If there’s anything Tinseltown excels at, it’s turning a ho-hum event into a made-for-TV spectacle. Witness the fanfare that unfolds each time the Hollywood sign gets a fresh coat of paint.
It’s not written off as routine maintenance. No, it’s a civic event.
A media scrum gathers. Elected officials gush. Someone cracks jokes about face-lifts. (In 1995, nipped-and-tucked actress Phyllis Diller did the honors.)
So it was on Tuesday, when reporters were whisked to just below the nearly 90-year-old sign, one of the few landmarks in the crazy quilt of neighborhoods that is Los Angeles.
In a clearing, VIPs fidgeted on white folding chairs. At least a dozen cameras were trained on Chris Baumgart, chairman of the nonprofit Hollywood Sign Trust, who wore a dark suit and sneakers. Behind him loomed the nine 45-foot-tall letters that together, he said, cost about $175,000 to gussy up.
Beginning in October, workers stripped the letters of weathered paint, smeared them with 105 gallons of primer and coated them with 255 gallons of new paint (color: No. 7757, high-reflective white). It’s made by Sherwin-Williams, which picked up most of the sign restoration bill.
Baumgart, a veritable encyclopedia of sign knowledge, joked with reporters that its face had been pancaked with two tons of makeup. “A lot was done to her backside, but we’re leaving that secret,” he said, tongue firmly in cheek.
When it was erected in 1923 with the aid of mule teams, the sign touted a high-end real estate development named Hollywoodland. Its creators expected to take it down after a year, according to the Hollywood Sign Trust, but tourists flocked to the hillside and its stunning view of Los Angeles. In the 1940s, the city folded the sign into Griffith Park and truncated it to hype, simply, “Hollywood.”
Over the years, the sign has needed numerous touch-ups. In the 1970s, the termite-weakened O cartwheeled away from the rest of its kin and an L was set ablaze. A who’s-who of Hollywood helped raise money to rebuild the sign completely, including Alice Cooper, Gene Autry and Hugh Hefner, who threw a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion.
When the retooled landmark was unveiled in 1978 on live TV, the trust said, 60 million people watched. After that, it seemed, Los Angeles celebrated its every milestone with a dose of stagecraft.
In 1995, during the media event with Diller, black tarps fell to reveal gleaming letters. In 2005, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in the words of the trust, “rappelled down the hillside and applied the final strokes of coating himself.”
Tuesday’s event was comparatively sedate. But as Baumgart fielded questions, a handful of people crept along the sign’s base — cameramen shooting video of painters.
“They’re supposed to be painting the last brush strokes on the sign,” Baumgart said, “but it’s for show.”
“Hey, it’s Hollywood.”