They say it’s the town’s most valuable asset.
So no wonder they’ve decided to use radar beams, laser cameras and a sophisticated sound system to protect the Hollywood image.
We’re not talking here about the trappings that accompany starlets, gala movie premieres or actors’ million-dollar contracts. This wall of high-tech security is going up around the famed Hollywood sign.
A newly organized group in charge of preserving the often-abused sign plans to install the electronic gadgetry to help catch and prosecute vandals who try to deface the landmark’s 45-feet-tall letters.
Profits from printing the sign’s likeness on such things as sweat shirts and posters will be used by the Hollywood Sign Trust to pay for installation of a security system next month.
“This will help protect both the sign and the neighbors living below it,” said Christopher Baumgart, chairman of the trust’s board of directors. “They’ve both taken a beating.”
The 12-member trust, a nonprofit agency, was formed last year as part of a settlement of a dispute between the state and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. The state, concerned over use of revenues generated on public parkland, sued the business group to ensure that royalties from licensing the trademark sign were used for its upkeep.
The sign, originally reading Hollywoodland, was erected in 1923 for $21,000 to promote a housing subdivision being constructed below it.
In 1949, the last four letters were taken down and the Chamber of Commerce took over ownership. It was refurbished for $4,500 in 1970 and completely rebuilt in 1978--at a cost of $27,700 per letter.
Since then, the sign has been the frequent target of vandals who hike up the steep side of Mt. Lee to spray graffiti on its white metal front panels. Such scrawls are scarcely visible to tourists below. But it’s been a different story when pranksters have carried sheets and tarps up in hopes of altering the sign.
Over the years, it has been switched to such things as Go Navy, Caltech, Hollyweed (to take note of a new state marijuana law) and Holywood (to salute Pope John Paul II’s arrival). Such alterations have been visible across the Los Angeles Basin.
Permission occasionally has been given to change the sign. The Fox TV network modified it to read Fox for a few days and Paramount studios used it to promote a film character named Holli Would. Such commercialism has angered residents of the 550-home neighborhood below the sign.
That won’t happen again, promised Baumgart, 41, owner of a Hollywood video company.
The Sign Trust has spent $20,000 to “re-engineer” the sign--to tighten loose bolts and replace pieces of sheet metal damaged by wind and by those clambering over it. The group plans to repaint the sign after the security system is in place, he said.
The new $90,000 alarm system will use radar-like microwave intrusion detectors to trigger laser-illuminated video cameras that will film trespassers. Automatic loudspeakers will warn the intruders to leave. Simultaneously, park rangers or police will be summoned.
“The difficulty with vandalism has been if they weren’t caught in the act, you didn’t have the evidence required in court to convict on a vandalism charge,” said Linda Barth, a city parks district administrator who is also a member of the Sign Trust board. “You only could get them for trespassing.”
Nearby residents say beefed-up security and enforcement of trespassing laws around the sign are long overdue. They contend that park rangers have often kicked intruders off the mountainside without even citing them.
“The biggest problem is with people going up there and falling,” said Chuck Welch, a 35-year hillside resident who is vice president of the Hollywoodland Homeowners Assn. “One person lay with a broken leg in a crevice for almost 24 hours last year before they found her.”
Some have set fires near the sign. And a year ago a man “tried to crucify himself on the Y” before being pulled down, Welch said Thursday. Such incidents, he said, require noisy rescue helicopters to hover over the neighborhood for hours at a time.
“If there is a follow-through in terms of police and rangers, it will be effective,” said neighbor Christine O’Brien. “I think this will start working on some of the problems we have up there.”
O’Brien hinted she’s happy that tonight’s New Year’s Eve is one of the last nights that the sign will go unprotected. That’s because she’s from another place with nine letters in its name: Wisconsin.
“Maybe I should sneak up there and change it,” she said, to “Go Badgers.”