Hollywood Sign as Icon

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Los Angeles has only a few structures that have survived long enough for most to agree they've reached the status of icon.

That is, just the mere sight of them represents to the beholder something else – something bigger.

One of those is City Hall. For three decades after it was built, its tower piercing the sky over downtown was the tallest building in Los Angeles.

It's been in more movies, TV episodes and postcards than just about any building in town. It may be a dated cliché, but as iconic LA buildings go, it's still number one.

Some will argue for Grauman's Chinese. Or the theme building at LAX.

Fans of the Art Deco period like the former Bullock's Wilshire tower, now the Southwestern Law School. Or Griffith Observatory, sitting up on the ridge in Griffith Park where probably a million people a day can see it.

But around the world, and to the editors of Yale University Press, Los Angeles has one iconic structure that out shines the rest.

That icon is the Hollywood sign.

A new book by the cultural critic and USC professor Leo Braudy treats the Hollywood sign as more than just an icon of Los Angeles – or of Hollywood.

It qualifies, he says, as an American icon, up there with the Empire State Building, Gone With the Wind and the hamburger.

That's quite a promotion for a symbol that began as the billboard for a real estate development. But Braudy makes a solid case.

The Hollywoodland sign, as it read originally, lured drivers ---and potential home buyers – at the peak of the 1920s building boom in Los Angeles.

That was the decade when LA swelled into a major city, and the advent of automobile culture doomed the old streetcar system.

You needed a car to reach Hollywoodland, a colony of home sites at the remote top end of Beachwood Canyon -- in a natural amphitheater where an early movie production of Julius Caesar was shot with elephants, 500 dancing girls and a supporting cast of 5,000.

The Hollywoodland billboard was built onto a steep slope of Mt. Lee by Mexican laborers using mules. Giant sheet metal letters were fixed to telephone poles sunk in the hillside.

Hundreds of light bulbs lit up the sign at night in those days. A caretaker who lived in a shack behind one of the letters replaced the bulbs when they burned out.

Through the years, the L-A-N-D end of the sign fell away -- and the lights were turned off. The sign fell into disrepair, and no one except the chamber of commerce in Hollywood cared much about it.

When Los Angeles got around to designating historical landmarks, Grauman's Chinese got a plaque five years sooner. Ten years earlier, the city declared the old decorative gates of Hollywoodland as landmarks.

The Hollywood sign's iconic power, says Braudy, comes from the fact that it's just a word. Letters.

Viewers can attach to the symbol any meaning they choose. It can speak to them about the movies, or the history of Los Angeles.

What it can't be is ignored.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.