According to Leo Braudy, some icons are built with instant prestige — the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, for example. Others, including the subject of “The Hollywood Sign,” earn their significance or acquire it “like a snowball rolling downhill, independent of its origins and even its history.”
Braudy’s biographical account of the nine-letter mountainside monument is deeply researched. He guides the reader through the origins of moviemaking in Los Angeles, the construction of the sign in 1923 and how the word “Hollywood” evolved from geographical marker to stand-in for “fame, stardom, and celebrity.”
The sign itself began as a “grandiose sort of billboard.” Originally, it read “Hollywoodland” and was a clever advertisement for a new real estate development. Braudy details how the sign was built with letters 50 feet high and anchored by telephone poles at a cost of $21,000. For a time, it was lit at night by 4,000 20-watt bulbs; a man named Albert Kothe, who lived in a shack behind the first “L,” replaced the burned-out bulbs regularly.
But as time passed, the sign fell into disrepair. In the 1930s, the “H” was washed away in bad weather, and for several years the sign read “ollywoodland.” In 1939, maintenance on the sign stopped completely.
In the late 1940s, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce took over responsibility for the sign, refurbished the letters and took down “land.” Three decades later, however, the sign was again in desperate need of help. To the rescue came Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, musician Alice Cooper and R. Leslie Kelley, of Kelley’s Blue Book auto guide fame, each of whom donated thousands of dollars to restore the letters to glory. The result is the sign we see today.
Braudy weaves an entertaining tale of the Hollywood sign’s various lives and incarnations. It seems fitting that a highbrow pornographer, a heavy-metal idol and a used-car dealer could become the patron saints of the Southern California icon. Only in Hollywood.