What Does That Sign Say?

Mar 5, 2016


Illustrated Endpapers – Hollywoodland from Lily of the Valley by Xianna Michaels

When you open up my new book, Lily of the Valley—An American Jewish Journey, the first thing you see are the endpapers, or fly sheets. As with all hard covered books, these are the folded sheets with one half glued to the inside of the front cover and the other forming the first free page of the book. The back endpapers do the same in reverse. Sometimes these are simply blank, or solid-colored, or they may be decorated with recurring patterns or old maps or artwork.

I love to hand-illustrate my endpapers with a fountain pen. My first book, Mindel and the Misfit Dragons, depicts scenes from a medieval landscape. My new book, Lily of the Valley, shows a melange of images from the old-time San Fernando Valley, from the horse and cart and the old adobe on the left to the roadster on the right. That car is driving on a roadway lined with the bell markers identifying it as El Camino Real, the original trail of Spanish missions, later known as the 101 Freeway and Ventura Boulevard.

Illustrated Endpaper Right – Hollywoodland from Lily of the Valley by Xianna Michaels


You can see all of that on the endpapers, but what really seems to draw everyone’s eye is the iconic sign embedded in the hills leading to the Valley. That sign with its huge white capital letters, recognized all over the country, dare I say the world… That sign that defines a region and that to this day everyone driving up the freeway toward the Valley can see… That sign that says… HOLLYWOODLAND???

Wait, no, it doesn’t. Surely the sign says HOLLYWOOD, doesn’t it? Hollywood, as in the place where stars are born and movies are made that reverberate round the world and down through the generations. Did the artist (in this case yours truly) make a mistake? What’s the story here?

Well, it turns out there is a story, and a fun bit of LA history at that. The sign was originally erected in 1923 as an advertisement for—wait for it—a local real estate development! The sign did indeed read “HOLLYWOODLAND” and referred to a new housing development in the hills above the Hollywood district of Los Angeles. Each wooden letter was 30 feet wide and 50 feet high, and was studded with light bulbs. It would flash in segments of “HOLLY”, “WOOD” and “LAND” and then the whole thing would light up.

It was originally intended to remain up for a year and a half. But this was the beginning of the rise of American cinema in Los Angeles, and the sign came to symbolize the burgeoning new industry and was left there. It deteriorated over time, however. And in the early 1940’s the sign’s official caretaker, driving while intoxicated, drove off the cliff behind the letter “H”. While he escaped injury, his 1928 Ford and the poor letter “H” did not. In 1949 the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the City of LA Parks Department repaired and rebuilt the sign. The letters “LAND” were removed, so the sign would reflect the district rather than a housing development. And they scuttled the light bulbs due to cost. This new iteration lasted till the 1970’s, but as it was built of wood and sheet metal, it, too, became sadly bedraggled with time.

Interestingly, it was Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, who spearheaded a public campaign in 1978 to have the sign replaced with a more permanent structure. Nine donors gave $27,777.77 each to sponsor replacement letters, which were made of steel supported by steel columns on a concrete structure. Among the donors were Hefner himself, Gene Autry, Andy Williams and Alice Cooper. The new letters were 45 feet tall and between 31 and 39 feet wide. The new sign with its nine letters spelling “HOLLYWOOD” was unveiled in November 1978 and was refurbished and repainted white in 2005.

As a sign of the times (no pun intended), residents in the neighborhoods around the sign complain of all the traffic congestion caused by tourist buses, vans and cars clogging the curving hillside roads, filled with people hoping to glimpse the iconic letters up close. The locals apparently post “Tourist Go Away” signs and the Hollywood Sign Trust has convinced various online mapping services to direct people to viewing platforms such as the Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood and Highland Center. The sign is actually located on steep terrain and there are now barriers to prevent unauthorized access as well as a security system surrounding the letters.

So to all those with a burning desire to view this iconic piece of local history, may I offer a suggestion? There is truly no need to disturb the residents. Just take a ride on the Hollywood Freeway (known as US Route 101 until it becomes the 170 in the Valley), from downtown LA or the Hollywood area itself north toward the San Fernando Valley. On any given day the traffic is so bad that you have all the time in the world to gaze in awe at the iconic sign that symbolizes the Dream Factory.

Meanwhile, back to the endpapers of Lily of the Valley, does anyone want to guess whose house is tucked on the upper right hand side, surrounded by palm trees and utterly at home in the Valley? Hint: It dates from 1929, when the sign did, indeed, read “HOLLYWOODLAND.”

Illustrated Endpaper Left – Hollywoodland from Lily of the Valley by Xianna Michaels