Hollywood Sign Caught in Secession Tug of War
Identity: If cityhood plan goes to a vote, landmark ownership will be an issue.
May 5, 2002 By Nita Lelyveld, L.A. Times

It started life as a real estate ad and became a world-famous landmark.

It has fallen down and been fixed up. It has been scrawled with hearts that say so-and-so loves so-and-so forever.

Pranksters have draped it in sheets to read HOLLYWEED (for dope), HOLYWOOD (for the pope), RAFFEYSOD (for the Raffeys, an obscure rock band).

Now, the Hollywood sign has been transformed again--into a symbol used by both sides of the city's secession debate.

City officials say the sign is the quintessential emblem of Los Angeles.

"It's a monument to this great city and to the entertainment industry," said City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes the sign and who is leading the city's charge to keep it.

Those who want Hollywood to break away from Los Angeles say the sign is really an emblem of the city's neglect and the ultimate argument for secession. They insist that the sign belong to a city of Hollywood.

"Have you seen what the sign looked like 20 years ago? It was a disgrace. It broke your heart to look up there and to know that your city didn't care enough to do anything," said nightclub owner Gene LaPietra, leader of the Hollywood secession campaign.

The nine giant letters perched on Mt. Lee now sit on city property, within the more than 4,000-acre Griffith Park. Built in 1923 for $21,000, the sign read HOLLYWOODLAND and was owned by the developer of a new subdivision in the hills.

Jury-rigged out of canvas, plywood and telephone poles, it still caught your eye--and no wonder. It blazed with 4,000 light bulbs.

Soon, the neighborhood filled up. There was no more call for the caretaker, who once lived in a shack beside the sign, to clamber up ladders to change bulbs.

The lights eventually went out.

In the mid-1940s, the developer dumped a 455-acre property, including the sign, on the city to get out from under a mountain of back taxes. The city wanted the property to expand Griffith Park. As for the sign, it let it quietly crumble.

By the late 1940s, the sign had lost its H and was tilting precariously. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in, restored the missing letter and took off the last four letters.

"The city didn't really want to take care of it. The sign started falling down the hill. It became sort of an embarrassment," said Leron Gubler, president of the chamber, which hasn't taken a stand on secession.

The sign has always had to depend on the kindness of private groups and citizens, said Gubler. The chamber has trademarked the sign's image, and gives some of the proceeds to the nonprofit Hollywood Sign Trust, which maintains the sign.

Twice in the 1970s, when the city didn't make repairs, the chamber stepped in to make quick fixes, Gubler said.

"But it was one of those things you do with bailing wire. By the mid-1970s, it was in terrible disrepair. The first O's top third was missing. The last O was completely missing," he said.

Shards of the original sign littered the hillside. Bits and pieces had been tumbling down for years.

Alice Cooper began raising money for the sign in 1978. He lived in the Hollywood Hills and played on a softball team called the Hollywood Vampires. The shabby sign looked like the neighborhood, he said in an interview from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"I just thought that's the way it looked, that's the way it probably should look--dilapidated and run-down, like Hollywood, like Gloria Swanson," he said.

But when the chamber asked him to sign T-shirts to raise cash for the sign, he found the idea typically Hollywood flaky. He suggested a faster and more lucrative approach. For about $28,000, anyone could claim a letter.

At a news conference at Carlos 'n Charlie's on Sunset Boulevard, Cooper--wearing a shirt with his name in iron-on letters--ripped off one of the Os , declared himself Alice "Coper" and said he was giving his O to the sign, which was missing one.

The chamber gave the Y to Hugh Hefner, who raised thousands for the sign at a Playboy Mansion bash. Gene Autry bought the second L. Andy Williams bought the W.

The flimsy sign was replaced with a much sturdier one--complete with 194 tons of concrete, sheet metal and steel beams sunk into the earth. The letters are five stories high. The whole thing weighs 480,000 pounds.

In the secession battle, no one has suggested moving the sign an inch. No one contemplates adding or subtracting letters. The fight is over nothing more than bragging rights.

The Local Agency Formation Commission will decide next month whether to place Hollywood secession on the November ballot. Which city would get the sign will be part of that decision.

Hefner calls the sign "the closest thing that Los Angeles has--and Hollywood has--to the Eiffel Tower." Like Cooper, he has no opinion on secession, but believes the sign should go to the city that would care for it best.

"It was a sin what was going on there--or wasn't going on there [before the 1978 renovation]. The city hasn't cared a great deal about the sign. That's why we had to establish an independent fund to rebuild the sign," he said. "If the city really cared about it, I think they would not only keep it in top shape, but also light it.... I want the sign to wind up in the hands of a custodian that's really going to take care of it."

In the streets of the Hollywood Hills, the city posts yellow signs declaring NO ACCESS TO THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN to discourage tourists from blocking traffic or taking steep, illegal treks to get close. An elaborate alarm system booms out warnings to intrepid hikers.

Each day, Starline Tours trolley driver John Flechas takes visitors up Beachwood Drive, where they pose with the sign as a backdrop.

"People have seen it in movies. They've seen it so often," said the retired city bus driver. "Last year, a gentleman came here from the Netherlands who was so awestruck about just being near the sign, he had tears coming down his cheeks."

LaPietra said an independent Hollywood would welcome the sign's fans, even those from Los Angeles.

"We're not proposing to put up the Berlin Wall or anything," he said. "The rest of the city can feel free to look up at our sign anytime they want."

copyright 2002

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