The Hollywood Sign and the Eiffel Tower: Monuments to Modernity, With Differences

October 25, 2011 § 3 Comments

The Eiffel Tower on 10/10/11/Except where noted, all photos by Hope Anderson Productions

The monument that is mentioned most frequently in conversations about the Hollywood Sign is the Eiffel Tower, and for good reason. Both became icons by accident, having been conceived as temporary structures, and grew to represent the cities in which they are located. Both were built during the Machine Age and project the dynamism of that era. Finally, both monuments are abstract symbols, allowing their admirers to imbue them with a variety of meanings. Just as the Hollywood Sign can symbolize the movie industry,  fame, or its physical location, the Eiffel Tower can embody the Belle Epoque, the City of Paris or a triumph of engineering.   

There are, however, important differences. While Gustave Eiffel’s iron masterpiece wasn’t supposed to be permanent, it certainly looks as if it were built for the ages. An engineering marvel, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world upon its completion in 1889. Its base, particularly the curved spans that support its legs, somehow manages to be both massive and delicate. To stand under it, as I did during a recent visit, is to see a breathtaking array of lacy patterns whose beauty belies their strength. As charming as the Tower is from a distance, it provides an even greater visual thrill a close range.

By contrast, in its original incarnation (1923-1978) the Hollywood Sign wasn’t engineered at all. The letters were anchored from behind by telephone poles, rather than bolted to a foundation. Unsurprisingly, over the years assorted letters were knocked down by windstorms and, in the case of the H, by an out-of-control car driven by  the Sign’s caretaker, Albert Kothe. After the old Sign was torn down in 1978, its replacement–the present-day version–was skillfully engineered. Caissons were sunk into the bedrock, and the new corrugated steel letters were bolted to a heavy steel scaffolding. In its 33-year history, the current Sign has never moved, whether during earthquakes or windstorms, or required any repairs. 

The Present-Day Hollywood Sign Under Construction, 1978/Courtesy Bruce Torrence

Perhaps because both my grandfathers were engineers, I have a great fondness for the back of the Hollywood Sign, where its support structure can be seen. The helicopter pilot on my aerial shoot told me that, to his knowledge, I was the only person who ever shot the back of the Sign.  I also shot the back from the ground at close range, both on video and in still photos.

The front of the Sign is another story. At close range, its corrugated steel resembles nothing more than an industrial fence, and projects the same appeal. The Hollywood Sign can only be appreciated at a distance, where its 45-foot letters can be read.

Which brings me to another difference. The fact that the Hollywood Sign is composed of letters that make up a word sets it apart symbolically from the Eiffel Tower. Though both monuments represent modernity, the Sign’s “wordness” (to quote Leo Braudy) gives it an abstraction that goes beyond any meaning attributed to the Eiffel Tower. By virtue of its height, the Eiffel Tower projects a common message that the Hollywood Sign does not. Which, of course, explains the Sign’s appeal to tourists in search of a photo opportunity. Standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, you’re an ant–albeit one that has traveled to Paris. But in front of the blank white letters of the Hollywood Sign, it’s all about you, the potential Hollywood star.

Coming Soon: A Visit To That Other Monument

October 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Bananas of Beachwood Canyon (and Los Feliz)

October 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

In his superb book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (Plume, 2008), Dan Koeppel explores the science, politics and history of this ubiquitous fruit in a way that can only be described as novelistic. The scope of the story is immense, and Koeppel tells it so compellingly that it has stuck in my mind ever since I finished reading it, ten months ago.

The only mistake in Banana, as far as I can see, is in the author’s biographical note, which reads:

[Koeppel] lives in Los Angeles, a place in whose vicinity nearly every kind of fruit–except bananas–was once grown.

As I told him, it’s not true. Los Angeles is warm enough for bananas, as many backyard gardeners and those at the Bel Air Hotel can attest. But bananas also used to be grown commercially–in Beachwood Canyon. Here’s a photo to prove it:

Banana trees at J.B. Rapp's Farm, Gower and Beachwood Drive, circa 1900/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Originally I had thought the photo was of Clausen’s Ranch, located just north of Rapp’s Farm. But Clausen grew citrus, while Rapp specialized in more exotic fare: pineapples, avocados and cherimoyas–and, apparently, bananas.

While Rapp might have been the sole commercial grower of bananas, none other than Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, grew bananas too. Here’s an old postcard of the trees on his estate in Laughlin Park (now Los Feliz):

Otis's Bananas in Laughlin Park/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil, Hollywood 1900-1950 in Vintage Postcards, Arcadia, 2002

As Koeppel writes in Banana, bananas require a frost-free climate in order to produce fruit. Not a problem: in the 6 years I’ve lived in Beachwood, there has been only one frost, a freak event that occurred in early 2006.

The reason we don’t see bananas trees in Hollywood anymore is the same reason we don’t see orange and lemon groves: all the farmland has been given over to buildings. But bananas once grew here; with enough space, they could grow again.

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