It’s surely the most famous billboard in the world. And sometime around now it celebrates its 97th birthday.
Nobody is quite sure when the landmark Hollywood sign on a hill above the famed movie capital of the world came into being, but it could be that it was sometime around now.
For many years the sign was believed to have been inaugurated on 13 July 1923. The date has been widely reported in the media and even illustrious Time magazine – a publication not given to many mistakes – gave this date as the official birthday until the Hollywood Sign Trust stepped in and said the exact timing of construction in 1923 cannot be verified.
Not the first Hollywood star to be liberal with a birth date
But age has always been a dirty word in Hollywood and the sign wouldn’t be the first celebrity to be ‘liberal’ with their true age and birthday!
However, we do know that 1923 is the correct year and many believe the 13th of July wasn’t something conjured from out of the blue, so a 97th birthday is definitely in the offing soon.
Like tinseltown itself, the 13.7m-high sign has a chequered but exciting past.
It was originally a billboard for a real estate development
It began life as a billboard for an upmarket real estate development named Hollywoodland. At the time, the developers forked out the then large sum of US$21 000 to have it put up in a prominent spot overlooking the city of Los Angeles.
The aim was to leave it up for around 12-18 months until the properties were all sold. But instead it became a permanent fixture.
The ‘land’ part of the name was dispensed with in the 1940s. By then the sign was unmaintained and in a state of disrepair. At one point the ‘H’ fell over and it became ‘Ollywood’.
There was another unplanned name change in the 1970s when a group of university students, presumably high on a stash of woopy weed, vandalised the sign so that it would read ‘Hollyweed’.
Hugh Hefner helped to create a new landmark
Finally, in August 1978, the old landmark was demolished and the hillside stood bare until a newer, better-built sign could be erected.
High Hefner, he of Playboy fame, held a fun-raising event at the illustrious Playboy Mansion to raise the money for the new project.
Wealthy celebrity guests were asked to pay US$27 000 each to sponsor a letter. Among the takers were rock star Alice Cooper and Gene Autrey, who had an illustrious career as The Singing Cowboy in the 1930s-1960s.
Facelift for the 90th birthday and another for the 100th?
And, like all of Hollywood, the sign has had a facelift. This was to mark its 90th birthday, when US-based paint manufacturing giant Sherwin-Williams scraped off the old paint and gave the sign a new glow by applying nearly 1 000 litres of acrylic latex paint.
No doubt there will be an epic facelift of Cher-like proportions for the grand old sign’s 100th birthday in 2023.