Hank Berger is a dreamer of the Hollywood dream who got the sign that blared the dream and is chopping the sign to tiny bits and will retail it in stores across American for $29.95 plus tax.
"Some of the people in the industry have used the word 'tacky,' but I've completely blown past tackiness," Berger said.
He was smoking. He was very handsome. He had broad shoulders, a dark mustache, a thin gold chain around his golden neck, and a V-neck sweatshirt that was white like vanilla ice cream. It was damp in Hollywood, and on his tiny alley the bougainvillea and lemon trees dripped rain against pale stucco. Up the hill a little way, you could hear the sound of a lone, hesitant typewritter.
"This isn't a scam," Berger explained.
"This is an actual legend.
"Cultural, historical monument. Legend. It's what brought me out here. It's what brought half the other people that are out here out. Psychologically, that sign epitomizes the city."
The first framed piece of the old HOLLYWOOD sign, on a plaque the press release from Berger Enterprises Inc. described as "really beautiful art deco," was mounted in place yesterday at a small shindig on the side of the mountain where the sign gleamed bright and huge for 55 years. The actor Donald O'Connor, looking slightly round but natty, ceremoniously cut a little square from a piece of the sign's metal. With appropriate flourish and speeches, the finished plaque was handed to Jean Firstenberg, director of the American Film Institute, for transport back to the institute's headquarters in Washington.
Berger beamed and decleared it "the gift item of the season," An extraordinnarily blond actress, who wore very small shorts and high-heeled turquoise blue mid-calf cowboy boots, stood on the rolled-out green Astroturf to watch the proceedings. "It's got age, and vibration," she said. "I want a little piece of the luck."
There is still, of course, a HOLLYWOOD sign. It is 45 feet high, 450 feet long, mounted on giant steel girders, and brand new; a massive "Save the Sign" campaign raised the money in time to put it up for Hollywood's 75th anniversary in 1978.
The old sign, which had attained the status of Historic-cultural Monument, was put out to pasture after people finally stopped trying to spruce it up. The years had not been kind to it. The paint had peeled, the third "O" was gone, vandals had climbed all over the sign, and many years earlier a failed actress named Lilliam "Peg" Entwhistle is said to have jumped to her death from the top of the "H."
"The sign was stored in a warehouse," said Berger's associate, George Weinbarg, who talks about everything with a kind of wide-eyed astonishment. "Just leaning up against a wall, stacked and stored ... you know, I could see these commemorative plaques hanging on peoples' wall, king of the center of attention, and people, the way they really look up to Hollywood and everything, I can see this thing as almost a, a small shrine in people's houses to Hollywood."
Berger and his pal Weinbarg drove west the first time in a 1975 Pinto with its right side crushed in and the muffler suspended by coat hangers. Their money lasted two weeks and by the time they went back to Cleveland they had never even seen the ocean, but every studio in town had a job application from Hank Berger, who was going to be a producer, who came back to be a producer, who took an apartment on Hollywood Boulevard in one of those squared-off places owned by an old actress from the B pictures.
Berger was a promotions man. He ran discos. He consulted for other discos. People magazine wrote an article about him and called him "the disco doctor"; Berger kept the article in a large black portfolio. Weinbarg was tall and lanky and had a modulated baritone radio voice and liked to announce that he was Buffalo Bill Cody's great-great-nephew from Cheyenne,
Berger was watching television last summer when somebody mentioned the dismantling of the old Hollywood sign. Berger's producing career was sort of limping along at this point, but he knew a Concept when he say one. "I just said, 'My God, that thing would be worth a fortune.'"
The sign had already been privately purchased by a marketing company that was using it to make little 24-karat gold-clad pendants with the word HOLLYWOOD punched out of the middle -- nice and crooked, just like the sign. Berger thought this was a bad idea. Ruined the integrity of the thing, he thought. Besides, someone else was doing it. So he entered into money that neither side will disclose, Berger bought the worldwide marketing rights to much of the leftover metal.
"Man, I don't believe what people have bought and sold," Weinbarg said. "In my phone conversations I have talked to people who have bought everything, starting out with the melted-down ingots from the Merrimac, to the bricks from the wall of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, to the Ford Theatre bricks where President Lincoln was killed, to the fixtures off the Queen Mary which have been cut up and sold . . ."
And the fellow who sold Beatle water from the swimming pool where the boys once dipped their valuable persons and the entrepreneurs making neat little packages of Mount St. Helens ash. Legends in the annals of promotion, said Berger.
"Fifty years from now, people won't know our names, but they'll remember -- 'Hey, remember the kids that made millions of dollars years ago when they sold the Hollywood sign?'"
Expect the Hollywood plaques in your local stores for the Christmas season. Berger Enterprises is uncertain but cheerful about what comes after that. There are some movie packages in the works, they said. They will also promote anything else that shows promise. In grand moments, Berger likes to say, "If I could buy the Statue of Liberty, I would." They are not sure what they would do with it. It is kind of big. But they would think of something.