‘The Hollywood Sign’ – From real estate sign to American landmark
It is perhaps one of the most recognizable city landmarks in the world, right up there with the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building. The Hollywood sign, that behemoth of white block letters set in a hillside overlooking Sunset Boulevard, is instantly identifiable as a symbol of the hope, fantasy and glamour that is Southern California’s movie industry.
But it wasn’t always so. And how this looming structure – originally erected in 1923 to tout the real estate development Hollywoodland – came to be such a potent icon of movie dreams is examined with wit and historical acuity in “The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon” (Yale University Press, $24).
Author Leo Braudy, a USC English professor and highly regarded critic, brings both a scholar’s acumen and a movie fan’s enthusiasm to this short, pithy book that examines the sign’s checkered history, its myths and misconceptions and its larger place in the pop-culture landscape.
How the sign grew to become a distinct American landmark involves many parallels with the development of the movie industry. Braudy mixes in lots of social history, urban studies, architectural theory, movie business lore and film references to paint a compelling picture. At one time, he notes, the sign fell into neglect and disrepair and was saved by an unlikely group of supporters – including rock star Alice Cooper and publisher Hugh Hefner – who oversaw its restoration in the 1970s.
Braudy readily acknowledges that the Hollywood sign is less imposing as a physical structure than as a metaphorical emblem of all the dreams and fantasies that the movie world represents. “Its essence is almost entirely abstract,” he writes, “at once the quintessence and the mockery of the science of signs itself.”
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