The Hollywood Sign: Dashed dreams and decay
Updated: Apr 5
The 100-year-old Hollywood Sign is a symbol of American dreams and fantasies and a monument to the timeless power of storytelling.
It didn’t start out to be that kind of symbol, though. It was originally erected to be temporary real estate marketing.
The Eiffel Tower in Paris was also supposed to be temporary. It just goes to show how much we yearn for these symbols to help define us as a civilization. Having symbols like this that are big and memorable, and permanent, help ground us in our sense of belonging and reality.
In 1923, when the sign was put up on Mount Lee in Griffith Park overlooking Los Angeles, it was promoting a real estate development called "Hollywoodland."
It was only meant to last 18 months, but it made quite an impression. It was originally outlined with lights that would flash for the three parts of the word: HOLLY WOOD LAND.
This beautiful installation crystalized the United States West Coast film industry into a romanticized concept. The creators of the sign unintentionally created The Hollywood brand.
The sign itself has appeared in numerous Hollywood films and TV shows, often getting blown up or being the butt of jokes. In the recent Elvis biopic, Elvis Presley has a life-changing moment at the base of the sign: he arranges his monumental career comeback.
The sign remained up much longer than intended and the original Hollywoodland development failed during the Great Depression. Instead getting torn down, at some point the sign changed ownership to the city of Los Angeles.
The Death of a Starlet
In 1932, actress Peg Entwistle jumped from the "H" of the Hollywood sign to her death. She left behind a suicide note with her belongings at the bottom of the letter and her body was found further down the mountain.
Peg, born Millicent Lilian Entwistle in Wales, U.K. had a tough life that was shaped by the love of acting. Her father had been an actor, and she followed in his footsteps. Her parents were divorced when she was young and she moved to New York with her father, who started a family with his second wife.
Tragically, Peg's father was killed by a car while she was a teen. Her brothers went to live with their uncle, but Peg stayed in New York to pursue stage acting. She was able to forge a successful career on Broadway, and one of her performances actually inspired Bette Davis to pursue the acting craft.
After a failed marriage to an older man who had a secret prior family, Peg moved across the country to try to make it in the burgeoning film industry.
Peg struggled with depression and found it hard to find work. She found some stage work, but the only movie she was cast in, Thirteen Women, got scraped, which dashed her dreams. For a while she stayed at a hotel for women, but eventually moved in with her uncle to save money.
On September 18, 1932, Peg told her uncle she was going to meet some friends, but instead made the trek up Mount Lee, where she climbed up the "H" with the help of an electrician's ladder, and jumped to her demise.
Her suicide note read: "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."
In a dark ironic twist, right after her death, her uncle got.a letter notifying Peg she'd been cast in a production about a girl who kills herself. Her remains reside at Hollywood Forever memorial park. Many people believe that the ghost of Peg now haunts The Hollywood sign.
By the 1940s, The Hollywood sign had fallen into decay and disrepai. For a time in this decade, folk singer eden ahbez lived under the "L" letter in the sign. eden dressed white robes and sandals and chose to live outdoors. His best known song was "Nature Boy," which became a No. 1 hit for Nat King Cole.
The H fell off in this decade, leaving it reading "ollywoodland" for a while.
In 1949 the sign had its first renovation, which took off the "land" part, leaving only the ubiquitous "Hollywood."
In 2023, it's impossible for anyone to live under the sign, jump off of the sign, or even touch it because it's now under heavy surveillance and guards. You can still hike up close to the sign however, to get a good look at how huge it is.
In 1978 the sign was again in shambles, but it was revitalized by Hugh Hefner. He didn't finance the renovation himself, but he did raise money from his famous friends to restore the sign at the price of $27,700 per letter, which would be $128,000 in 2023 money. The sign originally cost about $250,000 of today's money in total, so this was quite a step up. It was a sign of pride for Hefner that the letters were now made of steel. I don't know what they were made of before.
In 1997, Michelle Yeoh, who just won an Oscar for her role in Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, hung from a helicopter in front of the sign for a stunt for National Geographic.
The sign was last restored in 2012, and it's currently getting a new makeover to commemorate its 100th anniversary.