The word “Hollywood” stands on Mount Lee, each white letter standing 45 feet (13.7 meters) in height. The sign has become a symbol of both the actual Los Angeles neighborhood it looms over, as well as the entertainment industry in general. Its origins, however, are far less glamorous. The sign originally read “Hollywoodland” upon its construction in 1923, back when it meant to be a temporary advertisement for a never-realized real estate development. Yet as the film industry grew, the sign surged in popularity, managing to remain far past its take-down date. The sign lost its last four letters in 1949, officially becoming a symbol of the city.
However, by the 1970s, the sign had fallen into disrepair. Hugh Hefner campaigned for its restoration, resulting in nine donors—one for each letter of the sign—each offering up $27,777.77 for a total of $250,000. As such, each donor essentially sponsored a letter. Hefner’s letter was the “Y.” Warner Bros. Records took the second-to-last “O,” while rock star Alice Cooper’s letter is the final “O.”
Hefner came to the sign’s aid again in 2010. Howard Hughes, at one point in time, owned the land surrounding the sign. He had intended to build a mansion there for actress Ginger Rogers, but that mansion never manifested. Hughes died in 1976, and in 2002, his estate sold 138 acres of land near the sign to a Chicago development company. They wanted to put luxury homes on the land; this drew the ire of preservations, but the Trust of Public Land—a nonprofit dedicated to protecting public lands and parks—was able to work out a deal to buy the land from them for $12.5 million. A campaign solicited donations, and Hefner donated the final $900,000 required to reach that goal. The land is now a part of Griffith Park and safe from development.
At the time, Hefner told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s like saying let’s build a house in the middle of Yellowstone Park. There are some things that are more important. The Hollywood sign represents the dreams of millions. It’s a symbol. It is as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. It represents the movies.”