The history of the Hollywood Sign

The history of the Hollywood Sign

Did you know the iconic Hollywood Sign was originally a giant advertisement for land? In fact, the sign used to say Hollywoodland and was meant to only be standing for one year.


Here’s the story of the history of the Hollywood sign from

Before Hollywood became the world’s entertainment mecca, it resembled other west frontiers – a landscape of farmers, cowboys, prospectors, bandits, and mostly undeveloped land. All land north of Sunset Boulevard, for example, was considered useless for anything but grazing.

With more and more Easterners drawn by the promise of sunny skies and mild, dry weather, the area’s bedrock industry – real estate – soon kicked into high gear.

Subdivisions begat more subdivisions, and by the end of the 19th century Hollywood was taking on the contours of a recognizable town. Thanks to Daeida Wilcox, it also had a name.

In 1887, Mrs. Wilcox, wife of town founder Harvey Wilcox, met a woman on a train trip who referred to her Florida summer home, “Hollywood.” She was so struck by the name that she suggested it to her husband…and the rest is history.

All was quiet until 1907, when bad weather drove a small Chicago film company westward to complete a shoot.

The first real studio, Nestor Film Company, soon followed from New Jersey, cranking out three pictures a week – one ‘western,’ one ‘eastern,’ and one comedy – for a grand total of $1,200.

By 1912, word of Hollywood’s ideal film-shooting climate and landscape spread, and at least 15 independent studios could be found shooting around town. Old barns were turned into sound stages and Hollywood’s quiet time was over.

It wasn’t just sunny skies that spurred the mass film migration to Hollywood. In 1897, famed inventor and early movie mogul Thomas Edison began suing rival producers who were utilizing filmmaking-projection devices based (he felt) on his Kinetoscope technology.

Many of these movie ‘pirates’ fled from New Jersey (home of the Edison Company and the original movie capital), first to Cuba, then to California for good.

By 1915, America was officially film crazed, and Hollywood was shaping into the glamorous, sometimes surreal landscape we’ve come to know and love.

Hopeful actors and actresses filled the streets, dazzled by a new American dream: film stardom. Studios, meanwhile, sprung up like wildfires and engaged in a cutthroat battle for survival. As the industry matured, many of these independent companies merged, forming the big studios that would shape and control the industry moving forward.

The rise of the film aristocracy also meant suave new restaurants and nightclubs up and down Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards.

Hollywood, which by now represented not just a city, but also an industry, a lifestyle and, increasingly, an aspiration, was officially crowned when the “Hollywoodland” sign was erected in 1923.

Built by Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler as an epic $21,000 billboard for his upscale Hollywoodland real estate development, the Sign soon took on the role of giant marquee for a city that was constantly announcing its own gala premiere.

The “billboard” was massive. Each of the original 13 letters was 30 feet wide and approximately 43 feet tall, constructed of 3×9′ metal squares rigged together by an intricate frame of scaffolding, pipes, wires and telephone poles.

Few know that a giant white dot (35 feet in diameter, with 20-watt lights on the perimeter) was constructed below the Sign to catch the eye. The Sign itself featured 4,000 20-watt bulbs, spaced 8 inches apart.

At night the Sign blinked into the Hollywood night: first “Holly” then “wood” and finally “land,” punctuated by a giant period. The effect was truly spectacular, particularly for pre-Vegas sensibilities.

Originally intended to last just a year and a half, the Sign has endured more than eight decades – and is still going strong.

By the late 1970’s, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce determined that the Sign required a complete rebuilding – carrying a price tag of a quarter million dollars. Thankfully, some of showbiz’s biggest names came to the rescue. In ’77, Fleetwood Mac pledged a charity concert, but local residents prevented it. The next year, however, Hugh Hefner hosted a gala fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion, where individual Sign letters were ceremonially ‘auctioned’ off at $27,700 per letter.The effort to preserve the Sign brought together an odd mix of celebrity sponsors: Glam-rocker Alice Cooper ‘bought’ an “O” (in honor of Groucho Marx), while singing cowboy Gene Autry sponsored an “L” and Andy Williams sponsored the “W.”

Thanks to the help of these and other donors, the Sign was poised for its overhaul. The old Sign was scrapped in August ’78, and yes, for three lonely months Hollywood had no Sign.

194 tons of concrete, enamel and steel later, the Sign was re-born, poised and polished for a new millennium.

Over the last 80 years pranksters have had fun with the sign at times altering it to say Hollyweed, when advocating for repeal of marijuana laws and Holyland when the pope came to visit!

Today our guests can hike to the Hollywood sign on our hostel tour Tuesdays and Saturdays for some great photos.  Our tour guide will provide more interesting facts and help you find the best photo spots. Sign up at reception.

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