When developers put up a larger-than-life advertisement for their new L.A. housing development in 1923, they had no idea it would become one of the most iconic landmarks of all time. Originally intended to last for just 18 months, the Hollywood sign is fast approaching its 100th birthday. Like any Tinseltown mainstay, the sign has seen its fair share of triumphs, scandals, and facelifts. Here are 10 things you need to know about the oldest star in town.
1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY AN ELECTRIC BILLBOARD FOR A HOUSING DEVELOPMENT.
The first sign was built on (then unnamed) Mount Lee in 1923 by Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler to advertise his new, upscale housing development called “Hollywoodland.” As if 43-foot letters didn’t attract enough attention, Chandler also had them lit with 4000 20-watt bulbs, spaced eight inches apart.
2. A SILENT FILM ACTOR RAZED THE TOP OF MOUNT LEE FOR A PROPERTY HE NEVER BUILT.
Actor and Keystone Kops director Mack Sennett intended to build an elaborate estate that would have included a mini golf course, a sand beach, a swimming pool, and an outdoor theater. Developers only got as far as constructing the road and grading the top before Sennett’s finances took a dive, forcing him to back out.
3. MOUNT LEE IS NAMED AFTER A CAR SALESMAN.
Don Lee was a Cadillac dealer-turned-radio broadcaster who set his sights on television in the early 1930s. In 1938, the Don Lee Network (run by Don’s son, Thomas) purchased 20 acres of land from Mack Sennett, a parcel just behind the Hollywood sign. There, Thomas Lee built a studio that included the highest television tower in the world. It didn't last long—the Don Lee Network moved the tower in the 1940s, deciding that nearby Mt. Wilson was a better location for broadcasting—but Lee’s contributions to the industry have been preserved in the mountain’s name.
4. AN ACTRESS COMMITTED SUICIDE OFF OF THE “H.”
Apparently distraught that her part in David O. Selznick’s Thirteen Women had been cut, Peg Entwistle climbed to the top of the “H” on September 16, 1932, and threw herself off. Her body was discovered the next day, along with a note that said, “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.”
If you believe in ghosts, Entwistle might still be there: Multiple people have reported seeing a blonde woman in 1930s-era clothing appear and vanish near the sign.
5. THE “LAND” WAS LOST IN 1949.
Maintenance of the iconic sign fell by the wayside during the Great Depression, and by the mid-1940s, the sign was looking pretty sad. The “H” fell down—legend has it the sign's caretaker drunkenly plowed into it with his car—and the other letters were deteriorating. Though the L.A. Recreation and Parks Commission wanted it completely torn down, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce had different ideas. They offered to remove the “LAND,” then restore the remaining nine letters to promote the town.
6. THE ENTIRE SIGN WAS REPLACED IN 1978.
By the 1970s, the Hollywood sign was looking every inch of its 50-plus years. An “O” had toppled down the hill, a “L” had been set on fire, and the other letters were falling apart. Hugh Hefner came to the rescue, holding a benefit gala where celebrities were able to “purchase” the new letters. Hefner himself bought the “Y,” Alice Cooper bought an “O” in honor of Groucho Marx, and Andy Williams sponsored the “W.” Other donors included Gene Autry, Warner Bros. Records, and Les Kelley of Kelley Blue Book.
7. HOWARD HUGHES ONCE OWNED 138 ACRES SURROUNDING THE SIGN.
In the 1940s, Hughes bought 138 acres of land surrounding the sign, intending to build a compound for himself and then-girlfriend Ginger Rogers. Plans fell through after Rogers broke up with him, and the Hughes estate did nothing with the property for decades. When they finally sold it for $1.7 million in 2002, developers announced a plan to divide the estate into five luxury home sites. The Trust for Public Land raised money to purchase it from the developers for $12.5 million in 2010. The sign’s previous rescuer, Hugh Hefner, chipped in $900,000.
8. THE LETTERS HAVE BEEN ALTERED A FEW TIMES OVER THE YEARS.
In 1976, it was changed to “Hollyweed” to celebrate changes to marijuana laws. It read "Holywood" when the Pope visited in 1987. It was briefly Ollywood during the Oliver North Iran-Contra hearings. And it’s been used to root for football teams, including “Go Navy” in 1983 and “GO UCLA” for the 1993 UCLA-USC game. It even helped market a movie when animated character Holli Would was perched on top of the "D" to promote the film Cool World (1992). People were really not pleased about that one.
9. SHERWIN-WILLIAMS GAVE IT NEW LIFE in 2013.
To celebrate the sign’s 90th birthday in 2013, Sherwin-Williams freshened up each letter by removing all of the previous paint, then applying 255 gallons of exterior acrylic latex paint in the color “High Reflective White.” It also required 105 gallons of primer.
10. NOT EVERYONE LOVES THE SIGN.
Residents of Beachwood Canyon, which is where the original Hollywoodland housing development would have been, are none too happy about tourists trampling their neighborhood in order to get to the Hollywood sign. They’ve put up illegal signs, painted curbs red to deter parking, and even installed a large “TOURISTS GO AWAY” sign nearby. But they’ve also taken high-tech masking measures by getting GPS directions to the sign changed on Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Bing.