The Hollywood sign may be unique among American icons. It is a landmark whose white block letters are familiar around the world as the prime symbol of the movies. Day after day, tourists with cameras wander into surrounding Grifﬁth Park or troll up and down the streets of the Hollywood Hills, looking to position themselves for the best possible angle on the sign. More than any other sight in Los Angeles, the Hollywood sign in the background of your photo proves you were really there. To moviegoers and so many others, the sign represents the earthly home of that otherwise ethereal world of fame, stardom, and celebrity.
But in contrast with the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore, the Hollywood sign doesn’t depict a human image, nor is it in the form of an immediately familiar object, like the Liberty Bell or the Washington Monument. It may signify a place, but it’s not the place itself, as is Valley Forge or the battleﬁeld of Gettysburg. Nor does it commemorate a moment in time, as do the submerged USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor or the memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing.
Instead, it is a group of letters, a word on the side of a steep hill that, unlike so many other cherished sites, cannot be visited, only seen from afar. Its essence is almost entirely abstract, at once the quintessence and the mockery of the science of signs itself. The Hollywood sign embodies the American yearning to stand out of the landscape, to be famous. It reﬂects the impulse to performance and singularity that has been a part of the American psyche since our country ﬁrst appeared, unprecedented, on the world stage in the late 18th century. Its ubiquitous place in the eyes and digital cameras of the world shows how thoroughly that urge and impulse has pervaded so many cultures other than our own.
Few know much of the sign’s history. Some may recall that it once read “Hollywoodland,” and others have also perhaps heard the often-garbled story of the actress Peg Entwistle, who, it is said, was disappointed in her search for Hollywood success and committed suicide by jumping from the “H” in 1932. Over the years, the letters of the sign have been parodied endless times, including alterations sacred and profane: Hollyweed in 1976 to celebrate a new California law that changed the charge for possession of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor; Holywood in 1976 to celebrate the Easter sunrise service at the Hollywood Bowl.
Although it has existed since the early 1920s as an actual object, the Hollywood sign as the goal of tourist pilgrimage is a comparatively recent phenomenon. But it makes up for its short life in the frequency of its reproduced images from every possible angle.
Click here for a slide-show essay on the history of the Hollywood sign . This article was adapted from The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon.