Remembering the Bel Air Fire of 1961 as the Skirball Fire Rages

December 7, 2017 § 2 Comments


Roscomare Road, Bel Air, During the 1961 Fire, courtesy LA Times Archive

Waking to the news that the Sepulveda Pass was burning yesterday, I immediately thought of the last major wildfire to hit the area. On November 5th, 1961, the Bel Air Fire raced through the Hollywood Hills, burning 16,000 acres and destroying 484 houses. Though there were no fatalities, it was the largest fire to strike the City of Los Angeles, unrivaled until the current one began late Tuesday night.

The Bel Air and Skirball Fires began in similar conditions: fires from ignited brush were spread by Santa Ana winds at the end of an unusually long dry season. Without measurable precipitation or humidity, both catastrophes progressed quickly, flames racing from canyon to canyon along the ridge line of the Santa Monica mountains.

In Beachwood Canyon, the 1961 fire claimed 17 houses, including that of the writer Aldous Huxley and his wife Laura. When I interviewed Laura Archera Huxley in 2007, she vividly remembered being mesmerized by the flames near their house on Deronda Drive. Unable to grasp the urgency of the situation, she and Aldous waited too long to evacuate and lost nearly all their possessions as well as their home.

The Skirball Fire is being blown west instead of east, so Beachwood Canyon isn’t in danger from it. But bone dry conditions combined with tourists who smoke with impunity near the Hollywood Sign puts those of us who live here in constant jeopardy. When I learned that firefighters from our area were being deployed to fight the Skirball Fire, I started packing my bags.

Twenty-four hours later, the situation seems to be improving. But until this winter’s rains begin, fire danger remains, as does our fear. Visitors who ignore Beachwood Canyon’s No Smoking signs should know that all it takes is a single flick of a cigarette to destroy homes and lives. For those who don’t care, there’s a hefty fine for smoking. Let’s hope the City enforces it.

Related articles:


Remembering Hugh Hefner

September 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

Hugh Hefner and Me, Post-Interview/Hope Anderson Productions

My first and only meeting with Hugh Hefner, who died yesterday at 91, took place in 2008, when I interviewed him for my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign.” Our meeting took place at the Playboy Mansion, in a room that was permanently lit and dressed for filming. It was an afternoon of rules and rituals: after announcing myself at the hidden intercom outside the gate (“talk to the rock,” in “Entourage” parlance) I was instructed to stand with my crew in the courtyard until the PR rep admitted us. Peacocks wandered by as we waited, and noises from unseen animals eminated from the zoo. Once we were inside and set up, Hugh Hefner appeared in his trademark silk smoking jacket. He sat down in a throne-like chair and the interview began.

It was a strange, yet not entirely unfamiliar, experience. At fifteen, I toured Buckingham Palace with my family, a visit made possible by a former employee of my father’s company who was then Keeper of the Privy Purse. After watching the Changing of the Guard from inside the gates, we trooped through the Palace’s public rooms, all of them vast and a hundred years behind the times in their decor. The Playboy Mansion, with its protocol and fusty oak paneled rooms, was the closest I’ve come to revisiting Buckingham Palace, though unlike the Queen, Hugh Hefner was present. He was also gracious. After the interview, I told him that reading my father’s Playboy magazines as a child had given me an excellent sex education, which didn’t surprise him in the least. We posed for a picture, he exited and I was soon outside the gates again, in the real world.

“Under the Hollywood Sign” is available on DVD and streaming at

Related article:

Remembering Hargobind Singh

September 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

Hargobind Singh, Tour Guide/Hope Anderson Productions

Six years ago I wrote about Hargobind Singh, whom I met outside my house one day while he was leading a walking tour of the neighborhood.

In the years since our interview, Hargobind married, closed his business and moved with his wife Dalveer to New York. Soon afterwards, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. The last time I saw him was in 2015, during a visit to Los Angeles while he was in remission. More surgeries followed, and today he came to the end of his life after a brave two-and-a-half year battle.

Though he became a New Yorker, I will always think of Hargobind in Hollywoodland, a place he loved. In addition to local history, he learned about the wildlife and was able to identify birds by their calls. He led so many people up the Hollywoodland stairs that he grew noticeably thinner and more muscular, yet he was always respectful of us residents. I was lucky to be among his and Dalveer’s friends, a group that spans the world and today remembers him fondly.

The Hollyweed Sign and Its Predecessor

January 3, 2017 § 1 Comment

The Hollywood Sign on January 1, 2017/Courtesy LA Times

The Hollywood Sign on January 1, 2017/Courtesy LA Times

Because I was out of town on New Year’s Day, I missed seeing the Hollywood Sign transformed to read “Hollyweed.” Nevertheless, I heard about it from neighbors as soon as I woke up, and shortly afterwards from every imaginable news outlet . While I was surprised that the prankster got away with it, the prank itself wasn’t new, as I knew from making my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign.”* On New Year’s Day, 1976, less than two years before the completion of the current Sign, a prankster named Daniel Finegood did exactly the same thing to the orignal Hollywood Sign. Here’s a photo:

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

At the time of the first prank, the Sign was a crumbling, unguarded relic that anyone willing to climb to could access. Today, the rebuilt Sign is fenced, alarmed and off-limits to visitors without official permits. (Disclosure: I have filmed there twice, both times with permission.) Because the Sign stands below a militarized emergency communications center, trespassers are subject to arrest–or so the City claims. That whoever who transformed the Sign was able to escape notice, let alone arrest, is proof that the Sign’s alarm system failed or went unheeded. One wonders whether terrorists have taken note.

The Hollyweed incident capped off a particularly frenetic holiday week, when thousands of tourists walking in the street (itself a crime) on the sidewalk-less part of Beachwood Drive endangered themselves and trapped residents in and out of their homes. Beyond the gridlock, there’s everything that comes with uncontrolled crowds: trash, public urination, defecation and sex, trespassing, illegal parking, drinking and drug use. The Hollyweed prank was the last straw–and also the event that exposed the lies and double-dealing of Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Councilman David Ryu, who have long promised to enforce the law in Hollywoodland. They haven’t and they don’t, and now it’s indisputable.

*”Under the Hollywood Sign” is available on DVD and as a digital download from

Just Don’t Do It: Penalties Kick In For Hollywood Sign Trespassers

July 4, 2016 § 3 Comments

The Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

The Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

People who climb to the Hollywood Sign are fully aware they are trespassing: there are Do Not Enter Signs on the way up, as well as a gate. The Sign itself is equipped with sensors and loudspeakers, and police helicopters are deployed at the first sign of a breach. Even those who are at the Sign legally (as I have been on two occasions while filming) will be warned off before their time is up.

However much of a tourist attraction it is, the Hollywood Sign is also a high-security area, and has been for decades. After the September 11th attacks it was designated (along with City Hall, LAX and the Pacific Design Center) a high-risk target for terrorism. Yet in the years since, the consequences for trespassers have been all but nonexistent: climbers to the Sign usually haven’t been arrested, let alone fined, despite the fact that criminal penalties have long been in place.

Probably because former Councilmember Tom LaBonge, a notorious cheerleader for unruly Hollywood Sign tourism, is no longer around to influence law enforcement, things seem to be changing. After a particularly egregious trespasser climbed one of the letters of the Sign in May, he was arrested, jailed overnight and charged with trespass. At the end of June, he pled guilty and was sentenced to the maximum penalties under current law:

One year’s probation
Twenty days of Caltrans labor
$1,000.00 fine, with penalties of up to five times that amount
Restitution to the LAPD and Rec and Parks
A Stay-Away-from-the-Sign Order

The fact that the trespasser was a professional prankster with a large YouTube following might have influenced the judge’s decision in this case. However, Sarah Dusseault, Chief of Staff for Councilmember David Ryu, confirms that Ryu’s office is working with the City Attorney on stiffer penalties for future scofflaws.

Merry Christmas from Under the Hollywood Sign

December 24, 2015 § Leave a comment


The photo above shows California holly (toyon) in bloom in the Hollywood Hills. Some believe this plant inspired the name Hollywood, although it was more likely a random choice by Daeida Wilcox, who met a woman on the cross-country train with a vacation house of that name. You can read more about California holly here:

This is the seventh Christmas for Under the Hollywood Sign. As regular readers know, I began the blog to promote my documentary of the same name. That film, as well as my others, is now on sale at half price (that’s $12.50 for features; $6 for the short) on my website The sale continues through the end of the month; please check it out.

My New Website, and A Holiday Sale on DVDs

December 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

IMG_4113Today I’m launching a new website to showcase my films, books and future projects. In celebration, I’m selling all my DVDs at half price for the rest of the year. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, please support the work that inspired it at

Many thanks to Heath Woodward for building my website.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Hollywood Sign category at Under the Hollywood Sign.