The Nighttime Magnetism of the Hollywood Sign
November 6, 2010 § 1 Comment
Even unlit, the Hollywood Sign can be seen at night from Hollywoodland, the neighborhood that is its home. The Sign’s whiteness reflects light, whether natural (from the moon) or electric (from the ranger station and communications tower above it). At times it glows, an alabaster sculpture against the dark chaparral. For those who live near it, the Sign is visible day and night, except on those rare rainy days when it’s shrouded in fog.
When I moved to Beachwood five years ago, the Sign was being repainted, and its renewed whiteness struck me as an omen for my new life. On one of my first nights in my house, I was amused to hear a child yelling, “Hello, Hollywood Sign!” outside.
As I soon learned, the Sign affects adults in much the same way: they want to know it, and knowledge demands proximity. Hollywoodlanders who live high in the Canyon report a steady stream of nighttime visitors, particularly in summer. The Sign’s inaccessiblity–it is fenced from the back and heavily alarmed–dissuades few from getting as close as possible, even if it means going on foot, either legally, up the steep fire road, or illegally, to its front.
I like to hike up the fire road with my dog in the late afternoon. It takes us about an hour to make the round trip, and in winter we sometimes have to hurry against nightfall. The road cuts through parkland and gets dark very quickly after sunset; there are coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions in the area. Yet I’ve never not passed someone going up as I was making my way down.
Early in 2007, Tjardus Greidanus, the DP on my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” was shooting b-roll before dawn when he saw a man heading up toward the Sign, a bottle of wine in hand. There was no doubt of the man’s intent: a libational greeting of the new day, at the epicenter of new beginnings.
Hef Saves the Hollywood Sign–Again
April 28, 2010 § 1 Comment
Monday’s announcement from the Trust For Public Land–that Hugh Hefner had donated the final $900,000 needed to buy the Cahuenga Peak parcel–marks the publisher’s second time as savior of the Hollywood Sign. The first came in 1978, when he conceived the fundraising campaign to tear down and replace the original Hollywood Sign with the replica that stands today. Although a number of individuals and studios eventually contributed to the cause, the idea–as well as the initial donation–was entirely Hefner’s.
Two years ago, when I interviewed Hugh Hefner for my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I asked whether any city officials had approached him about saving the Sign, which by the 1970s was in ruins. “No,” he said. “Nobody cared.” He went on to say, “Clearly the town had forgotten it, or it wouldn’t have been in such terrible disrepair.”
In June of 1978, a party at the Playboy Mansion kicked off the campaign. Within four months, Hefner had raised more than $200,000 for the new Sign. Unlike the original, it was anchored in bedrock and engineered to withstand wind and earthquakes. Work began on August 8th and was completed on October 30th, ahead of schedule and under budget. The new Hollywood Sign has held up beautifully, enduring the Northridge earthquake without damage and not budging in the three decades since its completion.
Our interview took place at the Playboy Mansion, a Holmby Hills estate that boasts no views beyond its own lush grounds. Given these surroundings, the fact that Hugh Hefner would care at all about the Hollywood Sign was striking to me. That he has continued to care in the 30 years since it was rebuilt seems proof of his remarkable generosity.
That day, Hugh Hefner spoke movingly of the Sign. “Hollywood is the city of dreams,” he said, “and the Hollywood Sign represents those dreams.”
Cahuenga Peak Fundraising Deadline Extended To April 30th
April 14, 2010 § 2 Comments
Today’s press conference at the Hollywood Sign announced the fundraising effort has come up $1 million short; on the bright side, the deadline has been extended by 16 days.
This would be the time for some generous celebrities to get out their checkbooks. Ready? Go!
Deadline for Cahuenga Peak: Press Conference at the Hollywood Sign Scheduled for Wednesday, April 14th
April 13, 2010 § Leave a comment
Save the Peak Campaign Announcement
Los Angeles (April 12, 2010) – Councilmember Tom LaBonge and officials from the Trust for Public Land will make a major announcement regarding the Save Cahuenga Peak campaign on Wednesday, April 14th at 9 a.m.
Wednesday is the announced deadline for the campaign to raise $12.5 million to acquire Cahuenga Peak, a 138-acre parcel just to the west of the landmark HOLLYWOOD sign.
Councilmember LaBonge has been working for nine years to set aside $5.3 million in public and private park funds to acquire Cahuenga Peak from property owners who have threatened to develop the land for luxury residential housing. The City partnered with the Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation organization, to raise private funds to cover the balance of funds needed.
The campaign has attracted donations from Hollywood stars, inspired an outpouring of support from the local community, which raised more than $9,000 at a rally last Saturday.
WHAT: Update on “Save the Peak” campaign
WHEN: Wednesday, April 14, 2010. Press conference begins at 9 a.m. Shuttles to site begin at 8:30 a.m.
WHERE: The Hollywood Sign
(Meet at the Beachwood Market, 2701 Belden Dr., Los Angeles, CA90068 and we will shuttle you up to the sign.)
WHO: Councilmember Tom LaBonge, 4th District, City of Los Angeles
Will Rogers, President of The Trust For Public Land
Leron Gubler, CEO of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce
L.A. Dept. of Recreation and Parks
Members of the Beachwood Canyon neighborhood
Media Contact: Carolyn Ramsay (213) 359-3593
ph: (213)485-3337 fx: (213)624-7810
The Trust for Public Land’s Drive to Save the Peak
March 17, 2010 § Leave a comment
Each week without fail, the piece that gets the most hits on my blog is “Howard Hughes, Ginger Rogers and the Property on Cahuenga Peak.” (The most frequent search term leading to this site is invariably “Howard Hughes.”)
With less than a month to go before the April 14th deadline to purchase the Cahuenga Peak parcel from Fox River Financial, the Trust for Public Land has begun an online fundraising campaign. Interested readers can go to www.savehollywoodland.org to learn more about the campaign and to donate.
Hollywood Sign Restored; Tourists Breathe Collective Sigh of Relief
February 16, 2010 § 1 Comment
SAVE THE PEAK is gone from Mt. Lee. Under the Hollywood Sign was driving home this afternoon when she saw the last two covers come off, revealing those reassuring white letters spelling you-know-what.
Bring on the tour buses!
SAVE THE PEAK: Not a Hit with Tourists
February 15, 2010 § 2 Comments
The Hollywood Sign now reads SAVE THE PEAK, an alteration that fulfills the Sign’s original function as a billboard. But the transformation has been crushing to the tourists who normally throng Beachwood Canyon to take pictures of the Sign. When the project began, some reportedly asked for refunds from tour bus drivers; now, two days into SAVE THE PEAK, there has been a dearth of open vans taking tourists up to Canyon Lake Drive, loudspeakers blaring.
Thanks to their absence, Hollywoodland has been especially peaceful this Presidents’ Day Weekend. Now if Under the Hollywood Sign could just do something about her noisy neighbors, she’d be in heaven.
The Hollywood Sign: Suddenly a Work in Progress
February 12, 2010 § Leave a comment
The effort to cover the Hollywood Sign with letters reading “Save the Peak” has taken two full days and isn’t done yet. By the end of yesterday, it read “SALLYWOOD”–as a friend said, who wouldn’t want to live in Sallywood?–while tonight it reads “SAVE the PEOK.”
Ironically, the illegal alterings of the Sign in decades past were all accomplished overnight.
The example above was fairly simple to execute, but the CAL TECH re-rendering of the Sign in 1987–which apparently involved large-scale sewing and grommets–was not. (Then again, the pranksters went to Cal Tech.)
Howard Hughes, Ginger Rogers and the Property on Cahuenga Peak
June 16, 2009 § 5 Comments
Soon after I started production on my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” in 2006, news broke of a spectacular property by the Hollywood Sign that was going on the market. That a piece of Cahuenga Peak was for sale came as shock to almost everyone; even LA City Councilmembers assumed the entire Peak was part of Griffith Park. As it turned out, a 138-acre parcel to the west of the Sign–five lots–was private. The land had been part of Howard Hughes’s estate and was sold to Fox River Financial, a Chicago property developer, in 2002. Fox River, which paid $1,675,000 for it, put the parcel on the market for $22 million.
The City of Los Angeles, caught unawares, managed to raise less than $6 million of the purchase price. Horrified residents, freed to imagine a clutch of McMansions–or one enormous pimp palace–to the left of the letter H, wondered how this had come to pass.
What I wondered was this: who would want to buy property in the middle of a city park, with no access or utilities? Here’s what I found out from my research of the property’s history:
Howard Hughes bought the parcel in 1940, when he was engaged to Ginger Rogers. His intention, after their marriage, was to build a castle with sweeping views of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. In order to do so, he would need a road as well as utilities–electricity, gas and water–where none existed. When the City tried to prevent him from building a road, Hughes sued–and won.
Meanwhile, Ginger Rogers was having second thoughts about the marriage. She no doubt had encountered Hughes’s “eccentricities”–his paranoia, which was exacerbated by his use of painkillers and by his deafness, which he refused to acknowledge or treat, and a severe case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which manifested itself in germ phobia and the compulsion to do things like sort and count the peas on his plate. She confided to friends that she feared he would hold her prisoner on their Cahuenga Peak estate.
The catalyst of their breakup, however, was Hughes’s usual pattern of wildly indiscreet infidelity. Rogers dropped the bomb on Hughes as he lay concussed in the hospital after crashing his car head-on into another car, returning all his gifts of jewelry in a basket before hurling her emerald engagement ring at his bandaged form.
After Rogers’s departure, Hughes abandoned the Cahuenga Peak project but not the property, probably because he had more pressing concerns. The 1940s were arguably his busiest decade: in addition to running Hughes Aircraft and developing new civil and military planes, he continued a parallel Hollywood career, producing movies with Preston Sturges (see below) and buying a studio, RKO, in 1948. He was awarded a Congressional Medal for his aviation work in 1941 and received a contract to produce his giant military transport plane, the Spruce Goose, in 1942.
He also had two nervous breakdowns, the first in 1944 and the second, in which he locked himself in a screening room for 4 months while subsisting on chocolate bars, milk and movies, in 1947. In addition to his emotional injuries, there were devastating physical ones. In 1946, Hughes suffered major trauma when the XF-11 reconnaisance plane he was test-piloting developed engine failure. His attempt to crash-land on the Los Angeles Country Club golf course failed, setting fire to and destroying two houses. It was his second near-fatal plane crash (the first occurred during the filming of “Hell’s Angels” in 1929) and would leave him in severe, permanent pain. Addicted to codeine and increasingly crippled by OCD, Hughes withdrew from public life in 1950, though he continued to run his businesses by telephone.
When he died of renal failure in 1976, Hughes’s 6’4″ frame was so wasted by malnutrition that he weighed 90 lbs. Coroners found pieces of hypodermic needles in his arms. He left a mismanaged estate whose value, once estimated at $2 billion, was pegged at $360 million. The parcel on Cahuenga Peak was a tiny part of a fortune that included Hughes Aerospace, the Howard Hughes Medical Center, four hotels and six casinos.
At this writing, Cahuenga Peak property is still on the market at $22 million. Interested buyers should contact Teles Properties in Beverly Hills.
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