park were offering English countryside homes reminiscent of the Cotswolds.  Unlike real estate tract development of today, homes were individually designed according to the buyers wishes as long as they were compatible with the theme.   Berkshire-Hathaway Realtor Holly Purcell has sold many homes from both of these early developments.  “Today, everyone is excited about the ‘home as art’. These homes were all hand-crafted and hand-built to the desires and wishes of the owner. Thankfully, they are being regarded as the treasures they are and a new generation is appreciating and restoring them.”  

Today, Hollywoodland and Canyon View Park are no more.  Far from what might have been envisioned as a storybook village, homes dating back to the twenties are mixed among those built decades after its ballyhooed beginnings.  The area around Beachwood Canyon has evolved into an involved, active and diverse community.  Film and television stars live in multi-million dollar homes among those in the industry who do the work behind the scenes or, perish the thought, as doctors, lawyers, writers and us common folk.

The years began to take their toll.  1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce came to the rescue of the ailing Sign, removing the letters  that spelled “LAND” and repairing the rest, including the recently toppled “H.”  As the century hit the halfway mark, a leaner, cleaner Sign was reintroduced in its now-iconic form.  It took until 1973 for it to be declared a historic and cultural landmark.

There was no doubt it was historic, and the aging infrastructure that held up the giant letters began to fail—letter by letter.  Once again the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce came to the rescue initiating an effort to build a new sign—one built to last.  Last September, the Chamber hosted a gala 90th anniversary celebration.

While for many decades residents weren’t concerned about being below the giant sign on the hill, but today their proximity to the sign, always a major attraction, has become a problem.  New technology helps direct visitors from around the world to their doorsteps for a closer view of the landmark.  Once streets designed for residential use and aesthetics,  crooked and tiered, winding hither and yon up over and around the hillsides deterred exploration. GPS has changed that.

Councilmember Tom LaBonge, their  city council representative,  has been working to help find a solution to the problem.  He’s working with the Department of Parks, Department of Transportation and community leaders to find remedies for the Beachwood Canyon area.  According to LaBonge, “I look forward to continuing to work together to address the community's concerns and to also allow people to get to the Hollywood Sign and enjoy it."

As it has for ninety years, the iconic sign that once advertised a new hillside development, continues to attract attention.  Yes, a symbol of an industry, a lifestyle, and a for many, a dream.

Once marking real estate speculators’ dream of fame and fortune, for those who live under the sign’s glowing letters, they just call it home. DH

For more information on the Hollywood Sign, visit www.hollywoodsign.org or www.beachwoodcanyon.org/HISTORY.htm