Hollywood Sign Truth and Fiction, Part I
September 6, 2011 § 1 Comment
For a monument popularly known as “our Eiffel Tower,” the Hollywood Sign is the object of a surprising amount of misinformation, as well as outright lies. The Internet, of course, has been a great transmitter of these untruths. I’m not just talking about random erroneous posts, such as some of those by viewers of my YouTube channel (which I correct), but official sources. For example, Chris Baumgart, Chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust, told me in our 2006 interview that the current Hollywood Sign was a replica of the old one in every aspect but one–the height of the letters, which he said were five feet shorter than the originals. Though it sounded logical, it wasn’t true. My later interview with Raiden Peterson, who supervised the Sign’s reconstruction for Pacific Outdoor Electric, confirmed that the new letters were exact replicas of the old, standing 45 feet. ”I measured every piece,” Peterson said.
No aspect of the Sign’s history inspires more misinformation than the actress Peg Entwistle’s suicide from it in 1932. I could–and will–devote an entire article to the plethora of fantasies, half-truths and lies about her life and death, but here’s one glaring example: that she chose the Sign to convey her failure to “make it” in Hollywood. Absolutely not! Readers of this blog will remember that in 1932 the Sign read “Hollywoodland,” and was a lighted billboard for the new hillside tract that lay below it. The Sign symbolized nothing more than advertising for housing lots, which at the time were still abundant.
The reasons Peg Entwistle chose to jump from the Hollywoodland Sign are numerous, and none have to do with show business symbolism. The facts are these: The Sign was less than an hour’s walk from her house on Beachwood Drive. Peg knew how to climb up to it because, according to her brother Milt, she had done it previously, during the day, with her brothers. She wouldn’t attract attention by walking toward the Sign that evening, not only because people commonly walked but because there were few houses along the route, and none near the top. She also knew the lights on the Sign would guide her as it got dark. Most significantly, she knew that the Sign’s height would ensure she wouldn’t survive the jump.
While the Hollywood Sign (minus the “land”) eventually did come to evoke the entertainment industry, and Peg Entwistle’s suicide probably contributed to that connection, the symbolism that surrounds the Sign today simply didn’t exist in 1932. The truth is that Peg Entwistle was a depressed and talented young actress who got trapped in Hollywood by the Great Depression. Without a convenient place to end it all, she probably would have emerged from her suicidal jag and gone on–as her fan Bette Davis often said–to a great career. But the Sign, with its flashing lights, was an irresistible lure, and there was no one to stop her. Those who would like to see the Hollywood Sign lit again should consider this tragic aspect of its history.