The Hollywood (Sign) Hustle

by Lisa Waugh

In the film Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, the Hollywood sign looks like an embattled former hero who has seen better days. Truth is, the grand dame hasn’t always looked like the gleaming gem tourists mostly cannot see unless they are here right after the spring rains. Oh no. Like everyone else in this town, the Hollywood sign has a shady history with a delightful comeback story.

For a time, the sign’s ownership and fate were in limbo, leaving it like so many of our stars; older, bedraggled and rolling face down the hill. Seriously, we wish Lindsay well.

But before we talk about this iconic sign, let’s talk about the city it represents.

The sign was originally a giant billboard for a real estate venture

The sign was originally a giant billboard for a real estate venture

People come to Los Angeles and are usually surprised by the same things:

  • “It’s not like on the TV and in them movies.”
  • The iconic views are helped by photography tricks
  • People here are hilariously narcissistic, it’s the weather
  • Juice must be available 24/7 or bad things will happen
  • No one can merge on the freeway
  • Your waiter was just on NCIS
  • There’s a line at Dunkin’ Donuts because the transplants are missing home
  • You barista was just on New Girl
  • They shot that opening sequence of Friends on a back lot

Vape and Mirrors 

Despite a lot of film and television shows choosing other states and countries for filming, there is still a ton of production going on in Los Angeles. Just look for the little yellow signs. From the Valley to Downtown, production trucks and Star Waggons are nose to tail along the streets. And that’s a great thing for Los Angeles. Not so much for the neighbors. There’s such a thing as production burnout and you find just to what extent when you go to file your filming permit.

Everyone is vying for the perfect location. That magical landscape, that breathtaking vista or that street that looks like Detroit. So if you’re coming to Los Angeles to find your favorite locations from Transparent or Ray Donovan, you’re going to have to get clever with your Google or hang out with a professional location scout.

The film and TV industry takes a patchwork set of cities and recreates enchantment everyday, morphing the various sections into your favorite films and TV shows. Dexter lived in Marina Del Rey, guys. Not Miami.

The Hollywood sign isn’t a huge factor in establishing LA anymore – most filmmakers are satisfied with the aerial shot of Century City or Downtown –  but there is a regular call for its use. Still, you can’t just rent a helicopter and go shoot it.

Smokey, this is not ‘Nam. This is Hollywood. There are rules.

Do not be like Ke$ha

The Hollywood Sign, A Brief History:

The Hollywood sign (formerly the Hollywoodland sign) sits atop Mount Lee in the Hollywood Hills area of the Santa Monica Mountains. The sign overlooks the Hollywood district of Los Angeles and was erected in 1923 to mark a land development in the hills.

The letters are 45-foot-tall (14 m) and 350-foot-long (110 m). It was originally created as a real estate advertisement in 1923 and used to be lit by 4000 light bulbs. As the land was developed and the area changed, the sign remained, becoming a fixture in Los Angeles culture. But the sign wasn’t sacred.

Hard Times

With budgets being tight, the sign fell into disrepair in the ’60s and ’70s as residents fled to the Valley along with the film industry, leaving the once-glorious beacon to rot and ruin. The sign sagged, broken and bewildered on the hillside, a literal metaphor for the state of things.

The sign was a temptation for vandals, having been changed to spell Hollyweed in 1973. And was divinely messed with to spell Holywood for the 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II.

Hefner lead the way to the Hollywood sign’s restoration

The sign has also been set on fire (the second L), spray painted and the D and the O  toppled down Mt. Lee during the ’70s.

The Comeback Kid

In the late 1970s, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in to rebuild the Hollywood sign. The renovation would cost a quarter million dollars.

This was more than the city could afford so a young Hugh Hefner, an icon himself, hosted a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion where individual sign letters were auctioned off (actually sponsored) at $27,700 a letter. Alice Cooper bought an O, Gene Autry bought an L and Andy Williams sponsored the W.

The old sign was scrapped in August of 1978 and for three months, Mt. Lee was signless. But just like a true icon, the Hollywood sign got a facelift. Well, an actual new face in the form of 194 tons of concrete, enamel and steel, and was restored to its former glory.

An Odd and Tragic History:

Lillian Millicent “Peg” Entwistle

The sign has a strange effect on some people. They figure that if they can’t be famous themselves, they’ll associate themselves with the sign one way or the other. There are a few times that the sign has figured large and/or tragically in Hollywood history.

1932 – A 24-year-old actress, Peg Entwistle, swan dives from the letter H after neatly folding her coat and leaving a note. Read about Peg and what led up to her infamous suicide here.

1992 – Jizzy Pearl, singer for Love/Hate and his band mates staged a mock crucifiction on the Y of the Hollywood sign as part of a music video.

2010 – Ke$ha shoots her music video there

2012 – The head, hands and feet of 66-year-old Hervey Medllin were found in Bronson Canyon park near the Hollywood sign in January. Mr. Medllin surely didn’t ask to be disposed of in this manner but his killer seemed to be drawn to this spot.

The Best Way to See the Hollywood Sign

It’s important to remember that the sign is not open to the public. As close as you can get is the top Mt. Lee above the sign. During high fire alerts, this area is blocked off as well. If you’re looking for your big moment of climbing to the top and being all A Star is Born, a big burly lady cop will likely write you a ticket or face slam you into the sage brush.

Photo: Huffington Post

Photo: Huffington Post

When Sign Trekking… Don’t Be Douchey

Much to the chagrin of the locals who live around the sign, hordes of tourists stomp and tromp and severely piss off folks on their way to this wooden mecca.

It’s best to remember that driving into the private neighborhoods around the sign, parking where you want, lighting up a smoke, getting wasted and doing as you please will probably get you into some deep doo doo  with the neighbors. They don’t play. Cops will be called.

Basic Human Being Rules for Visiting the Sign:

The steady stream of visitors has prompted this sign by locals, gaining its own popularity

  • Park legally
  • Be respectful
  • Don’t smoke (huge fines as this is a fire watch area)
  • Don’t loiter
  • Be freaking careful – there are no safety rails in the area
  • Don’t jump the fence and climb on the sign– There is a fire station / communications center right next to it, you’ll get nailed
  • Don’t give Ke$ha or any other celebrity a ride to the top

How to Get Permission to Use the Sign In Your Project

Currently, the sign is protected and promoted by the Hollywood Sign Trust, a nonprofit organizationIf you want to film there or want to learn more about the sign and its history, please visit the Hollywood Sign Trust.

There are proper channels you must go through to gain access to the sign for filming. The Hollywood Sign Trust will determine if you can shoot. Here are their rules of use. It’s usually best to not have action where you’re touching the sign and the trust is pretty protective of the icon. Normally, the sign is featured in an aerial fly-by.

Two icons meet at eye level as the Space Shuttle Endeavour makes its way to the California Science Center in September

Movies Featuring the Hollywood Sign

The most interesting thing about the sign is that it works more than most actors. And like a lot of famous actors, it just sits there with that one expression but you pay to see it anyway because you’re still attracted to it like a moth to a flame. It’s kind of like the Kristen Stewart of signs.

Look at How Much Film Face Time This Grand Dame Has:

Hollywood Boulevard (1935)
A Ducking They Did Go (1939)
Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
Down Three Dark Streets (1954)
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
Earthquake (1974)
Day of the Locust (1975)
Aloha Bobby and Rose (1975)
Hollywood Boulevard (1976)
Superman (1978)
The Muppet Movie (1979)
1941 (1979)
The Hollywood Knights (1980)
Elephant Parts (1981)
Death Wish II (1982)
Valley Girls (1983)
Hollywood Hot Tubs (1984)
Weekend Pass (1984)
Ruthless People (1986)
Dragnet (1987)
Slam Dance (1987)
Earth Girls Are Easy (1988)
The Wizard of Speed and Time (1989)
UHF (1989)
Pretty Woman (1990)
Predator 2 (1990)
Bugsy (1991)
Career Opportunities (1991)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Doc Hollywood (1991)
Chaplin (1992)
Rescue Me (1992)
Demolition Man (1993)
Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1994)
Ed Wood (1994)
Escape from L.A. (1996)
Independence Days (1996)
Volcano (1997)
Orgazmo (1997)
187 (1997)
Los Highway (1997)
Bean (1997)
The Truman Show (1998)
Mighty Joe Young (1998)
RKO 281 (1999)
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
MaMan On the Moon (1999)
Bowfinger (1999)
Scream 3 (2000)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Joe Dirt (2001)
Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)
Big Fat Liar (2002)
Crossroads (2002)
The Italian Job (2003)
S.W.A.T. (2003)
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Shrek 2 (2004)
Super Babies: Baby Geniuses 2 (2004)
Win a Date With Ted Hamilton (2004)
10.5 (2004)
Bewitched (2005) – I can’t believe this movie was ever made
The Black Dahlia (2006)
Hollywoodland (2006)
Vantage Point (2006)
Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006)
Knocking (2006
Nancy Drew (2007)
Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007)
Yes Man (2008)
Bolt (2008)
Terminator Salvation (2009)
Bruno (2009)
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2009)
Miss March (2009)
Starstruck (2010)
The Runaways (2010)
Valentine’s Day (2010)
Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)
Friends With Benefits (2011)
Current 20th Century Fox opening logo animation