Book review: 'The Hollywood Sign' by Leo Braudy

Special to the Los Angeles Times

The Hollywood Sign

Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon

Leo Braudy

Yale University Press: 224 pp., $24

The jaded native tends to have fitful feelings — or none at all — toward his city's most popular tourist spots. Take that cliché of L.A. clichés, the Hollywood sign. Who thrills at the thought of schlepping out-of-town relatives into the hills for a close-up view?

And yet USC professor Leo Braudy's "The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon," a short, lively book on the sign's surprisingly forlorn history, dialed back my cynicism.

A "remarkably durable phantom" is how Braudy, the Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature at USC, characterizes the sign, "less a word than a metaphoric idea … cut loose from historic specificity."

Braudy has artfully distilled the historic specifics to produce a kind of allegory: This is the story of how a grandiose real estate billboard fell into neglect and came to stare down at its indifferent city as time marched on and the winds of culture shifted, until finally it was rescued by a motley group of charitable givers to become what it is today: L.A.'s most photographed scene, pending Lindsay Lohan's next court appearance.

"The Hollywood Sign" is part of Yale University Press' "Icons of America" — a series of brief, scholarly works that also includes "The Hamburger: A History" and "Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex."

Braudy's discipline as a writer is that of the cultural critic; his previous books include "The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History" and a more recent study of masculinity and war called "From Chivalry to Terrorism." Much of "The Hollywood Sign" involves a similarly rigorous reexamination of cultural and historical epochs — in this case covering the social, architectural, cinematic and art world developments happening in Los Angeles from the turn of the century to the present.

It's a lot to cram into these pages, whether he's dissecting how Pop Art in the 1960s gave the Hollywood sign fresh cachet (think Ed Ruscha's paintings and silk screens of the sign) or revisiting the legend of Peg Entwistle, a 24-year-old actress who reportedly jumped off the "H" in 1932 in what was framed as the suicide of a starlet distraught over her career. "In some crucial sense, she is also the presiding genius of this book," Braudy writes empathetically of Entwistle. "Whatever her motivations, she may have been the first to perceive the sign symbolically and make it into a dramatically explicit part of her biography."

By then the sign was nearly a decade old, and it read "Hollywoodland" — so-named by the backers of a real estate development in upper Beachwood Canyon that opened in 1923. The backers of this new, pastoral-urban colony included the L.A. Times' Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler. As Braudy recounts:

"John D. Roche, the publicist and later supervisor of the sign's building, had penciled in 'Hollywoodland' in a preliminary drawing, and Harry Chandler liked the idea. 'I want people to be able to see it from Wilshire,' said Chandler. What he no doubt meant was that he wanted it to be seen by someone in a car, driving along what was being dubbed by boosters as the 'boulevard to the sea.'"

The idyllic Hollywoodland concept — Mediterranean home with ocean and canyon views! Double lot! Freshly paved roads! — would prove far less enduring than the sign itself, despite the fact that regular maintenance of the letters (made of wood with hammered-on tin) ended in 1939, leaving the sign basically to rot in plain view.

This is the recurring twist in Braudy's research, how the Hollywood down below, to say nothing of the Southern California sprawling in all directions, and the movie industry that never much cared about the sign, had to cycle through a number of slumps, upheavals and culture wars before the sign could take on its present-day, uncomplicated aura of glitz.

Never mind, for instance, that the movie business didn't organically congregate in Hollywood when silent pictures first came West or that Hollywood was founded as a quiet, prohibitionist hamlet hostile to movie people and their immoral ilk. Or that the sign's second life, reborn as the "Hollywood" sign in 1949, came during an era when McCarthy's Red Scare and the advent of television were threatening Hollywood's populist place in the American consciousness.

Braudy likens the Hollywood sign to Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower — "icons by accident," they all required history to give them meaning (as opposed to "icons on purpose" like Mt. Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty).

Today, the sign might be a global brand signifying movie stardom, but consider this historical footnote as you watch those very special humans bask in the sign's glory at Sunday night's Oscars: No studio mogul or movie star would come through when the sign needed its last major overhaul in 1978.

Braudy lists the seven donors who put up about $30,000 each at the time: rocker Alice Cooper; Playboy founder Hugh Hefner; California Angels owner Gene Autry; singer Andy Williams; Dennis Lidtke, owner of a Hollywood graphic design company called Gribbit!; Terrence Donnelly, publisher of the Hollywood Independent; Giovanni Mazza, an Italian producer; and Les Kelley of Kelley Blue Book.

The bill for the reconstruction, Braudy reports, came to $250,000. The new letters (made of corrugated steel with baked white enamel) were shortened from 50 feet high to 45 feet, and the telephone poles that had long supported the sign were replaced by steel footings embedded 13 feet into the ground.

In recent years, the land around the sign was under threat of being developed into luxury residential homes, but Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks joined others in the fund-raising effort to keep the mountaintop free of builders.

Nowadays, in fact, the sign has a whole entourage — people to keep it looking fresh and manage the money from its media appearances, and a security apparatus that, in a post- 9/11 world, includes infrared cameras, motion sensors, microphones and webcams.

It's almost like the sign's gone all Hollywood.

Brownfield is a reviewer and critic.

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