This week marks the 61st anniversary of the groundbreaking ceremony for the famous Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, California. The old “HOLLYWOODLAND” sign was torn down, a new sign reading “HOLLYWOOD” was put up and that’s been the iconic sign we’ve known ever since.
In honor of its longevity as the cultural touchstone that has looked out over Hollywood and the sprawling LA community for over sixty years, here are some fun trivia facts about the Hollywood sign.
1. It was originally an advertisement sign.
Built in 1923, the sign originally read “HOLLYWOODLAND” and was meant to be a huge, light-up advertisement for the upscale housing development and neighborhood known as Hollywoodland.
2. It was assembled by mules and tractors.
To get the original sign to the top of Mount Lee in the Hollywood Hills, teams of mules and tractors dragged 3′ x 9′ panels up the mountainside where they were then assembled into 50-foot high letters by securing them to frames of pipes, wires and telephone poles.
3. It originally cost $21,000.
That price includes the above plus four thousand 20-watt lightbulbs that were placed on the letters every eight inches. The sign is turned on in 1923 and quickly becomes a tourist attraction and notable landmark for Los Angeles. Each night, the sign would light up in three parts: “HOLLY” “WOOD” “LAND” and then all light up together. There was also a spotlight pointed at it from below and the effect was dazzling in a pre-Las Vegas era.
4. There’s a legend its first caretaker crashed his car into the sign.
The sign’s very first caretaker was a man by the name of Albert Kothe who took care of the sign for years. However, according to legend, one night in the early 1940s, Kothe was drunk and driving his 1928 Ford Model A car near the sign at the top of the mountain. He lost control and crashed into the “H,” destroying his car and sending the “H” tumbling down the mountain. The Hollywood Sign Trust claims it was actually blown over by high winds in 1944, but we think this version of the story is much more entertaining.
5. It got sold to the city of Los Angeles.
The Hollywoodland sign was only expected to last about a year to 18 months but one year turned into many. After two decades, the developers were tired of the upkeep on the deteriorating sign so they sold off their last 450 acres, including the sign, to the city of Los Angeles in the mid-1940s.
6. It finally got shortened to the “Hollywood” of today.
In 1949, the city had had enough of the crumbling sign and resolved to tear it down and erect a new one. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the City of LA Parks Department hashed out a deal that would see the new sign read “HOLLYWOOD” with the “land” being removed in order to reflect the entire region and the ethos of LA’s movie industry. This time, it was a wood and sheet metal construction.
7. It gets another remake in 1973 and again in 1978.
Unfortunately, 25 years later, the sign was falling apart again, with parts of the letters having fallen down. Actress Gloria Swanson sponsored a renovation in 1973 but five years later, it was once again deteriorating thanks to termites infesting the wood. The “O” had fallen down the mountain and arsonists lit an “L” on fire. A group effort spearheaded by Hugh Hefner funded a sign made of materials that would last. This time, the new letters were 45 feet high and made of steel supported by steel columns on a concrete foundation.
8. Seven famous celebrities and community leaders donated to the restoration project.
The celebs and groups each donated $27,777.77 to sponsor the rebuild of one letter. It amounted to $249,999.93 in total, the equivalent of $996,617.82 today. Those sponsors were:
H – Terrence Donnelly, publisher of the Hollywood Independent newspaper
O – Giovanni Mazza, Italian movie producer
L – Les Kelley, founder of the Kelley Blue Book
L – Gene Autry, actor & country singer
Y – Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy
W – Andy Williams, singer & talk show host
O – Alice Cooper, musician (who donated in memory of comedian and actor Groucho Marx)
O – Warner Bros. Records
D – Dennis Lidtke, businessman (who donated in memory of Matthew Williams)
The rest of the money was raised by Hugh Hefner, who threw a lavish fundraising party at the Playboy Mansion.
9. Construction took three months.
For the first time in half a century, Los Angeles was without its iconic sign, but the wait was worth it. A whopping 194 tons of concrete were poured to anchor the sign and helicopters dropped steel beams into the concrete to hold the letters, which were this time made of baked enamel, in place. The new sign is 450 feet long, weighs approximately 480,000 lbs. and 60 million Americans tune in to see its unveiling, which was broadcast to a live TV audience in November 1978.
10. The sign has only been lit twice since its original build.
The Hollywood sign was only lit up twice in the years since it was first erected as the Hollywoodland ad: In 1984 to commemorate the Summer Olympics being hosted in Los Angeles, and again in 1999 as part of a spectacular citywide New Years Eve celebration as the world counted down heading into the new millennium.
11. It has its own high-tech security system and surveillance team.
In 1999, to protect against vandals and arsonists, a security system was installed by Panasonic. In 2005, the surveillance technology was upgraded to state-of-the-art tech that includes razor wire, infrared technology, motion sensors, alarms and helicopter patrols. The sign is also monitored 24/7 by security specialists for the City of Los Angeles.
12. A mayor of LA once rappelled down the sign.
In 2005, the sign was refurbished and given a touch-up coat of paint. To mark the occasion, then-mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa rappelled down the mountain and the sign to give it its final few strokes of coating. It wasn’t just repainted white, however, but used 255 gallons of a particular shade of white that Sherwin-Williams called High Reflective White. Check out the time-lapse video of the paint being stripped and then repainted below.
13. Hugh Hefner actually saved the sign twice.
Not only did Hefner spearhead the 1978 effort to completely rebuild the sign, in 2010, he led another movement to purchase and protect the 138 acres behind the sign to ensure that it would never be torn down or the land developed. Once again, he donated his own money and organized a coalition of celebrities, Los Angeles businesses and fans from around the world to donate. He then presented the Hollywood Sign Trust with the funds needed to purchase the land, ensuring the sign and the view atop Mount Lee would always be synonymous.
14. The letters aren’t all the same size.
While the letters are all the same height of 45 feet, the width of the letters varies by quite a few feet in some cases. The current measurements of the letters are
H – 45 ft. H x 33 ft. 6 in. W
O – 45 ft. H x 33 ft. W
L – 45 ft. H x 31 ft. W
L – 45 ft. H x 31 ft. W
Y – 45 ft. H x 35 ft. W
W – 45 ft. H x 39 ft. 9 in. W
O – 45 ft. H x 33 ft. W
O – 45 ft. H x 33 ft. W
D – 45 ft. H x 33 ft. W
15. The original 1923 sign was thought lost until 2005.
The original 1923 sign was presumed to be destroyed, but it had simply been put in storage so long everyone assumed it was gone forever. However, in 2005, producer and entrepreneur Dan Bliss put the sign up for sale on eBay of all places. Artist Bill Mack bought it in 2007 and used the metal to paint likenesses celebs from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Later, he did a complete restoration of the letter “H” using the original metal.
16. Unfortunately, you can’t hike right up to it anymore.
Tourists and hikers used to be able to hike right up to the sign. But, well, it’s on a literal mountain and anyone who has ever visited will tell you it’s no easy terrain to the sign. A tourist falling to their death, getting bit by a rattlesnake, or accidentally setting fire to the brushland around the sign are all very real dangers. Further, residents in the neighborhoods around the sign were tired of tourists trampling all over their neighborhoods and tourist traffic clogging their streets. They’re all reasons the City of LA put the kibosh on tourists hiking right up to the sign. They’re so serious about this that they set up motion sensors in the restricted areas and if one of them is set off, it sends an alert to the Los Angeles Police Department.
17. Los Angeles is kicking around different ideas for tourist access.
A number of ideas have been floated that will give tourists access to the sign in a way that is safer and less intrusive on neighborhood residents. Warner Bros. offered to help fund an $100 million aerial tramway that will run from its studios up the mountain to the sign. Other proposals have included setting up a permanent visitors center, public shuttle leading to the sign, and even erecting a duplicate sign on the other side of the mountain.
18. Mount Lee creates an optical illusion
When you look at the Hollywood sign from lower ground, the letters appear to be wavy and uneven thanks to the contours of the mountain creating the ripple effect. However, when viewed at the same height, the letters of the sign appear to be straight.
19. It was vandalized on New Year’s Eve 2016
Despite the massive layers of security around the sign, on New Year’s Eve 2017, someone managed to vandalize the sign. When Angelenos woke up on New Year’s Day 2017, they were greeted with a sign that read “HOLLYWEED.” The vandal, dressed all in black, was captured on surveillance cameras scaling the protective fencing. The prank was pulled off by draping white pieces of fabric in the middle of the Os to create a crossbar and then draping a dark piece of fabric on the right side of the letters to appear like a break in the letter, turning them each into a lower-case “e.”
20. This was not the first time a prankster vandalized it.
In maybe the most California thing ever, 2017 was not the first time a prankster vandalized the sign. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time someone had vandalized the sign to say “HOLLYWEED.” That honor goes to the person who pulled off the same exact prank in December 1983.
21. In fact, it’s been vandalized a lot. A LOT.
Actually, the sign has been the target of numerous alterations over the years, ranging from pranks to unofficial modifications:
- January 1976 – Changed to “HOLLYWEED” (following passage of state law decriminalizing cannabis)
- April 1977 – Changed to “HOLYWOOD” (Easter sunrise service)
- December 1983 – Changed to “GO NAVY” (group of Midshipmen covered the sign for the Army-Navy’s only West Coast appearance)
- January 1985 – Changed to “RAFFESYOD” (obscure rock band named the Raffeys did it for self-promotion)
- May 1987 – Changed to “CALTECH” (Caltech senior prank)
- July 1987 – Changed to “OLLYWOOD” (during the Oliver North Iran-Contra hearings)
- September 1987 – Changed to “HOLYWOOD” again (for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Los Angeles)
- September 1990 – Changed to “OIL WAR” (in protest of the Gulf War)
- July 1992 – A 75-ft.-tall cutout of character Holli Would was added to appear to be sitting on the sign (promotion for the movie Cool World)
- October 1992 – Changed to “PEROTWOOD” (supporters changed it for his presidential campaign run)
- Sometime in 1993 – Changed to “JOLLYGOOD” (no one knows why)
- February 2010 – Changed to “SAVE THE PEAK” (part of Hefner’s effort to raise funds to buy the land around the sign)
- January 2017 – Changed to “HOLLYWEED” for the second time (following passage of state law legalizing recreational cannabis use)
22. An astounding number of these pranks were pulled off by the same man.
When the Hollywood sign has been changed, it’s often been the work of one prankster: Daniel Finegood. He was the first to change it to read “HOLLYWEED” in 1976. He was also responsible, occasionally with the help of friends, for the first “HOLYWOOD,” “OLLYWOOD” and “OIL WAR.” He passed away in 2007 but his political activism in the form of pranks will live on forever.
23. The tower you always see behind the sign basically runs all of Los Angeles.
Behind the sign and almost as famous as the sign itself is a giant communications tower and building. Turns out it’s not just any old radio tower, however. The tower and building are the central communications facility for the City of Los Angeles, which supports all microwave, cell phone and radio towers used by the LAPD, the LAFD, the LA Unified School District and other city agencies.
24. There are imitations of the sign all over the world.
Various countries have erected their own signs with their own messages in an imitation of the original Hollywood sign, including New Zealand, Chile, Ireland, Lithuania, Taiwan, Poland, Romania, England, Australia, France, Italy, Wales and Canada.
There you have it! A brief timeline history and trivia roundup of the most famous sign in the world.