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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Hollywood Sign

When we think of icons that represent cities, we think of great works of art or architecture, like the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, or the Roman Colosseum. How odd is it then that the icon that represents the glamorous world of movie-making is a plain, white sign that is the name of the place itself. "The Hollywood sign is a strange sort of icon. It isn't an image that looks like or refers to something called Hollywood; it is the name itself. Yet people everywhere recognize it as the symbol of whatever 'Hollywood' might be--with whatever ambiguity is part of that meaning. The Hollywood sign might therefore seem to be the perfect symbol of modern celebrity, the sign that celebrates itself, spelling out 'Hollywood' for all the world to see.

So writes Leo Braudy in his thoughtful and insightful The Hollywood Sign. It's a slim book, as the history of the sign isn't that long. Mostly it's an essay on how Hollywood came to be a metonym. a name that represented the movie industry worldwide. Indeed, whenever I hear about people in other countries talking about American movies, they usually refer to them as coming from "Hollywood," even if movies are not really made there anymore.

In the beginning, the movie industry was located in the Northeast, where Thomas Edison had his studio in New Jersey (movies were also made in Astoria, Queens, and in Chicago). But soon, after Edison lost the stranglehold he had on the business, men who made movies looked elsewhere, where it was warm and several different kinds of scenery were close by. The town of Hollywood, not much but fruit orchards then, was, at that time, a haven for prohibitionists, who looked down on movie people.

In 1910 the village of Hollywood was annexed by Los Angeles. Movies were made in many different towns around the area, including Glendale and Edendale (Eden--now that is a name for movies!). Eventually Charlie Chaplin built a studio there, the first.

Broudy teases us by making us wait for the first time that "Hollywood" means the movie business itself: "The early 1920s therefore mark the moments when 'Hollywood,' with the newfound respectability as well as the notoriety of the movies as an art and a business, begins to be the local habitation and name for all its aspects, not matter where they might be in reality."

Where does the sign fit in all of this? It was originally an advertisement for a housing subdivision called Hollywoodland, and had the extra four letters. It was meant to be temporary (just like the Eiffel Tower) and little did anyone think it would mean anything. Perhaps one of the first to see it as a metaphor was an actress named Peg Entwhistle, who did a swan dive off the "H," committing suicide in 1932. "Whatever her motivations, she may have been the first to perceive the sign symbolically and make it into a dramatically explicit part of her biography."

The sign fell into disrepair and over the years had to be refurbished. It sits on what is now called Mount Lee, where Mack Sennett once owned land and planned to build a palatial home. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce now maintains it, and in the 1970s a major overhaul was done, with the letters reinforced and anchored to concrete posts firmly set in the ground. A strange combination of benefactors, led by Alice Cooper and Hugh Hefner, were the angels that funded the restoration.

The sign is indelibly linked with the aura of Hollywood, despite its tawdry origins. If a film wants to establish the setting as Los Angeles, it is inevitably shown (the most recent example is The Nice Guys, which opens from behind the sign, in its tattered '70s appearance). I know that on visits to Los Angeles I feel a little frisson of excitement when I see it, as it lets me know I'm really there, and it imparts some kind of magic. My friend Bob and I, on two trips to Hollywood, tried to get as close as we could to the sign (unlike most icons, you are not allowed access to it), driving up steep, winding streets in Beachwood Canyon, much to the dismay of locals.

This is a great book for movie buffs. There are occasional errors--Sessue Hayakawa is referred to as S.I. Hayakawa, who was an academic and politician--but it is comprehensive on the history of the place as well as its state of mind.

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