LOS ANGELES — For visitors atop Mount Lee, getting this close to the Hollywood sign is no less an American pilgrimage than visiting the Statue of Liberty.
Kim and Tracy Ellis, sisters from West Sussex, England, said they’ve wanted to see the sign up close for 30 years.
When an engine failed on their flight from London in September, it ended up taking two days and four hotels for them to get here. They said it was worth it.
“This is America for us,” Kim Ellis said.
The Hollywood sign turns 100 on Dec. 8, a date chosen because it was when the sign was first lit up in 1923, the year it was built. But the fact that the letters reached this age, or stature, would have never been imagined when they were first erected as an advertisement for a real estate development.
Historic photo of the Hollywood Sign being built. Photo Credit: Hollywood Sign Trust
The idea was to temporarily get more eyes on homes being built in an area called Hollywoodland, which is what the original 45-foot letters spelled out. One hundred years later, not only are the first nine letters still standing, shortened to Hollywood in 1949, but they make up perhaps the most recognizable sign on the planet.
Jeff Zarrinnam, chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust, called the sign a symbol not only of Los Angeles and California but, echoing the Ellis sisters, of America. In a city with so much to see, the sign is Los Angeles’ most photographed site.
“The Hollywood sign is beloved and represents so many hopes and dreams for people around the world,” Zarrinnam said. “It is our Statue of Liberty.”
The view from behind the Hollywood sign. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill
The sign is located on the very edge of L.A.’s sprawling Griffith Park, and there are several hikes that will take visitors to the point behind the sign where they can congregate for views and photos. Several companies on sites like Viator and GetYourGuide offer guided tours and hikes.
I joined Zarrinnam, a hotelier who chairs the trust as a labor of love, on a Tuesday morning in September. Quite a few tourists from around the world had already made their way to the road overlooking the back of the letters, the closest one can get to the sign without illegally hopping a fence, something that has been done in movies. (Often playing a supporting role, the sign has also been destroyed by aliens, swallowed by an earthquake and ripped apart by a tornado.)
Charlotte Barrere, visiting from France, said, “to go to L.A. is to see the sign. It’s very special.”
A family from Florida was no less excited. Maya Sims and Khalida and Kery Clark said the sign was part of a greatest-hits tour of L.A. that included the Walk of Fame, the Santa Monica Pier and Chinatown. “It’s part of history,” Sims said.
Our visit included something that visitors cannot do: Going through a locked door on the fence and using a rope to guide us down a steep embankment, dropping us right by the H. The letters, sparkling white after a makeover last year, were rebuilt in 1978 using the exact dimensions as the original wooden ones, even retaining the “mistake,” as Zarrinnam calls a slightly too-wide gap on the right side of the W.
“They didn’t have computer measurements back then,” he said of the designers in 1923.
Hugh Hefner helped raise money in 1978 to revitalize and rebuild the Hollywood sign. Photo Credit: Hollywood Sign Trust and HollywoodPhotographs.com
By 1978, the sign had fallen into disrepair and had no funding source to rebuild it. Celebrities including Hugh Hefner came to the rescue, throwing fundraising parties and auctioning off the original letters. It was rebuilt with 194 tons of concrete, enamel and steel.
The current trust was established in 1992 with the sole mission of taking care of the sign and the area around it.
Zarrinnam said the nonprofit doesn’t use a cent of taxpayer money and is supported with donations and Hollywood Chamber of Commerce funding.
Despite its significance, celebrating the sign’s centennial has been tricky. Zarrinnam said it is being marked by people telling stories about the sign and publicizing the milestone. While there is hope that the celebration will include lighting the sign — something that happens only rarely, such as during the unveiling of the 1978 rebuild, the 1984 Olympics and to mark the start of the millennium in 2000 — in mid-November it was a topic of debate, with backlash from locals in the nearby Hollywoodland neighborhood.
Hollywood sign visitors. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill
Much of its celebration has been driven by the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, which has been promoting the centennial all year.
Adam Burke, L.A. Tourism’s CEO, called the sign “L.A.’s biggest star” and was on hand in late October when the City Council declared Oct. 31 Hollywood Sign Day.
“The Hollywood sign is a true global icon, embodying the spirit of endless possibility that Los Angeles is known for,” Burke said. “It provides a red-carpet welcome for visitors from around the globe.”