California: Hollywood's biggest facelift

By John Buck

The Hollywood sign, built in 1923, demands attention with 15m-tall letters that have needed repairs over the years. Photo / Thinkstock
The Hollywood sign, built in 1923, demands attention with 15m-tall letters that have needed repairs over the years. Photo / Thinkstock

They come in their thousands to take each other's pictures under the giant Hollywood sign. If you're motoring up Deronda Drive to Los Angeles' Griffith Park, take care not to run over these Hollywoodland pilgrims.

They stand in harm's way right out in the traffic to get a better photo angle, trusting in some sort of magic protection. And given what they're photographing, that's a reasonable expectation.

But it didn't extend to struggling actress Peg Entwhistle, who jumped to her death off one of the 15m-high letters in 1939, the year they stopped maintaining the illuminated sign. It had become a sad and shabby symbol, its 4000 light bulbs all shot out or stolen.

The sign no longer reflected the swanky style it celebrated in 1924, when it was built to tell the world that Hollywoodland was where dreams came true.

For 10 years, Tinseltown got on with making movies without its most famous label.

However, the sign proved to be too powerful to ignore, and in 1949 it had a long-overdue facelift, as all good famous faces do in this town. This time, "land" was dropped off the end.

The trouble with facelifts is that they need repeating. By 1978, the termites got into the woodwork, the letter O rolled down the hillside and, in a city where appearance is everything, the sign brought Angelenos more shame than fame.

So the neighbours got together and, led by luminaries such as Hugh Hefner, raised the money ($27,000 a letter) to restore the sign, helped by Andy Williams, Gene Autry and Alice Cooper.

Wherever you go in the eastern end of this city, the sign demands attention, even as it's being repainted yet again. In the midst of Griffith Park's 1600 empty hectares, the sign looms close up, drawing you to its summit setting. From there you look down on the much vaunted and vaulted Forest Lawn Cemetery, where the stars make their last appearances above ground.

Every morning of our month-long visit, we walked the trails under the sign in the company of Los Angeleons of every shape and colour. They are a mixed bag of walkers, offering either cautious good mornings or far-away stares.

But they're well dressed and equipped. The T-shirts carry defiant messages - "Let's do it", "All the way", "Everything is beautiful" and, most popular, "I ran to the Sign". Their shoes are sprung, colour-coded and elaborately laced, and the drinking equipment is hi-tech, piped, harnessed and big enough to irrigate a body for a Coast to Coast run.

Even the dogs carry water bottles. One overweight English bulldog carried a twin pannier of bottles. He looked exhausted. Unlike the energetic and very professional dog-walker we met every morning with 12 pooches in tow, held in check by a maze of leashes that she managed to keep untangled.

She sailed past with the greatest of ease, murmuring directions to her charges and leaving a whiff of perfume in her wake. No risk here of disobeying the conspicuous instruction: "Dog defecation must be removed immediately by owner under penalty of law."

The local government culture that rules this land is surprisingly officious for a laidback Californian city. "No trespassing", "no loitering" and warning notices abound. My favourite is "Beware of rattlesnakes and mountain lions". No mention of the whipsnakes, ringnecks and scorpions that also live here. Happily we avoided all these critters, apart from several coyotes slinking about like sly Alsatians with howls like a fire siren.

It's a strange experience for a New Zealander to walk these tracks under the sign. We ought to feel at home in this rural space, empty and silent except for the constant clatter of helicopters overhead, monitoring crime, weather, news, homeland security and freeway traffic.

You walk here not under the shadow but in the light of the Hollywood sign. It's more than a label - it's the promise of a dream that might one day come true, if only you could touch it.

But you can't, of course. The sign is visible everywhere but you can't get near it. High wire fences and a battery of warning notices protect the sign from starry-eyed tourists, vandals and terrorists. Look, but don't touch. Available only on celluloid and electronic image.

That's the Hollywood way.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles.
Further information: For driving directions and tips on a walking trail to the sign, check out hollywoodsigntrip.com.

- NZ Herald

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