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The Hollywood Sign
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The Hollywood Sign might be the most iconic landmark in Los Angeles, California, but it is also the home to stories of suicide, ghosts, pranks, and urban legends. The sign was originally erected on Mount Lee in 1923 and financed by
Los Angeles Times
publisher Harry Chandler. The $21,000 billboard originally served as an advertisement for Chandler's upscale real estate development project and was designed by Thomas Fisk Goff. Though the sign originally read "HOLLYWOODLAND" (for the real estate project), it was quickly adopted by the Hollywood industry as something of an iconic marquee that advertised the area itself.
The original sign was a massive array of scaffolding, pipes, wires, and telephone poles. Each letter was constructed to be 30 feet wide and 50 feet tall and was individually ferried up the hillside on dirt paths. For pure showmanship style, each letter was adorned with 20-watt light bulbs that were spaced eight inches apart and totaled 4,000 overall. Because of the frequency of the bulbs going out, a man named Albert Kothe was employed to constantly climb and replace the bulbs that had blown out.
The sign was maintained until the late-1930s/early-1940s when the real estate development plan went belly up - a victim of the great depression. The sign was quietly turned over to the district, which initially planned to tear it down. By the end of the 1940s, the sign was in a bad need of repairs. The letter 'H' had toppled over (see Urban Legends below) and all 4,000 light bulbs (working or not) had been stolen. In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce decided it was time for a facelift, reportedly concerned that their district would soon become known as "OLLYWOODLAND." The Chamber of Commerce contracted the Los Angeles Parks Department to give the sign an overhaul, but opted to not replace the light bulbs due to the costs of keeping it lit. Instead, they removed the "LAND" portion and the sign truly became the marquee of the Hollywood district itself.
The repairs would hold out for a couple more decades, but by the late 1970s, the sign had become severely dilapidated. The third "O" had completely collapsed and the top portion of the letter "D" had toppled. Making matters worse, an arsonist had set fire to the second "L" and partially destroyed the bottom of it. However, its dilapidated state did not stop the City of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board from giving the sign an official landmark status in 1973. By the end of decade, the Chamber of Commerce was desperate to tear down the existing sign and rebuild a new one in its spot, but was shaken by the estimated costs of around $250,000.
In 1978, a charity fundraiser was arranged at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion and each letter of the new sign was auctioned off at the cost of $27,700 per letter. The sponsors stepped forward and included several celebrities such as Alice Cooper, who sponsored an "O" in honor of Groucho Marx, Gene Autry (who sponsored an "L"), Warner Brothers Records (an "O"), Hugh Hefner (the "Y"), and Andy Williams (who grabbed the "W"). In August of 1978, the old sign was torn down and construction began on the new version, which re-sized the letters to 45-feet high and between 31 to 39-feet wide. For a few lone months, the hillside sat empty until the new sign was unveiled (on national television no less) on November 4, 1978, which coincided with 75th anniversary of Hollywood.
Tragedy struck early in the history of the sign. On the night September 16, 1932, little-known actress Peg Entwistle (Lillian Millicent Entwistle) took her life by jumping off the letter "H" (according to most accounts). Entwistle had come to Hollywood in April or May of that year following a successful New York theater run when the Great Depression took its toll on the theater scene. She landed a role in a nearby theatrical production, but it quickly folded. Her shot at motion pictures came in the form of a small role in the RKO psychological thriller,
(1932). However, an early preview generated negative reviews from the critics, so the film was shelved until it could be re-edited and her studio option was dropped.
That September evening, Entwistle told her uncle that she was going to visit some friends at a nearby drugstore and left his house on nearby Beachwood Drive (see
The Peg Entwistle House
). Instead, she headed to the Hollywood Sign and found a ladder left by a maintenance man propped up against the letter "H". She set down her purse and took off her coat and placed it folded over her purse. She then climbed the 50-foot letter and jumped to her death.
Her body was not discovered immediately. The story goes that a female hiker stumbled across the coat and purse and decided to drop them off at a nearby police station and made an anonymous phone call to report her discovery. The police came to the sign and searched the grounds, ultimately discovering her body down the hill from the sign. In Entwistle's purse, the police found a suicide note that 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. P.E.
" With nothing else to go on and no way to identify the body, the police turned to the press who immediately jumped on the story and it became national news.
Entwistle's uncle, Harold, was already shaken up by the sudden two-day disappearance of his niece and soon read the account in the newspaper and made the connection. He hastened to the morgue where he identified her body. Entwistle was 24 years old at the time of her death. Though unknown for her Hollywood career, Entwistle suddenly became known worldwide as the "
Hollywood Sign Girl.
In a sad twist of irony, Entwistle's uncle reputedly checked the mail and found a letter posted the day before his niece's death. It was an offer from the Beverly Hills Playhouse for Entwistle to play the lead in their next production, which coincidentally involved a woman that commits suicide. In another sad twist to the story, Entwistle's stepson from a former marriage, actor Brian Keith, took his own life on June 24, 1997 by a gunshot to the head after battling emphysema and lung cancer for years - two months after his own daughter had taken her life.
Given the iconic stature of the Hollywood Sign, it should be no surprise to find that there are a few urban legends that are often presented as fact. For starters, the toppling of the letter "H" in the 1940s has produced several different accounts of what knocked the letter down. In one version, sign caretaker, Albert Kothe, is blamed for the toppling after driving off the road and into the letter, while driving drunk. In other accounts and probably far more likely, the sign simply toppled from the combination of deterioration and a strong gust of wind. Some tales also have Kothe stripping the sign of its copper to sell off as scrap metal after its lights were permanently shut down.
The sensational account of Entwistle's death has also produced a few tales. In some accounts of her death, it is stated that she survived the initial impact and landed in several cacti. After she was discovered, the story goes that she was rushed to the hospital and died of internal injuries while nurses were busy pulling out all of the cactus needles. Yet further accounts state that Entwistle was only the first suicide from the Hollywood Sign and that countless failed starlets have followed her in the years since. While the tale seems emblematic of the countless crushed dreams of Hollywood stardom, it is simply not true. To date, Peg Entwistle is the only person to take their life by jumping off the Hollywood Sign.
Sign Pranks and Stunts
The initial unfettered access and lack of maintenance of the sign has led to several mischievous pranks over the years in changing the wording of the sign. The pranksters were known to use black and white sheets to cover up and redirect the lettering. Some of the more famous attempts included the 1973 (or 1976) "HOLLYWeeD" that was one part celebration of the relaxed marijuana laws of California and one part college art project that earned the prankster, credited as Daniel Finegood, an "A". Finegood was also reportedly responsible for the other re-wordings of "HOLYWOOD" (on Easter Sunday), "OLLYWOOD" (following Oliver North's testimony in the Iran-Contra hearings), and "OIL WAR" (during the initial Gulf War).
Colleges got into the act as well, starting with the alteration that read "GO NAVY" prior to the annual Army-Navy college football rivalry that was being played at the nearby Rose Bowl Stadium. The UCLA/USC football rivalry also produced an alteration that read "USCWOOD" in 1987. UCLA got their revenge in 1993 when members of the Theta Chi fraternity altered the sign to read "GO UCLA". Finally, ever mischevious Cal-Tech students (who also pulled off a few notable stunts at the Rose Bowl) re-worded the sign to say "CALTECH" in 1987.
Needless to say, the authorities were hardly amused with any attempts to alter the sign. However, there were no arrests made in the early days of the pranks. That changed in 1992 when the band Love/Hate released their new album
Wasted in America
. The band decided to garner a bit of publicity and erected a large cross over the sign's "Y". When news copters moved in, they found the band's lead singer, Jizzy Pearl, strapped to the cross in a mock-crucifixion. Outside of his arrest, the band's label Columbia Records was less than thrilled and ultimately dropped the group.
Following the UCLA incident in 1993, the frat members were charged with trespassing and security measures we put in to place to deter further would-be pranksters. In 1994, officials installed a $100,000 security system that included motion detectors and video surveillance. There were still a few more successful alterations made, but the attempts appeared to have subsided with the 2000 installation of a state-of-art security system that even included Internet-based surveillance (see site below) and alarms in case of a fire.
The story of Peg Entwistle's tragic life did not end with her death. According to reports, her spirit is still being sighted to this day walking up Beachwood Road to the Hollywood Sign. Visitors have also reported seeing a woman that appeared to be dressed in 1930s clothing who matches the description of Entwistle vanishing before their eyes in close proximity to the sign. Those witnesses that have sighted the apparition report that the figure seemed to be in a daze and deeply depressed. Yet others tell the story of being overwhelmed with the smell of a gardenia perfume, which was said to be Entwistle's favorite.
Even worse, there have been reportedly calls made to the local officials of a young woman who looks like she is about to jump off of the top of the letter "H". In addition, motion detectors are constantly being set off and authorities rush to the scene out of fear of vandals. In both cases, they find no trace of anyone in the vicinity of the sign, even though the detectors still are signaling someone standing in front of the landmark.
In Popular Culture
The Hollywood Sign quite naturally has popped up in quite a few movies over the years, usually used to help establish the location of the film. However, it has not always fared well. In the 1998 remake of
Mighty Joe Young
, the large ape ascends the famous landmark and perches in the first "O". In 1978's
, a devastating earthquake wobbles the sign. The "LAND" portion of the original sign is also wiped out in 1979's
. The letters that comprise "WOOD" are annihilated by tornadoes in 2004's
The Day After Tomorrow
. The sign also meets complete destruction in 1974's
Escape from L.A.
The sign even takes on a pivotal role in the Joe Dante/Allan Arkush 1976 salute to low-budget filmmaking,
, when the letter "Y" topples and crushes the villainess played by Mary McQueen.
Finally, the sad saga of Peg Entwistle has also popped up in pop culture from time to time. Her suicide (though she is renamed "Camille McRae") is related in a tour group scene at the sign in the 1975 John Schlesinger film,
The Day of the Locust
. In 1972, songwriter Dory Previn paid homage to Entwistle in the song,
Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign
. In the song, Previn recounts, "
She jumped from the letter 'H'/Cause she didn't become a star/She died in less than a minute and a half/She looked a bit like Hedy Lamarr.
The Sign Today
Given the history of pranks and vandalism, the Hollywood Sign today is not open to the general public. For those interested in the best opportunity to get good photos of the sign, it is recommended that they park on Beachwood Drive and take the three-mile hike along the Hollyridge Trail. The landmark is completely fenced off to visitors and those that ignore the signs could face arrest.
The sign still undergoes routine maintenance and paint jobs to this day that are a real step forward from the years of neglect and decay. On December 31, 1999, the Hollywood Sign joined the likes of the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and New York's famous Times Square in a global television countdown celebration to usher in the year 2000. As part of the display, the sign featured a dazzling array of lights and special effects. Today, the Hollywood Sign stands as the most photographed landmark in Los Angeles and is an international icon that inspires not just those from the Hollywood Hills area, but also people from around the world.
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The Hollywood Sign Trust
The official Web site of the Hollywood Sign Trust, who oversees and maintains the reportedly haunted Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles, California.
The Hollywood Sign Girl
A site dedicated to the tragic story of actress, Peg Entwistle, who jumped to her death from the iconic Hollywood Sign. The site attempts to clear up many misconceptions and urban legends surrounding her death.
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See Also on TheCabinet.com
Blog: The Suicide and Ghost of the Hollywood Sign (09/18/08)
Blog: The Myths and Legends of the Hollywood Sign (07/13/09)
Available from Amazon.com
The Hollywood Book of Death: The Bizarre, Often Sordid, Passings of More than 125 American Movie and TV Idols
Haunted Places: The National Directory: Ghostly Abodes, Sacred Sites, UFO Landings and Other Supernatural Locations
City Ghosts: True Tales of Hauntings in America's Cities
Ghost Stories of Hollywood
Hollywood Escapes: The Moviegoer's Guide to Exploring Southern California's Great Outdoors
Hollywood Babylon: The Legendary Underground Classic of Hollywood's Darkest and Best Kept Secrets
L. A. Bizarro! The Insider's Guide to the Obscure, the Absurd and the Perverse in Los Angeles
Hollywood: The Movie Lover's Guide: The Ultimate Insider Tour of Movie L.A.
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Photo of the Hollywood Sign from nearby Deronda Drive in Los Angeles, California - January 2009.
Photo of the Hollywood Sign in the distance from the Entwistle House on Beachwood Dr. - January 2009
Photo of the famous Hollywood Sign from Deronda Drive, Los Angeles, California - January 2009.
Photo of the Hollywood Sign from the vantage point of Beachwood Drive in Los Angeles - January 2009.
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The above content is for informational purposes only. Before making any travel arrangements, it is highly recommended that you contact those in charge of the property to check for updated availability and hours of operation. While we do our best to keep this information updated, we cannot guarantee that it is completely valid and up to date. Any destination marked "
Closed to the Public
" is marked that for a reason and we discourage any visits or attempts to gain access to that facility. Similarly, take note of any "
" that may be associated with a destination. Finally, treat any location and its local residents with respect. Any vandalism and/or unruly behavior is completely despicable and only ruins the experience for future visitors.
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