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The Hollywood Sign: A Clash Between Reality and Fantasy

Leo Braudy's Latest Book Takes on Both

By Susan Andrews
April 14, 2010


The Hollywood Sign

Commanding, evocative and unmistakable. With nine white steel and concrete letters standing 30 feet wide and 45 feet tall, the Hollywood Sign is one of the most recognized symbols in the world.

The sign is also the subject of Leo Braudy's twelfth book, The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon, which will appear in 2011 as one in a series of books about American icons to be published by Yale University Press. In the book, Braudy discusses the complex history of the Hollywood Sign and its interaction with the history of Hollywood, as a real and fantasized place.

A teacher, cultural theorist, film critic, and expert on 17th-century literature, Braudy is fascinated most by the interaction of things that seem disparate or far apart from each other. “In my mind, the seemingly disconnected fields nurture and feed upon one another, and it’s less about the individual parts.”

“The first chapter of my book focuses on Hollywood as a place before the sign even came on the scene,” said Braudy, University Professor and Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature and professor of English.

According to Braudy, the Hollywood Sign is an odd icon, as it is a word and not an image. “The Sign represents Hollywood as a city, an industry, and a mystique or a fantasy in the minds of people.”

The original sign, “Hollywoodland,” was constructed in 1923 and lit by 4,000 bulbs atop Mt. Lee by a real estate developer. The sign fell into disrepair through the years. In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce contracted with the City of Los Angeles Parks Department to renovate the Sign, and the “LAND” portion of the sign was removed — the beginning of its symbolic importance to Los Angeles.

Viewing the Sign for the first time is often a disappointment, especially if you have conjured up a symbol of grandeur, glitz and glamour — after all, in Hollywood image is everything. But, as Braudy says, “It’s an icon that the viewer puts her own meaning into — and it glows in many people’s minds precisely because it does not insist on a realistic meaning, like the Statue of Liberty or Mt. Rushmore,” he said.

Braudy likens the Hollywood sign to the intersection of Hollywood and Vine where people come from all over only to find a pedestrian view of many big buildings. He calls it a clash between reality and fantasy.

In its gradual acceptance as an icon, Braudy similarly compares the Hollywood Sign to the Eiffel Tower. Originally, the Eiffel Tower was not well received when it was built in 1889 for the World’s Fair in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. “The Eiffel Tower, an engineering feat at the time, was viewed as a monstrosity and not at all aesthetically pleasing,” Braudy said.

Myths have always swirled around Tinseltown, especially from old Hollywood era. The Sign has myths of its own. Aspiring silver screen actress Peg Entwistle, known as “the Hollywood Sign Girl,” allegedly jumped off the letter “H” to her death in 1932 following a series of rejections. Though Braudy has his doubts about the authenticity of the story.

Even billionaire Howard Hughes got into the act as he planned to build a love nest on the peak behind the landmark in 1940 for actress Ginger Rogers, to whom he was engaged at the time, but she was uninterested in spending her life secluded away with the eccentric.

Braudy himself lives near Griffith Park, only a short distance from the sign. “As I walk in the neighborhood, tourists from all over the world stop and ask me about the sign and how to get closer to it.”

In 2008, the 138 acres above and to the left of the sign were put on the market for $22 million. If used for luxury housing, that could materially affect the view of the sign.  

The Trust for Public Land has been raising money to purchase the land to save the view for posterity. The option to buy for the group was set at $12.5 million by the Chicago-based commercial developer that has owned the property since 2002.

So far the group, celebrities and private donors have raised $11 million. The remaining sum needs to be raised by April 30.

Will a shining knight ride in and save the day? This would be a true Hollywood ending, according to Braudy: “I think someone should come in at the last minute like the Cavalry in a western and keep the view of the Hollywood Sign pure.”