HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- It's hard to believe that a bunch of corrugated steel could be so famous. But when that bunch is nine letters that are 45 feet tall, and that combine to stretch 400 feet across, you get what is likely the world's most recognizable sign.
This is, of course, the Hollywood sign, a universal image representing the entertainment industry, and a monument that literally towers over Tinseltown.
The Hollywood sign's long history of glory and decrepitude (pictures) See full gallery
But with its 90th anniversary coming up next spring, it may surprise some to learn that the sign has had its global status for only a fraction of its history. In fact, its life started not as a marquee trumpeting the film industry, but as a huge, flashing advertisement for real estate.
As part of Road Trip 2012, I got a special tour of the monument and a lesson that things aren't always what they seem, and that the common L.A. dream of becoming a big star after humble beginnings can extend even to signs.
In 1923, a development company called Hollywoodland Property was doing its best to drum up interest in posh plots in the hills above Hollywood. At the time, there were very few houses in the area, and the firm needed a way to attract potential buyers.
Their revelation was to mount a giant flashing sign on the hillside above the development: "Hollywoodland." With 4,000 light bulbs and 13 50-foot-high letters stretching out 800 feet, the project was just one in a city full of huge billboards grappling for people's attention. Indeed, the new sign was meant to stand for just 18 months.
Somehow, though, the Hollywoodland sign survived -- until 1949, that is. By then, the property company had gone under, and the billboard had fallen into serious disrepair. Local residents, incensed by the blight, demanded that the city tear it down.
But sensing that they had something, the city of Los Angeles took another path. Tear it down they did, or at least the "land" part. Instead, the city left a new sign, one touting the glamour of "Hollywood," yet without the thousands of bulbs.
Even, then, though, the sign didn't attract the kind of worldwide notice it has today. Rather, it was a local attraction, and one that was allowed to gradually fall into its own state of serious decrepitude.
Enter Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner and some friends. In 1978, with the sign teetering on the edge of disaster, Hefner decided it was time for an all-new version. Gathering the glitterati at the Playboy Mansion, Hefner raised $275,000 -- enough to replace the tattered old sign, its little tin panels falling off its wooden support posts, with a new one with large corrugated steel sections mounted on gleaming metal beams. Major contributors were allowed to adopt letters, and today, the "W" is Hefner's.
Local kid makes good
The story of the sign is definitely one of a local kid making good. After all, what was once an advertisement aimed at one neighborhood is now among the most recognized structures on the planet.
But keeping it in its current glamorous state is not something that happens by accident. After Hefner and his friends rebuilt the sign, they also created what is known as the Hollywood Sign Trust, a non-profit tasked with its maintenance. A nine-member board comprised of some of the most entrenched entertainment industry folks in Los Angeles, it makes sure that the public can continue to look up at the hills above Hollywood and count on seeing the global icon standing tall.
Today, though, it is starting to look a bit ragged. From afar, you can't tell. But up close, the paint is peeling, there are small holes all over the place, and it is time for a major repair.
That's why, with the 90th anniversary coming up, the trust is planning on finding a sponsor that will pay to have the Hollywood sign completely sandblasted, primed, and repainted. And what color, you ask? Well, in "Hollywood Sign white," a real color that you can get at your local paint store.