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True story of the Hollywood sign

February 25, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
The Hollywood sign is an image known around the world. In one form or another, those nine letters have towered over this town for the past 85 years. In order to learn some of the sign's secrets, I got to go to the sign. And getting there was not easy.In 1923, the "Hollywoodland" sign was erected to help sell real estate. It was not built to last forever. And it didn't.

By 1949, the Chamber of Commerce took it over, scrapped the last four letters, and made "Hollywood" a star.

Over the years the image has been in many movies, including the Christopher Reeve version of "Superman." By the late 1970s, the sign was again in disrepair.

Hugh Hefner helped raise the money to have it restored, and in 1978, Hollywood got a new sign. The one that stands tall today is five feet shorter than the original.

"This sign is 45 feet tall. The letters are approximately 37 feet wide," said Chris Baumgart, chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust. "The whole thing, from the 'H' to the 'D' spans about 450 feet."

Chris Baumgart is in charge of taking care of the sign. He invited me to get an up-close and personal look. And that required I do something I'd never tried. I had to rappel down to the sign, wondering the whole time if I'd take a tumble and roll right into the "H."

Luckily, and slowly, and painfully, I made it.

And when I did, I discovered the names of the men who built it now help hold it up. And it's not going anywhere.

"Well, here's the difference between this sign and the old sign," said Baumgart. "These steel girders go down 13 feet. You could hang a house off these casings that hold up each letter. And in the old days, they were just telephone poles in the dirt so, of course, they blew over."

Today, these hills have eyes.

"Big Brother is watching," said Baumgart. "There is an underground surveillance center that serves the city of Los Angeles and part of what they're watching at all times -- and I mean during the middle of the night also -- are these nine letters and the entire Mount Lee area to make sure that nobody's coming up here."

"OK, so they can see us. Can they hear us?"

"There's microphones installed here and they're hearing everything we're saying right now," said Baumgart.

Baumgart has been watching over this "Hollywood" for 15 years now, all of it as a volunteer, promoting Hollywood's image, and protecting its symbol, whatever it takes.

"Up here in this cluster, we have infra-red illuminators so that the cameras can see at night," said Baumgart. "It looks just like daylight down there in the middle of the evening. It's kind of like the casino floor where they're always watching you at every craps table."

 

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