Lights, camera, centenary: The Hollywood sign turns 100

The highs and lows of one of the most famous signs in the world as it reaches its milestone birthday

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The Hollywood sign celebrates its 100th birthday this year and like a celebrity heading for the red carpet, it’s been getting glammed up as tourists flock to see Tinseltown’s biggest star.

The giant letters are as famous as the Los Angeles streets they tower above, and over its 100-year history, it has become one of the world’s most recognised landmarks. Fittingly, as the crowning jewel of the Entertainment Capital of the World, the sign has its own remarkable story to tell that is as captivating as any told on the big screen – the most recent chapter being the ongoing writer’s strike, which began in May.

Two months later, the Writers Guild of America were joined by actors in July, for the the first double Hollywood strike in more than six decades. It began after a number of failed negotiations with major studios over increased pay and protection for Hollywood’s writers.

Erected in 1923 by the Hollywoodland Real Estate Group, the sign was initially an advertisement for a new housing developing in the city. Spanning about 137 metres and almost 15 metres tall, each letter had thousands of individual light bulbs thus making the sign – which originally read “Hollywoodland” – visible day and night. At the time, the plan was for it to remain in place for only 18 months, but as Hollywood’s Golden Age began, the sign remained, quickly becoming the star of the show.

By the 1930s, the city was the movie capital of the world and the sign was rising in fame faster than those walking the red carpet.

However, the letters turned infamous in 1932, when British actress Peg Entwistle died by suicide, jumping off the top of the H. By the 1940s, the once glamorous landmark was beginning to resemble a tired actor fallen on hard times. Letters were in disrepair. The H had been completely uprooted by strong winds, while other parts were plagued with dry rot.

The 4,000 light bulbs no longer shone as bright and the sign desperately needed a new lease of life. It wasn’t until 1949 that the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce took over the maintenance, reconstructing the lettering with a mixture of steel and concrete – and famously removed the letters L, A, N, D, leaving only the word Hollywood.

In 1976, pranksters made unwelcome alterations to the sign, which was once again ageing badly. The damaged sheet metal and wood lettering no longer did justice to the glitz and glamour of the city that it stood to represent. As a staple attraction for tourists and celebrities alike, famous names including Alice Cooper and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner helped organise a public fundraiser in 1978, collecting about $250,000 to again restore and maintain the monument. More than 1,000 litres of paint later, the sign was looking better than ever.

In 1987, the giant letters were again changed by pranksters, this time to read "Holywood", to mark Pope John Paul II's visit. Last year, however, the sign was officially altered to read "Rams House" to celebrate the Los Angeles Rams winning Super Bowl LVI.

The unique location means that it’s always been tough to get to, much to the annoyance of both tourists and local residents. Some local homeowners have put signs in their yards informing visitors that there’s no access via private footpaths.

In fact, police, CCTV and motion sensors monitor the Hollywood sign around the clock to keep people at a respectable distance and prevent them from touching it. In 1997, actress Michelle Yeoh got closer than most when she famously dangled from a helicopter above the huge letters for a National Geographic magazine photoshoot.

Other notable figures have helped preserve the surrounding land from development. Steven Spielberg donated funds in 2010 to ensure the Hollywood sign and its Mount Lee surroundings in the Santa Monica Mountains would remain undeveloped, then-Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger announced the good news.

Now in its 100th year, the Hollywood sign has undergone an extensive renovation.

Workers spent weeks pressure-washing the letters before adding layers of primer and repainting it in Sherwin-Williams shade Hollywood Sign Centennial White at the tail end of last year, ready for its birthday year. Not only does the landmark now gleam as bright as it did in 1923, plans are in place to elevate the tourist experience further by building a new state-of-the-art visitor centre that’ll be home to a museum detailing the sign’s history, along with an official gift shop and movie theatre.

Earlier this year, volunteers took part in Hollywood centennial clean-ups to remove debris and litter from the surrounding parks.

While the sign has no official birthdate, celebrations will continue throughout this year and will include the release of a special two-piece fragrance collection – Hollywood Sunrise and Hollywood Sunset – by perfume developer Vincenzo Spinnato, due later this year.

Updated: July 30, 2023, 3:07 AM