Since its installation on a hill overlooking Los Angeles in 1923, the Hollywood sign has served as a billboard for a real estate development, a backdrop for countless films and television shows, and a decaying reminder of silver screen excess. Made up of white block letters spelling out “Hollywood” (originally “Hollywoodland”), the sign represents a California neighborhood but isn’t actually located there. Instead, it sits on nearby Mount Lee in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Recently refurbished to mark its 100th anniversary, the sign has a far more checkered history than its clean, newly repainted letters might suggest. It was never meant to be a tourist destination. Instead, it started out as an advertisement for an upscale housing development called Hollywoodland. In 1932, it was the site of a suicide; in the 1960s, it fell into disrepair, becoming “a glaring badge of dishonor—rusted, dilapidated, soon to literally crumble under its own weight,” according to the nonprofit Hollywood Sign Trust.
Nowadays, the sign’s chief purpose is to celebrate the physical heartland of filmmaking. “The Hollywood sign is a perfect representation of Hollywood the place,” says Michael Schulman, a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat and Tears. “Like an old movie set, it’s a showbiz illusion: two-dimensional and only presentable from the front.”
But the sign also speaks to the lofty aims this place represents, such as fame and fortune. “Instead of looking at the Liberty Bell or the Lincoln Memorial and appreciating their importance and the history they represent, we look at the Hollywood sign and it looks back at us, enlarging our sense of our prestige by its symbolic aura,” writes cultural historian Leo Braudy in The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon.
The sign’s story begins in the early 20th century, when an area known as Hollywood (the origins of this name are up for debate) began attracting people from across the United States to its burgeoning film industry. Established by real estate developer Harvey Henderson Wilcox in 1887, the California community came into its own under H.J. Whitley, who was nicknamed the “Father of Hollywood” for his efforts to transform the area into a bustling suburb.
Hollywood’s first movie studio opened on Sunset Boulevard in 1911, and over the next several years, more than a dozen other companies followed suit. Thanks to its varied landscape; ideal filming climate; and distance from the East Coast, where Thomas Edison was suing production companies for technology infringement, the region held enormous appeal for moviemakers and aspiring actors alike.
Early Hollywood was both a wild spectacle and a place governed by strict rules, with the studio system—in which five studios dominated the film industry—replacing independent moviemaking and wielding unprecedented control over actors’ lives. Following the construction of gaudy movie palaces like the Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in 1922 and Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1927, the neighborhood became an arena for celebrity and flashy publicity.
Industry growth created real estate opportunities, too. In the early 1920s, railroad tycoons Eli P. Clark and Moses Sherman partnered with Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler and real estate developers Tracy E. Shoults and Sidney H. Woodruff to build an exclusive hillside community called Hollywoodland. As Braudy writes, the addition of the suffix “land” was likely part of a slick marketing scheme, perhaps in tribute to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or “Neverland” in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.
To promote the development, the syndicate erected a billboard bearing its name. The exact timing of the project—and who came up with the idea for the sign—is disputed, but the Hollywood Sign Trust notes that construction was completed by December 1923.
The bold, sans serif letters that spelled out “Hollywoodland” each stood 30 feet wide and nearly 45 feet tall. Workers spent 60 days anchoring the panels to the ground at a total cost of $21,000 (around $370,000 today). By the end of the year, some 4,000 lights adorned the display, which the Los Angeles Evening Express described as a “gigantic electric sign, the largest in the world, [which] vies with the stars in the luminous beauty.” Originally slated to stay up for just 18 months, the sign remained standing long beyond that.
In the years following the sign’s debut, Chandler’s Los Angeles Times ran regular advertisements promoting the Hollywoodland development as a refuge from city living. But the Great Depression took its toll on the real estate syndicate (not to mention the film industry), which was dissolved in 1933. The sign’s new owner, the M.H. Sherman Company, found the electricity-powered display too expensive to maintain and soon decided to abandon it.
Around this same time, a tragedy irrevocably changed the folklore of the first Hollywoodland billboard. On September 16, 1932, Peg Entwistle, a 24-year-old British stage actress who’d moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film, reportedly hiked to the sign, climbed up a worker’s ladder propped against the letter “H” and jumped to her death. Two days later, a hiker found Entwistle’s purse, which contained a suicide note that read, “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 me a lot of pain. P.E.”
Popular lore suggests Entwistle’s apparent failure to make it in Hollywood led to her suicide. “Although her suicide note makes no mention of show business, her death was quickly turned into a cautionary tale about the desperate urge [for] Hollywood fame,” Braudy tells Smithsonian magazine. The Los Angeles Times helped popularize this notion in a September 19 article headlined “Suicide Laid to Film Jinx,” attributing her death to “blasted hopes for a screen career commensurate with the brilliant success she had enjoyed on the stage.”
Salacious headlines moralized the tragedy for the masses but also hinted at other hidden social concerns percolating in Hollywood. The story “was part myth but [also] reflected a real anxiety about the hordes of people who were fleeing their Depression-squeezed towns to try their luck in pictures,” says Schulman.
Looking back, it’s tempting to pinpoint Entwistle’s suicide as the moment the Hollywoodland sign shifted from a real estate advertisement to a metaphor for the impossibility of making it in La La Land. In Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger’s sensationalized 1959 book on alleged Tinseltown scandals, the filmmaker and author claimed that “other disillusioned starlets followed her lead, and the Hollywood sign became a notorious signing-off place.” For decades, claims of the actress haunting the area persisted, with visitors reporting seeing a disheveled blonde woman appear and then suddenly vanish.
But Braudy traces the portrayal of Entwistle’s death as a tragic turning point in the billboard’s history to the 1970s, when observers revived the story amid renewed interest in the sign. As he writes in his book:
Despite Entwistle’s suicide, the sign for most of America and for Hollywood itself remained what it had been at the start—another billboard with no special claim to be the prime symbol of the movie business. … For 40 years after Peg Entwistle’s death, there is nothing about her suicide in the Los Angeles Times, nothing about the significance of her leap from the reproachful sign that first lures and then denies its worshippers.
Without a dedicated maintenance budget, the sign started to fall apart. According to a brochure published by the Hollywood Sign Trust, the second “O” collapsed during a windstorm in September 1936, and two more letters followed over the next two and a half years. By 1944, the sign had also lost its opening “H” to strong winds. (An urban legend falsely blamed the sign’s former caretaker, Albert Kothe, for losing control of his car while drunk and crashing through the giant letter.) In December 1944, the M.H. Sherman Company donated the aging sign and the surrounding 425-acre site to the City of Los Angeles, which formally accepted the offer in January 1945.
The ensuing years brought debate over the increasingly dilapidated sign’s fate. In 1947, the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission called it an eyesore and wanted it torn down, but after locals protested, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in and offered to restore it. By the end of 1949, the sign had been refurbished and the “land” suffix removed.
The Hollywood billboard’s rechristening took place at a time of immense change for the film industry. As television gained popularity, movie studios struggled to compete, and the studio system fell out of favor, bringing a close to the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. Investigations led by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy targeted supposed communist sympathizers in the entertainment business, creating an environment of widespread paranoia.
During the 1940s and ’50s, Los Angeles was often depicted on screen as a city of crime, corruption and adolescent rebellion. The sign fared no better in maintaining its image (or its refurbished status), becoming a “site of drug use and casual sex, reflecting the general metamorphosis of Los Angeles itself from the glitz and glamour of the 1930s to the film noir of the 1950s,” says Braudy. Indeed, the 1954 film Down Three Dark Streets shows a gunfight happening by the then weather-worn, run-down sign.
Fast-forwarding a decade, the sign continued to corrode in plain sight, mirroring the mass exodus of residents from Hollywood to Los Angeles’ suburbs. “Television was eating away at audiences, the studio moguls were graying, and the movies struggled to connect with the youth audience,” says Schulman. It was only in the early 1970s that locals expressed interest in another restoration campaign. “Los Angeles was beginning to be self-conscious about its history in other ways,” says Braudy, “[so] some locals began to look at [the sign’s] tattered condition and contribute to its repair and upkeep.”
The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce again sought funds to restore the billboard, recruiting Sunset Boulevard star Gloria Swanson for the September 1973 unveiling. But when the time came for the ceremony, a thick fog enveloped the Hollywood hills. “A horde of cameramen were bused to the sign Friday night to record … Swanson flipping the switch” on floodlights rented for the event, the Los Angeles Times reported. “But instead of the sign popping into view, the light beams revealed a dense fog bank.”
Also in 1973, a Los Angeles heritage commission declared the 50-year-old sign a cultural landmark. Over the next few years, the billboard appeared in multiple high-profile action movies as a visible relic of the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the 1974 film Earthquake, the letters fray, cascading down the hill one at a time; in the 1978 version of Superman, they fall forward during an earthquake. Steven Spielberg’s 1979 war comedy film, 1941, shows a pilot shooting at the sign.
The sign’s increasingly visible cultural status inspired pranksters, too. On January 1, 1976, 22-year-old art student Danny Finegood changed “Hollywood” to “Hollyweed” by draping pieces of fabric over the letters. Timed to acknowledge the passage of a California law decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, the prank earned Finegood an A on an art school assignment.
Another artist, 30-year-old Zachary Cole Fernandez, repeated Finegood’s stunt in 2017, describing his efforts to the New York Times as more of an art installation than a prank. Authorities disagreed, charging Fernandez with trespassing. Other alterations to the sign run the gamut from “Holywood,” in honor of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Los Angeles in September 1987; “Jollygood” in 1993; and “Hollyboob” in 2021.
The scope of the sign’s 1973 restoration was limited, including “few, if any, structural repairs,” according to the trust pamphlet. Within a few years, the sign was again in terrible shape. Termites had infested the wood. The third letter “O” and the top of the “D” had fallen down the hill, and the bottom of the second “L” had been damaged by arsonists. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stated it needed $250,000 (more than $1.1 million today) to completely rebuild the sign, so in June 1978, Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, stepped in to help, throwing a fundraiser that offered celebrities the chance to sponsor a letter for $27,700 each. Singer Andy Williams, rock star Alice Cooper and Kelley Blue Book founder Les Kelley were among the luminaries who donated to the cause.
Two months later, workers demolished the sign, removing the fallen letters and replacing them with corrugated metal panels. The new sign debuted in November 1978, clocking in at 450 feet long and 480,000 pounds. It’s the same billboard seen today, with a regular paint job or two over the decades to keep it gleaming. In recent decades, copycat versions have popped up in Ireland, France, the Philippines and elsewhere, testifying to the Hollywood sign’s enduring resonance around the world.
A century after its original installation, the Hollywood sign has suffered through bad press, aging pains and multiple facelifts—an intriguing parallel to some of the stars living in the city below. “The sign has become a worldwide symbol of the Hollywood of the imagination,” Braudy says, “and its nine letters allow anyone who sees it to fill it with whatever meaning they want.”