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The Hollywood sign's long history of glory and decrepitude (pictures)

Probably the world's most famous sign, 90 years ago it was just a temporary advertisement. But thanks to Playboy's Hugh Hefner, it still stands tall over Tinseltown. CNET Road Trip 2012 gets up close.

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Daniel Terdiman
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1 of 22 Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Hollywood Sign Trust

Decrepit Hollywood sign

HOLLYWOOD -- It's arguably the most famous sign on the planet, and without question it is the single most visible symbol of the entertainment industry: The Hollywood sign. Next year, the worldwide icon turns 90 -- or at least it will be 90 years since a large sign containing the letters "H, O, L, L, Y, W, O, O, and D" was mounted on the side of the hill overlooking the movie capital of the world.

But it wasn't always so glamorous. The sign had long years of neglect, as seen here, before being rebuilt in 1978.

These days, the sign stands tall above Tinseltown, and members of the public are welcome to hike near it. But for security reasons, they can't get right up next to it. Yesterday, as part of Road Trip 2012, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman got a chance for a special visit to the sign itself, and an education about its history, and what it needs for the future.

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2 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

OLLYWOOD

A look at the famous sign from just in front, an area off limits to the general public.

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3 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The Hollywood sign

The Hollywood sign, towering over Tinseltown, is perhaps the most famous sign in the world. In its current incarnation, it has been standing tall over Hollywood since 1978.

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4 of 22 Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Hollywood Sign Trust

Hollywoodland sign

In 1923, a company called Hollywoodland Property started selling plots of land and building houses on the side of the Santa Monica mountains. Planned to be up for just a year and a half, the "Hollywoodland" sign -- a 50-foot-tall by 800-foot-long advertisement tried to lure in potential buyers. It featured 4,000 lightbulbs that would flash at night.

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5 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

HO from behind

A look at the current Hollywood sign from directly behind the "H" and the "O." Each letter is 45 feet high and is made from corrugated steel.

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6 of 22 Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Hollywood Sign Trust

Decrepit

In 1949, the Hollywoodland sign was in horrible disrepair and local residents demanded that it be removed. Instead, the city of Los Angeles decided to build a new sign touting Hollywood. But by 1978, that sign itself had become decrepit, as seen in this photo taken from the same location as the current-day previous image.

That year, a group led by Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner decided to rebuild the sign. Hefner hosted a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion and raised $275,000 for the project. The "W" is dedicated to Hefner.

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7 of 22 Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Hollywood Sign Trust

Hollywoodland advertisement

With just a few houses already built, the Hollywoodland neighborhood needed an advertisement to try to attract buyers.

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8 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Full sign from behind

The full modern-day Hollywood sign, as seen from directly behind and a little above.

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9 of 22 Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Hollywood Sign Trust

Wide aerial view of Hollywoodland sign

An aerial view of the Hollywoodland sign.

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10 of 22 Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Hollywood Sign Trust

Falling apart

A close-up of the older Hollywood sign in its pre-1978 decrepit state.

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11 of 22 Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Hollywood Sign Trust

Tearing it down

In this archival shot, we see workers tearing down the old Hollywood sign to prepare the site for an all-new sign.

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12 of 22 Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Hollywood Sign Trust

Sign being rebuilt

In this still from a home movie, we see the Hollywood sign in the process of being rebuilt.

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13 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Right in front

A look at the modern-day sign from just in front of it. While the original Hollywoodland sign was 50-feet-tall by 800-feet-wide, the current sign is 45-feet-tall by 400-feet-wide.

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14 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

WOOD

Another close-up look at the current Hollywood sign. The Hollywood Sign Trust is hoping to raise the money in the next year -- to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the sign -- to repaint it. It has been around five years since the last repainting.

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15 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Security cameras

The site is monitored by security camera 24 hours a day because of the dangers of the public climbing up or down to the sign. The hillside is extremely steep, meaning those who try to reach it could fall. And there is additional danger of fire. Plus, officials worry that some people might vandalize it.

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16 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Rope going down

In order to get to the sign, authorized visitors must climb down a rope in order to avoid falling down the extremely steep hillside.

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17 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Wood posts

Though the current Hollywood sign is entirely made out of corrugated steel and is mounted on a metal frame, the original letters in the Hollywoodland sign were mounted on wood posts. Today, these two posts are a reminder of what was once there.

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18 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Size comparison

Each letter is 45 feet tall, dwarfing anyone who happens to be standing nearby.

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19 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

W is for Hefner

After spearheading the $275,000 fundraiser that made it possible to rebuild the Hollywood sign, Hugh Hefner had the W dedicated to him.

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20 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

HOLLY from behind

The letters spelling out "HOLLY" are seen from just behind the sign.

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21 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Needs paint

From afar, it's not possible to tell that the sign needs to be repainted. But up close, there is plenty of evidence that time is taking its toll on the famous monument.

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22 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Hawk

Birds love the Hollywood sign, including this hawk, which is sitting on the first O in "Hollywood."

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