Hollywood Sign Truth and Fiction, Part I

September 6, 2011 § 3 Comments

The Hollywood Sign During Its Reconstruction in 1978/Courtesy Bruce Torrence

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, 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.

For the rest of this article, please see my new eBook, “Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign,” which will be available from online booksellers in September 2013.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/why-the-hollywood-sign-isnt-lit-and-never-will-be/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/11/06/the-nighttime-magnetism-of-the-hollywood-sign/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/peg-entwistle-and-virginia-cherrill-opposite-destinies-linked-by-a-handbag/

Albert Kothe: A German Immigrant’s Life in Hollywoodland, Part II

April 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

Albert Kothe in an undated photo/All photos Albert Kothe Family Archive, Courtesy Harry Williams

Albert Kothe no doubt left Hamburg for economic reasons, as jobs were in short supply in Germany’s ruined post-WWI economy. He seems to have earned his passage to America as a merchant marine, judging from a shipboard photo. How Kothe wound up in Los Angeles is unclear, but he quickly made it his home: among the artifacts found after his death was this certificate for a citizenship course, dated 1933.

His photos tell the story of a bachelor existence enlivened by female friends, letters and postcards from home, his dogs and–most of all–cars. Kothe seems especially proud of this car, judging from the number of photos in which he appears beside it.

Because he didn’t own a home, first renting the cabin at 3200 N. Beachwood Drive and later an apartment behind the Beachwood Market, Kothe’s car ownership symbolized the American Dream. In the 1940’s, Kothe earned local notoriety when, during an inebriated visit to his old workplace, his car spun out of control and knocked down the letter “H” of the Hollywoodland Sign. (The righted and repaired letter– already infamous as Peg Entwistle’s jumping-off point–somehow survived until 1978, when the old Sign was torn down and the current version built.)

Ironically, in light of his penchant for drinking and driving, Kothe went on to drive the Hollywoodland jitney, a job he apparently relished. The last incarnation of Hollywoodland’s neighborhood bus, Kothe’s woody wagon carried residents from the bus stop in Beachwood Village to their hillside homes. Service ended sometime in the 1950s, probably because most families had two cars by then.

In the early 1960s Kothe moved from his cabin to Beachwood Village, where he lived in an apartment owned by the Williams family. A neighborhood fixture, he enjoyed a certain fame, both local and national, for having changed the lightbulbs on the Hollywood Sign. He died in 1974, at the age of 81, having lived in the Sign’s shadow for more than half a century.

Albert Kothe: A German Immigrant’s Life in Hollywoodland, Part I

April 13, 2011 § 2 Comments

Straight Outta Hamburg/All Photos Albert Kothe Family Archive, courtesy Harry Williams, unless otherwise noted

Albert Hendrick Kothe was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1893. After World War I, he made his way to America and settled in Los Angeles, where he found work and a new home in Hollywoodland. Like so many Canyon residents, Kothe lived out his life here, in the process becoming a neighborhood fixture, a Zelig-like figure–and something of a local legend.

Kothe's Employee Card in Hollywoodland

Albert Kothe in his Youth, Undated

 Albert Kothe may or may not have helped to build the Hollywoodland Sign, but he certainly was its caretaker upon its completion in July, 1923.  His job, which probably lasted until 1939, was to change the 4,000 lightbulbs that lit the Sign at night, a Sisyphusian task for which ladders were kept permanently propped against the Sign’s back. Though Kothe undoubtably spent a great many daylight hours on Mt. Lee, he didn’t actually live there. (The myth that Kothe “lived in a shack behind the first L” is so pervasive that Leo Braudy repeats it in his new book The Hollywood Sign [Yale University Press, 2011] Oops.) Although there was a shed behind the Sign, it housed lightbulbs and other equipment, while Kothe resided in a cabin at the north end of Beachwood Drive. (The cabin was probably built for the foreman of the stonemasons who built the Hollywoodland walls and stairs from 1923-25. The stonemasons lived in adjacent tents.) The cabin, which was torn down for houses 50 years ago, looked like this:

Kothe's Cabin/Courtesy Lamonta Pierson

When the Hollywoodland Realty Company stopped maintaining the Sign in 1939, Kothe found work at Wolf’s Lair, a house large enough to require a full-time handyman. Kothe’s employment by Bud Wolf has satisfying parallels in literature and movies, for the two men at first glance were polar opposites: Wolf a rich, companionable bon vivant; Kothe a poor laborer and lifelong bachelor. But in truth, they were flip sides of the same coin–uncompromising, somewhat eccentric men who discovered their niche in Hollywoodland, and stayed. 

Next time: Kothe’s latter years–and automotive adventures.

The Nighttime Magnetism of the Hollywood Sign

November 6, 2010 § 1 Comment

The Hollywood Sign and Communications Tower at Sunset/Photos by Hope Anderson Productions

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.

The Sign from Behind the Fence

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.

Why the Hollywood Sign Isn’t Lit (and Never Will Be)

November 3, 2010 § 61 Comments

The Hollywoodland Sign at Night, circa 1925/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

One of the perennial questions  about the Hollywood Sign is why it isn’t lit at night. The answer is that the Sign overlooks a residential neighborhood whose access narrows from a two-lane road to a steep, winding single lane as one nears the Sign. If the Hollywood Sign became a nighttime beacon, traffic in the Canyon would quickly reach gridlock.

That’s precisely what happened on New Year’s Eve of 1999, when the Hollywood Sign was rigged for a Millennial light and fireworks show. People came up Beachwood Drive by the thousands, effectively trapping everyone in the Canyon and preventing emergency vehicles from entering. It had a lasting effect on residents, some of whom still shudder at the memory.

In the Sign’s original incarnation as a billboard, it was lit, the better to impress prospective property owners. It flashed in segments, first Holly, then wood, then land, before lighting up completely. A searchlight below it lit up for emphasis, like an exclamation point. Hollywoodland! It must have been wonderful–and to Albert Kothe, the man whose job it was to change the lightbulbs, a grim reminder of his day job. More on Kothe, a true Hollywoodland character, in a future post.

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