LOS ANGELES – We’re standing at the foot of a global landmark that many want to visit but where few are allowed to go.
There are the pyramids in Egypt, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Statue of Liberty in New York. And then there’s the Hollywood sign, which has loomed over the world’s movie capital since 1923.
The sign was built to promote the Hollywoodland real estate development in the steep hills above Los Angeles, but in later years – after “land” was removed – the icon became a celebration of LA’s glitziest community.
It’s not just a sign, it’s a symbol of the power of storytelling and the pursuit of the American dream.
“That’s why it’s so important for us to preserve it,” said Jeff Zarrinnam, chair of the Hollywood Sign Trust, the nonprofit that oversees the sign. “We’re not really preserving the Hollywood sign, we’re preserving the hopes and dreams of the people.”
The draw of the sign is undeniable. People want to be near it, they want to take a photo of it, or want to hike in and touch it. But getting close is a process, and no direct contact with the sign is allowed.
Hikers can venture to the crest of the hill above the sign, but can’t get within touching distance. A Cronkite News reporter and photographer, however, were allowed and up-close-and-personal visit by the nonprofit trust.
To get there, we were allowed special access via a gated community on a hilltop above the sign. After driving through a maze of residential streets, we reached a trailhead.
From there, we hiked a few minutes down a steep embankment holding onto a rope to try to keep our footing. We took several spills, ending up covered in dirt.
It was worth the effort. It didn’t feel real standing there being so near to the sign, so close we could touch it.
We’d seen it in movies and from a distance. Never did we imagine being able to stand at the foot of the letters, peer up to the top and see the metal beams that hold it all up.
For the painting and touchup crew, the experience was less about awe and more about getting the job done.
The work began last month with a crew of 10 from Duggan & Associates, a commercial painting company. The crew was prepping and painting the 45-foot letters, a more painstaking endeavor than it might seem, considering the sign is on a steep slope of Mount Lee.
“It takes about a week to do two letters,” Zarrinnam said.
The process is estimated to take up to eight weeks. The painters have to haul all their equipment up and down the hill. It takes a day to set up the scaffolding, which can raise and lower like those used by window washers.
The crew paints for four days a week, and on the fourth day, they dismantle the scaffolding and move it to the next letter, Zarrinnam said.
For Zarrinnam, the Hollywood sign is personal.
“My mother was from Germany,” he said. “She didn’t see her first movie until she was 16. And when she first saw her first movie, it was a Hollywood movie. And she was like, ‘Wow.’
“That kind of inspired her because Germany was bombed out in those years, and she wanted a better life.”
The real-estate sign was shortened to Hollywood by the chamber of commerce in 1949.
By 1978, the sign was a wreck, its letters faded and at least two of them, the D and the third O, had collapsed down the side of Mount Lee, according to a 2012 account by the LAist and the sign trust.
Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner helped raise funds to rebuild it, including having celebrities sponsor letters for $27,700 each. Rocker Alice Cooper, who has strong roots in Phoenix, and cowboy film star Gene Autry were among those who bought letters, according to the trust.
The latest refurbishment project is scheduled to end in November. The sign will be painted in High Reflective White SW 7757, described as an ultra-durable white acrylic paint that protects against ultraviolet rays and weather. The paint also has a self-cleaning technology that sheds dirt when it rains.
“A lot of people don’t realize that UV is a pretty destructive force from the sun, and it breaks down the paint over the years,” Zarrinnam said.
People will break the law, tempting injury on the steep hillside by trying to get to the sign. There has been at least one suicide, a true Hollywood tragedy at that: In 1932, stage actress Peg Entwistle, having seen her dreams of tinseltown stardom crumble, climbed a workman’s ladder to the top of the H and lept to her death.
And then there are the pranksters. One group changed the sign to Hollyweed in 2017, a nod to California’s burgeoning marijuana culture. Last year, another bunch made it Hollyboob, not necessarily a reference to the state’s porn industry but rather what one activist said a unique way to protest the suspension of her Instagram account.
The movies haven’t treated the icon well, although the actual sign was never harmed. For instance, in the campy 2013 TV spoof “Sharknado,” a whirlwind obliterates the sign. One letter crushes an aspiring actor just after he says, “My mother always told me Hollywood would kill me,” according to the trust.
Needless to say, the area is constantly patrolled. A Los Angeles Police Department helicopter circles the sign every night, casting its searchlight beam over each letter to catch vandals.
On the day Cronkite News visited, LAPD Officer Paul Jordan was posted at the foot of the sign. Even if he hadn’t been there, he said, intruders would have been apprehended.
“We have things to detect trespassers,” said Jordan, who is assigned to the LAPD’s Hollywood Division. “We have surveillance cameras and infrared. So it’s not as big a problem as you would think. Usually when someone does get anywhere near the sign, they get caught.”
Jordan understands the sign’s emotional appeal. He recalls a men’s choir visiting from Nigeria that hiked in and was allowed a closeup look.
“They were all in tears,” Jordan recalled. “They couldn’t believe that they were here. These were sacred, hallowed grounds, a place that they never thought in their wildest dreams growing up in Africa that they would ever land at the feet of the Hollywood sign.”
Zarrinnam gets it.
“I don’t think there’s a person in LA or on the planet that doesn’t know where the Hollywood sign is, or what the Hollywood sign is, or what it means to them,” he said.
“Everybody has seen a Hollywood movie, they all have their favorite Hollywood.”