What began as a real-estate advertisement has since been the site of tragedy, triumph and plenty of pranks.
The actor Michelle Yeoh in midair over the Hollywood sign in November 1998. Photograph: Joe McNally/Getty Images –
The Hollywood sign begins life as a temporary advertisement for a new housing development in the Hollywood Hills. Its precise date of construction is unknown: by the end of 1923, a few news reports in Los Angeles mention, in passing, a giant sign reading “Hollywoodland”, illuminated with electric lights.
The sign cost $21,000, according to the Hollywood Sign Trust, and the developers behind it included Harry Chandler, the publisher of Los Angeles Times.
“Each of the original 13 letters was 30ft wide and approximately 43ft tall, constructed of 3ft by 9ft metal squares rigged together by an intricate frame of scaffolding, pipes, wires and telephone poles,” according to the sign trust’s website. “At night the Sign blinked into the Hollywood night: first ‘Holly’, then ‘wood’, and finally ‘land’, punctuated by a giant period. The effect was truly spectacular, particularly for pre-Vegas sensibilities.” (The Las Vegas strip started to be built in the 1940s.)
1932: A young actress dies by suicide at the Hollywood sign, making it infamous
Peg Entwistle, a British actor who had some success on Broadway, dies by suicide at the sign after struggling to find success in Hollywood. Her death, prominently covered by the tabloids, made her known as “the Hollywood Sign Girl”, and it continues to inspire literary and TV interpretations about the lure and the danger of Hollywood dreams. The role Entwistle filmed before she died, Slate reported, was largely cut out of the movie because it depicted a lesbian relationship that was flagged by Hollywood censors.
1944: The Hollywoodland sign becomes the property of Los Angeles
After the Hollywoodland development it advertised goes bust in the wake of the Great Depression, ownership of the Hollywood sign is quietly transferred to the city, according to the sign trust.
1940s: The musician eden ahbez camps out beneath the Hollywood sign
The songwriter and mystic eden ahbez, who lived for a time beneath the Hollywood sign, becomes a media sensation after writing a hit single for Nat King Cole, Nature Boy, in 1948. The story is that ahbez slept under the first “L” of the sign, Vogue reported: the most famous line from his song is, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / Is just to love and be loved in return.”
1949: The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce repairs the sign –and removes the “Land”
Battered by wind and weather, the Hollywood sign falls into disrepair. At one point, the H is blown down, which “made a cockney out of Hollywoodland”, Los Angeles Times reported in 1944, with the sign reading “OLLYWOODLAND”.
There are public debates over whether the sign should be torn down or repaired. In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce finally succeeds in making a deal to rebuild the H, while simultaneously removing the “LAND”, making the sign a refurbished advertisement for Hollywood itself.
1978: Hugh Hefner hosts a Playboy Mansion fundraiser to rebuild the sign
By the mid-1970s the sign has been officially made a cultural landmark, but it is also “rusted, dilapidated, soon to literally crumble under its own weight”, according to the Hollywood Sign Trust, which notes that, during this period, “the top of the ‘D’ and the entire third ‘O’ toppled down Mt Lee, and an arsonist set fire to the bottom of the second ‘L’.”
A champion emerges: Hugh Hefner, who hosts a fundraiser and symbolically auctions off letters of the sign to other celebrities for $27,700 each in order to raise money to construct the sign afresh. The old sign was “scrapped” in August 1978, according to the trust.
1997: Michelle Yeoh dangles from a helicopter for a Hollywood sign photoshoot
Michelle Yeoh performs a daring stunt above the sign for a 1997 National Geographic cover story. More than 15 years later, the images are going viral in advance of the Oscars, where Yeoh is a leading contender to win this year’s best actress award.
The photographer “thought it would be fantastic if we have this actress hanging over the Hollywood sign,” Yeoh told Jimmy Kimmel. “I mean, sounds amazing right? But who’s crazy enough to do this except Michelle Yeoh?
“We were two helicopters hanging. He was in one,” Yeoh added of photographer Joe McNally.
“It was so cold,” she said. “I think that was the real test.”
December 2013: The Brad Pitt of mountain lions
Another legendary image is made in 2013 when a National Geographic photographer takes a remote portrait of a mountain lion stalking the hills in front of the Hollywood sign. The photo catapulted the cat, named P-22 after the number of his tracking collar, to international fame.
P-22, dubbed “the Brad Pitt of mountain lions”, became the face of a successful effort to fundraise for one of the world’s largest wildlife crossings, designed to help animals avoid death during their crossing of southern California freeways.
Sadly, P-22 himself was euthanized in late 2022 after he was probably hit by a car. His death prompted an outpouring of tributes and several public memorial ceremonies.
2017: Pranksters alter the sign to read ‘Hollyweed’, for the second time
The big letters on the hill have been a prank target for decades: the first time the sign was altered to read “Hollyweed” was in 1976, according to the Hollywood Sign Trust. (Both “Hollyweed” alterations, in 1976 and 2017, were “marking the enactment of looser state marijuana laws”, the trust notes.)
The sign has also been altered to read “Holywood”, in honor of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Los Angeles; “Ollywood”, in reference to Oliver North’s testimony in the Iran-Contra scandal; “Go Navy”, “Caltech”, and “UCLA”, according to the sign trust.
In 2021, six people were arrested after altering the sign to read “Hollyboob”.
2023: The sign celebrates its 100th birthday
The sign readied for its 100th year with a PR team, special events and a makeover, including a fresh paint job in 2022. The once-a-decade repainting of the Hollywood sign, a process that takes weeks, is itself a minor media event.
In January, to kick off a year of centennial celebration, the president of the Hollywood Sign Trust announces a campaign to build an official visitors’ center, with facilities for tourists, a museum, and a movie theater. The plan is, in part, a response to the current challenges of accessing the Hollywood sign.
February brought an unexpected birthday present: the National Weather Service confirmed that snow or soft hail had fallen on Mt Lee, where the Hollywood sign is located. The president of the Hollywood Sign Trust, who lives in the area, also posted a photo: “It snowed in Hollywood and I made a snowball!” he exclaimed.