The Hollywood Sign: The Story of an LA Icon

Hollywood Sign photo courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust
Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust. All Rights Reserved.

Known around the world as an emblem of Los Angeles, the Hollywood Sign had its beginnings in late 1923, when a peculiar sign first caught the eyes of Angelenos, luring them towards the Hollywood Hills. At night, a portmanteau lit up word by word - Holly, Wood, Land - before the full name of a new real estate development flashed across the hillside.

"Hollywoodland" historic photo
"Hollywoodland" | Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust and All Rights Reserved.

It was a spectacle meant to attract prospective homeowners to Hollywoodland, a new housing community developed by a group of local real estate titans that included General Moses Sherman and Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler. The advertisement worked better than perhaps anyone could imagine, becoming a symbol not just for one housing development, but for an entire city. A century later, the Hollywood Sign is LA's ultimate icon, more recognizable than even the celebrities living in its shadow.

Hollywood Sign side view
Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust and Jim Krantz Photography. All Rights Reserved.
"The Hollywood Sign is bigger than just nine letters on top of a hill. It’s a symbol and a beacon for people’s hopes and dreams." ~ Jeff Zarrinnam, Hollywood Sign Trust

"From what I can gather, it’s really a symbol of hopes and dreams," says Jeff Zarrinnam, chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust, of people’s fascination with the landmark. "It’s about the movie industry, but it’s something more than being just a symbol of the movie industry. It’s about what they can aspire to, whatever their hopes and dreams are."

On the day we meet, Zarrinnam takes me to see the Sign up-close. We venture beyond a gate and down a slightly muddy slope towards the nine bright white letters that stand 45 feet tall. We’re about 100 feet below the top of Mount Lee, named for the local television pioneer Don Lee, who broadcasted from this hill on land he purchased from Keystone Studios founder Mack Sennett. It’s a cloudy, late December day, so we can’t see much beyond Downtown LA. However, looking down, we can see small groups of people hiking the local trails and gathering in the park areas.

"Most people don’t hike to this area," says Zarrinnam, adding that it’s more common for people to take in the view from further down the hill.

Hollywood Sign Letter "H" photo courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust
"H" is for Hollywood | Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust. All Rights Reserved.

Zarrinnam points out details that you can’t see from a distance. There are two wooden posts beyond the "D" that once held up another "L," part of the "LAND" suffix that’s long since been removed from the Sign. "Every once in a while, we’ll find remnants of the old dilapidated rusty metal and that came from the original Sign as well," he notes.

The Sign we see today from far-flung vantage points across Los Angeles is not the one that was built in 1923. "It was originally only meant to stay up for 18 months," says Zarrinnam. "It was put together with telephone poles, wires, tin - just very loosely and cheaply. It was never meant to stay for a century or so."

Weather proved to be a formidable foe for the original Sign - wind knocked down letters in the 1930s and '40s, according to "The Saga of the Sign," a historical overview presented by the Hollywood Sign Trust. In 1945, the M.H. Sherman Company, led by General Moses Sherman, donated 425 undeveloped acres from the Hollywoodland project to the City of Los Angeles. The acreage included the Sign and became part of Griffith Park.

Hollywood Sign "Save the Sign" prank in 1973
"Save the Sign" prank in 1973 | Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust. All Rights Reserved.

The "H" had fallen down in 1944 and the "...OLLYWOODLAND" Sign was in need of love. "It became an eyesore," says Zarrinnam. "A lot of people were complaining." The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped up to lead the restoration effort in 1949, which is the year the Sign was shortened to read "HOLLYWOOD."

In 1973, the Sign was declared Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #111 and it received a "facelift" that unfortunately didn't include any structural repairs. During the restoration, the "D" was covered by a canvas with a picture of singer Leon Russell and the words "Save the Sign" - it was the first known alteration of the Sign. Since then, it's been altered by pranksters numerous times.

Hugh Hefner speaks at the Hollywood Sign "bon voyage" press conference in 1978
Hugh Hefner at the Hollywood Sign "bon voyage" press conference in 1978 | Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust. All Rights Reserved.

By the late 1970s, the Hollywood Sign was damaged beyond repair. "In 1978, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce raised the funds to completely rebuild the Sign. That’s the Sign that you see here today," Zarrinnam explains. The replica was built to the exact same dimensions, angles and location of the original Sign that was built in 1923.

The Hollywood Chamber's "Save the Sign" campaign met its $250,000 goal thanks to celebrities like Alice Cooper, who donated $27,700 to replace the third "O" in honor of Groucho Marx. Hugh Hefner hosted a star-studded fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion, where Andy Williams pledged $27,700 to restore the "W." At the event, Chamber President Jack Foreman announced the "Y" would be dedicated to Hefner. The next week, Gene Autry contributed $27,700 for the second "L."

The 1978 rebuild of the Hollywood Sign in progress
The 1978 rebuild in progress | Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust and Darius Aidala. All Rights Reserved.

Zarrinnam points out handprints and inscriptions at the base of the letters that were left by those who rebuilt the Hollywood Sign. On a girder is a list of the workers who helped erect the massive sign. There’s also a 1' x 1' plaque indicating the engineer, C.A. Van Dam.

These details, though, are ones that the general public won’t be able to see. People do try to access the Hollywood Sign, but there are plenty of security measures to prevent this: cameras, motion detectors and sensors throughout the park; as well as five cameras on top of the Sign itself and a speaker system so police can give verbal warnings to trespassers.

View from behind the Hollywood Sign at night
Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust. All Rights Reserved.

Hikers can get a good view of the Sign from a variety of different spots. The Hollywood Sign Trust recommends three hikes: Mt. Hollywood Trail, Brush Canyon Trail and Cahuenga Peak Trail, which is the hardest hike but boasts the famous view from behind the Sign.

Hikers in Bronson Canyon
Hikers in Bronson Canyon  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

The Trust also suggests heading to the Griffith Observatory or Bronson Canyon to view the Sign or begin your hike. "Those are the two areas that we promote because they have the best parking and they're the least intrusive to the neighborhoods," says Zarrinnam. You can also view the Hollywood Sign 24/7 via its webcam.

The Hollywood Sign Trust has cared for this L.A. icon since 1978. The Trust helps to manage the surrounding landscape to protect the area from fire and keep the Hollywood Sign looking its best, most recently in October 2022 with a deep cleaning and a fresh coat of paint (Sherwin-Williams "Hollywood Sign Centennial White").

The public can donate to the Hollywood Sign Trust via the website or by mailing a check. Donations support the Trust's ongoing preservation of the Sign and help fund future projects like the Visitor Center, which was announced in January 2023 and will give visitors and locals alike a close-up experience of the iconic Hollywood Sign.