Hollywood Gets a Face Lift

Nestled adjacent to the city communication towers. Photo by Carol Littleton.

Now that the Sherwin-Williams Company has completed its painting of the HOLLYWOOD sign on Mt. Lee, it glows as never before. The final touch was the application of its High Reflective White paint, (SW 7757, according to the promos).

The “makeover” began in early October with a thorough hand stripping of up to five coats of old paint, followed by a power wash to clean the corrugated metal base. An anti-corrosion primer was then applied, followed by two coats of the Emerald Exterior high reflective paint. That same process is being done to the sign’s backside, which has been subjected to decades of graffiti and tagging. It is estimated that this restoration will require 110 gallons of primer and over 275 gallons of white paint.

Workers scraping off old paint. Oct. 2012. Photos by Alex Pitt and Duff Ferguson.

Stripping the first L, Oct. 2012.

This effort, however, is only the latest chapter in a near 90-year saga of the sign’s ongoing struggle to survive nature’s (and man’s) ravages.

When the HOLLYWOODLAND sign was dedicated on July 13, 1923 it was expected to last only 18 months as a promotion for a new real estate development in Beachwood Canyon. The letters, each 45 feet high, were anchored by wooden telephone poles. All materials were hauled to the site by pack mule. This included some 4,000 20 watt light bulbs that at night blinked “Holly” “Wood” “Land” before a full display of the 450 ft. long name.

Spray painting from the scaffold.

In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce contracted with the Parks Dept. of the City of Los Angeles to rebuild the sign, with the condition that the LAND element be removed. Thus, the sign became an internationally recognized logo for the city and for the motion picture industry. By then, the sign had witnessed significant human trauma—from a suicide leap atop the letter H by the actress Peg Entwistle on September 16, 1933, (her terse note reading, “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.)— to the outright destruction of the same letter in the early 40s by its official caretaker, Albert Kothe. Driving on the road above the sign while drunk, Kothe lost control of his Ford Model A and took out Ms. Entwistle’s death perch. The car was totaled but, typically, its drunk driver was not injured.

Headshot of Peg Entwistle.

The sign’s deteriorating state reached its nadir in 1978. By then, the initial O looked more like a U and the final O had virtually collapsed. Its 55-year career seemed to be over, one of the longer runs of any Hollywood celebrity.

“Hullywod” in 1978.

But two unlikely heroes emerged to not only repair the sign, but to completely rebuild it, this time out of steel, in a full-scale “remake” of the original. These two unlikely bedfellows were Playboy founder Hugh Heffner and rocker Alice Cooper, sans snake. Seven more donors each contributed $27, 777 to restore one of the nine letters. Hefner chose the H; Cooper chose the demolished O, dedicated in the name of his friend, Groucho Marx who had died the year before

The sign has undergone several minor cosmetic redos since then, including a 1995 paint job with Sherwin-Williams rival, Dutch Boy paints. It will be interesting to see if the latest makeover lasts longer.

So much for the history and the physical details of the sign. More than anything else, though, the HOLLYWOOD sign is a kind of societal meme. It represents not just the symbol of the film industry, but it is a beacon, a kind of light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s pier, that draws people from around the world. For the residents of Beachwood Canyon, however, the traffic up to the sign is a curse that constantly clogs their streets.

A brief history of the Hollywood sign and its lore, including some archival film footage, is included in a two-part video produced by Hope Anderson; it includes a spooky re-creation of Peg Entwistle’s last role—as a jumper:

Part two opens with a slight overlap of the final seconds of part one. It has compelling footage of the dismantling and rebuilding of the sign in late 1978. An oddly inappropriate comparison of the sign to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. trivializes both icons. The clip ends with actor Bill Pullman narrating a montage of visitor “photo ops.”

A highly regarded history of the sign and its significance as metaphor for the world of movies is Leo Braudy’s compact study The Hollywood Sign.

Amazon.com—The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon

When I’m on location filming, and crewmembers ask me where I live, I say “Hollywood.” “Really?”  Yes, I live in an area called the Los Feliz Oaks in the hills above the American Film Institute—halfway between the Griffith Observatory (site of an iconic scene from Rebel Without a Cause) and the Hollywood sign. I see the sign every day as I return home from the flats of downtown Hollywood. Looking north from almost anywhere in Hollywood, you see it, as you also do on a clear day on the approach to LAX if you are at a window seat on the right side of the plane.

I did film the sign at night once, with an array of Xenon lights—for a TV documentary logo. It was in the early 70s before the final O had collapsed.

But for all of us who actually live in Hollywood, it is a daily visual clarion to the city of dreams and hopes, of myths and illusions—that Carol and I call HOME.

Sign in the sun, Summer, 2012. Photo by Carol Littleton.

Here is a newly posted time lapse video of the recently completed “facelift.”


NEXT: A two part essay “A Century Ago: Films of 1912” at the Academy’s Dunn Theater.

About John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey’s cinematography career encompasses such mainstream Hollywood films as Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, Groundhog Day, In the Line of Fire, As Good as It Gets and A Walk in the Woods, and such offbeat fare as Tough Guys Don’t Dance, That Championship Season, Swimming to Cambodia, A Brief History of Time and The Kid Stays in the Picture. He lives in Los Angeles and New York.


  1. TK Cambridge

    “The sign has undergone several minor cosmetic redos since then, including a 1995 paint job with Sherwin-Williams rival, Dutch Boy paints. It will be interesting to see if the latest makeover lasts longer”

    I think because I’m a former paint guy, this interests me as well. However 17 years is a pretty long time to last in the California sun, so I don’t think to many brands are going to do much better.

    In response to Howards comment above, it has nothing to do with living in the UK or ‘health & safety’ when painting outside a respirator isn’t really necessary, as the area is already well ventilated.

    I still love reading anything about the Hollywood sign, it’s lik ein brings out the kid in us all.

  2. Matthias


    I have only been living in Los Angeles since the summer of 2011 but I am still in awe of the sign’s iconography and historical legacy. Thank you for offering such an informative take on the restoration process.

    The sign’s history is also prominently featured on the PARAMOUNT studio tour, interestingly. It still functions as a signifier of Hollywood tourism.

  3. Richard Walden

    The Hollywood sign is indeed an Icon and it certainly inspired me the first time I ever saw it and it continues to do so, but its preservation reminds me of several iconic signs particular to the movie industry that have slipped away without much notice. At the north end of Motor Ave & Pico Blvd “TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX FILM CORPORATION” was proclaimed in large gilded letters across the back of one of the sound stages, at the south end of Motor Ave where it meets Washington Blvd was the enormous “METRO GOLDWYN MAYER STUDIOS” sign with Leo proudly roaring atop the tallest stage at that historic studio. In Hollywood there was “TECHNICOLOR” in large colorful letters above the Romaine Street headquarters. These corporate signs represented Artistry, Craftsmanship & Technology and I feel it’s rather sad that these historic signs most likely ended up in a scrap yard in the north San Fernando Valley rather than preserved for their historic value. If anyone out there knows differently please let me know.

    JOHN’S REPLY: Richard, at least we still have “Musso & Frank Grill” and its neon banner “Since 1919 Oldest in Hollywood.” And it’s still closed Mondays.

    1. Pete Kuttner

      Soon after I read “Hollywood Gets a Face Lift”, I saw the new film “Argo”, in which the Hollywood sign is seen through the airplane window over Ben Affleck playing a CIA operative working on the Iranian hostage crisis. He is arriving from Washington DC. The then-dilapidated sign [it is 1979] tells us the movie will be as much about Hollywood as it is about DC, Langley and Tehran, Iran. That shot made me wonder how often the sign played itself in movies.

      My own favorites:
      “The Day of the Locust”, photographed in 1975 by Conrad Hall ASC. is one of the best novels-into-films I know. A tour guide tells the story of a failed actress who commits suicide by jumping off the “H”. Although a dark satire of Hollywood, the novelist Nathanel West doesn’t exaggerate much in this scene. He bases it on the real incident John mentions in his blog.

      “Chaplin”, photographed in 1992 by Sven Nykvist ASC, shows Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks pissing on the base of the sign. True or not, it’s a great image.

      “The Rocketeer”, photographed by Hiro Narita ASC in 1991, explains what happened to the original “Hollywoodland” sign. Timothy Dalton plays an Errol Flynn type who is a Nazi spy. While flying around with a jet pack on his back, he crashes into the Hollywoodland sign, shortening it to Hollywood.

      As with pretty much all my thoughts, I wasn’t the first to wonder about the Hollywood sign’s appearances in the movies. See these websites for more:

      Then another hackneyed thought came to mind. Cities around the world have their own Hollywood signs: New York’s Statue of Liberty , San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Paris’ Eiffel Tower, London’s Big Ben. Cairo’s Pyramids. Until recently, filming Chicago meant setting up on the south bank of the Chicago River across Michigan Ave from the site the Fort Dearborn Massacre of 1812 when the indigenous Potawatamis decided they wanted their land back. Shooting west up the river, the gothic [for its politics?] Tribune Tower and white terra cotta-glazed Wrigley Building are on the right. On the left, London Guarantee building where the London House was, a jazz club where greats like Coleman Hawkins, Sarah Vaughn, Oscar Peterson, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa recorded live albums. The building is topped by a beaux-arts dome on columns which was easily lifted off and smashed to the street 22 floors below by the evil Megatron in “Transformers 3” photographed by Amir Mokri in 2010. Just off the cross-hairs you’d find the Marina Towers twin corn cobs from which Steve McQueen and his car took 10-story divein “The Hunter” while Fred Koenenkamp ASC photographed in 1979. Near the top of the frame, the river splits into the North and South Branches. Before 1900 both ran together into Lake Michigan. To keep the growing industry up river, famously including the Chicago Stock Yards, locks were built at the mouth of the river to keep the polluted water from running into the lake, the source of the city’s drinking water. The river’s flow was reversed and remains so today. We framed that shot so many times over the years, I think you could find it by the three holes in the concrete made by the points of a tripod.

      But with the opening of Millennium Park in 2004 with a Frank Ghery-designed bandshell, Crown Fountain, two LED towers on which 50′ high digital video portraits pucker and spit real water, comes the new Hollywood favorite: “Cloud Gate” aka “The Bean” – a three-story steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor..

      Since its unveiling, “The Bean” has been photographed by a number of ASC cinematographers, including Phaedon Papamichael, Alar Kivilo, Don Burgess and Rogier Stoffers as well as Peter Bijou and Eric Edwards for their respective films “The Weather Man”, “The Lake House”, “The Source”, “The Vow”, “Derailed” and “The Break-Up”.

      Finally, not to be outdone by Musso & Frank, Chicago’s Berghoff Restaurant, established 1898, still stands under its neon sign.Berghoff’s is open Mondays.

      JOHN’S REPLY: Pete, thanks for the past and current movie tour of Chicago landmarks. During the 80s, I also photographed several films in and around Chicago– before Toronto became a usurper and cheaper stand-in for almost every major American city. NO place looks like Chicago– the capital of American architecture. There are just so many iconic views of the city– and let’s not forget the “El.”

  4. howard

    maybe I’m living in the UK too long where they take ‘health & safety’ just a bit too seriously, but I am surprised that those guys aren’t wearing respirators, certainly while they’re spray painting!
    Oh, great article! 🙂


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