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The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon

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The first history of the Hollywood Sign — ubiquitous symbol of American celebrity and ambition — by a master interpreter of popular culture Hollywood's famous sign, constructed of massive white block letters set into a steep hillside, is an emblem of the movie capital it looms over and an international symbol of glamour and star power. To so many who see its image, the sign The first history of the Hollywood Sign — ubiquitous symbol of American celebrity and ambition — by a master interpreter of popular culture Hollywood's famous sign, constructed of massive white block letters set into a steep hillside, is an emblem of the movie capital it looms over and an international symbol of glamour and star power. To so many who see its image, the sign represents the earthly home of that otherwise ethereal world of fame, stardom, and celebrity--the goal of American and worldwide aspiration to be in the limelight, to be, like the Hollywood sign itself, instantly recognizable. How an advertisement erected in 1923, touting the real estate development Hollywoodland, took on a life of its own is a story worthy of the entertainment world that is its focus. Leo Braudy traces the remarkable history of this distinctly American landmark, which has been saved over the years by a disparate group of fans and supporters, among them Alice Cooper and Hugh Hefner, who spearheaded its reconstruction in the 1970s. He also uses the sign's history to offer an intriguing look at the rise of the movie business from its earliest, silent days through the development of the studio system that helped define modern Hollywood. Mixing social history, urban studies, literature, and film, along with forays into such topics as the lure of Hollywood for utopian communities and the development of domestic architecture in Los Angeles, The Hollywood Sign is a fascinating account of how a temporary structure has become a permanent icon of American culture.


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The first history of the Hollywood Sign — ubiquitous symbol of American celebrity and ambition — by a master interpreter of popular culture Hollywood's famous sign, constructed of massive white block letters set into a steep hillside, is an emblem of the movie capital it looms over and an international symbol of glamour and star power. To so many who see its image, the sign The first history of the Hollywood Sign — ubiquitous symbol of American celebrity and ambition — by a master interpreter of popular culture Hollywood's famous sign, constructed of massive white block letters set into a steep hillside, is an emblem of the movie capital it looms over and an international symbol of glamour and star power. To so many who see its image, the sign represents the earthly home of that otherwise ethereal world of fame, stardom, and celebrity--the goal of American and worldwide aspiration to be in the limelight, to be, like the Hollywood sign itself, instantly recognizable. How an advertisement erected in 1923, touting the real estate development Hollywoodland, took on a life of its own is a story worthy of the entertainment world that is its focus. Leo Braudy traces the remarkable history of this distinctly American landmark, which has been saved over the years by a disparate group of fans and supporters, among them Alice Cooper and Hugh Hefner, who spearheaded its reconstruction in the 1970s. He also uses the sign's history to offer an intriguing look at the rise of the movie business from its earliest, silent days through the development of the studio system that helped define modern Hollywood. Mixing social history, urban studies, literature, and film, along with forays into such topics as the lure of Hollywood for utopian communities and the development of domestic architecture in Los Angeles, The Hollywood Sign is a fascinating account of how a temporary structure has become a permanent icon of American culture.

30 review for The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon

  1. 5 out of 5

    Dan C.

    This book has been abandoned. The writing style is enough to make me want to tear my eyeballs out.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Zedder

    This is a fun read: it's a insightful overview of the history of the movie industry in Los Angeles and has a ton of great anecdotes. It also made me aware of a subgenre of LA movies that I didn't previously know about: movies about the decline and fall of a former movie star. It turns out that "Sunset Boulevard" is only the best, or most well-known, of a whole series of movies about has-beens. Even better: it wasn't even the first to use former actual movie stars in this context. Turns out that This is a fun read: it's a insightful overview of the history of the movie industry in Los Angeles and has a ton of great anecdotes. It also made me aware of a subgenre of LA movies that I didn't previously know about: movies about the decline and fall of a former movie star. It turns out that "Sunset Boulevard" is only the best, or most well-known, of a whole series of movies about has-beens. Even better: it wasn't even the first to use former actual movie stars in this context. Turns out that there were movies in the 30s that did the same. (Which makes sense, actually: that would've been the first point at which there were has-beens in the movie industry.) Here's a typical anecdote: an LA Times headline in August 1923 read, "Los Angeles Officially Declared America's Finest Place to Live," which was certified by, of all people, the New York City Weather Bureau. Here's a typical insight: LA is the only major city in the US that's divided by a mountain range. My only criticism is that the book doesn't have nearly enough photos. As if there weren't enough photos of the Hollywood sign to choose from! In this regard, this website is a useful supplement: http://www.retronaut.co/2012/03/the-h...

  3. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    There are so few books written exclusively about The Hollywood Sign. Actually, this is the ONLY one that I could find. What came as a surprise when reading this book was how many pages were dedicated to the history of Hollywood. This was important because the two - the mystical image of Hollywood the City and the Hollywood Sign - are so intertwined. It's incredible how an outdoor ad meant to sell real estate for a local land developer was not expected to last more than 1.5 years. Yet it would beco There are so few books written exclusively about The Hollywood Sign. Actually, this is the ONLY one that I could find. What came as a surprise when reading this book was how many pages were dedicated to the history of Hollywood. This was important because the two - the mystical image of Hollywood the City and the Hollywood Sign - are so intertwined. It's incredible how an outdoor ad meant to sell real estate for a local land developer was not expected to last more than 1.5 years. Yet it would become a worldwide icon lasting nearly 100 years. What is also fairly unique about the Hollywood Sign is that it is one of very few structural global icons that have this status of initially being built to be temporary (e.g. Eiffel Tower).

  4. 5 out of 5

    Brad Hodges

    When we think of icons that represent cities, we think of great works of art or architecture, like the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, or the Roman Colosseum. How odd is it then that the icon that represents the glamorous world of movie-making is a plain, white sign that is the name of the place itself. "The Hollywood sign is a strange sort of icon. It isn't an image that looks like or refers to something called Hollywood; it is the name itself. Yet people everywhere recognize When we think of icons that represent cities, we think of great works of art or architecture, like the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, or the Roman Colosseum. How odd is it then that the icon that represents the glamorous world of movie-making is a plain, white sign that is the name of the place itself. "The Hollywood sign is a strange sort of icon. It isn't an image that looks like or refers to something called Hollywood; it is the name itself. Yet people everywhere recognize it as the symbol of whatever 'Hollywood' might be--with whatever ambiguity is part of that meaning. The Hollywood sign might therefore seem to be the perfect symbol of modern celebrity, the sign that celebrates itself, spelling out 'Hollywood' for all the world to see. So writes Leo Braudy in his thoughtful and insightful The Hollywood Sign. It's a slim book, as the history of the sign isn't that long. Mostly it's an essay on how Hollywood came to be a metonym. a name that represented the movie industry worldwide. Indeed, whenever I hear about people in other countries talking about American movies, they usually refer to them as coming from "Hollywood," even if movies are not really made there anymore. In the beginning, the movie industry was located in the Northeast, where Thomas Edison had his studio in New Jersey (movies were also made in Astoria, Queens, and in Chicago). But soon, after Edison lost the stranglehold he had on the business, men who made movies looked elsewhere, where it was warm and several different kinds of scenery were close by. The town of Hollywood, not much but fruit orchards then, was, at that time, a haven for prohibitionists, who looked down on movie people. In 1910 the village of Hollywood was annexed by Los Angeles. Movies were made in many different towns around the area, including Glendale and Edendale (Eden--now that is a name for movies!). Eventually Charlie Chaplin built a studio there, the first. Broudy teases us by making us wait for the first time that "Hollywood" means the movie business itself: "The early 1920s therefore mark the moments when 'Hollywood,' with the newfound respectability as well as the notoriety of the movies as an art and a business, begins to be the local habitation and name for all its aspects, not matter where they might be in reality." Where does the sign fit in all of this? It was originally an advertisement for a housing subdivision called Hollywoodland, and had the extra four letters. It was meant to be temporary (just like the Eiffel Tower) and little did anyone think it would mean anything. Perhaps one of the first to see it as a metaphor was an actress named Peg Entwhistle, who did a swan dive off the "H," committing suicide in 1932. "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." The sign fell into disrepair and over the years had to be refurbished. It sits on what is now called Mount Lee, where Mack Sennett once owned land and planned to build a palatial home. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce now maintains it, and in the 1970s a major overhaul was done, with the letters reinforced and anchored to concrete posts firmly set in the ground. A strange combination of benefactors, led by Alice Cooper and Hugh Hefner, were the angels that funded the restoration. The sign is indelibly linked with the aura of Hollywood, despite its tawdry origins. If a film wants to establish the setting as Los Angeles, it is inevitably shown (the most recent example is The Nice Guys, which opens from behind the sign, in its tattered '70s appearance). I know that on visits to Los Angeles I feel a little frisson of excitement when I see it, as it lets me know I'm really there, and it imparts some kind of magic. My friend Bob and I, on two trips to Hollywood, tried to get as close as we could to the sign (unlike most icons, you are not allowed access to it), driving up steep, winding streets in Beachwood Canyon, much to the dismay of locals. This is a great book for movie buffs. There are occasional errors--Sessue Hayakawa is referred to as S.I. Hayakawa, who was an academic and politician--but it is comprehensive on the history of the place as well as its state of mind.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Roth

    I was initially resistant to this book. Since I was raised in Hollywood, I noticed mistakes right away, including Sessue Hayakawa being referred to as S. I. Hayakawa, plus the name of Christopher Isherwood's guru and the title of his book about him both rendered wrong. It made me wonder what else was wrong that I wasn't catching. Why would they let some transplant academic write this book? And the book veers sharply at times into cultural critique of films and history of an academic type that is I was initially resistant to this book. Since I was raised in Hollywood, I noticed mistakes right away, including Sessue Hayakawa being referred to as S. I. Hayakawa, plus the name of Christopher Isherwood's guru and the title of his book about him both rendered wrong. It made me wonder what else was wrong that I wasn't catching. Why would they let some transplant academic write this book? And the book veers sharply at times into cultural critique of films and history of an academic type that is sure to irk many readers, but we can at least be grateful that Braudy did not riff irritatingly on the fact that the subject of the book is a SIGN. This for many scholars would be an irresistible invitation to prattle on in the vein of: the Hollywood Sign is a Signifier, but does it, in the Saussurean sense, lack a Hollywood Signified? Is it merely a floating signifier, anchored though it is on Mt. Lee? etc. etc. This we have been spared. The detailed history of Hollywood the place was interesting, but I wish there had been more on Peg Entwhistle, the starlet who jumped off of the H to her death in 1932. After all, for a commissioned book in a series on American icons, here is the one true Myth connected to the Hollywood Sign, where it shades into legend. I found that there were things that I knew about Entwhistle's life and death that were not included here—the initial reaction of her uncle, the fact that Bette Davis had decided to go into show business after seeing Entwhistle perform on Broadway, and the fact that the actor Brian Keith was one of the children, from a previous marriage, of her ex-husband--which links Entwhistle to the death of another tragic startlet decades later--Anissa Jones (Buffy from "Family Affair"). And it's not like I'm a total Entwhistle expert. So, I mean, why leave that stuff out? Is Braudy saving it in case someone commissions him to write a whole book just about the "H"? (Actually, it turns out there IS a book just about Entwhistle, so I'll have to read that.)

  6. 5 out of 5

    Sissy

    This book taught me that anybody who is anybody in Hollywood came from the Midwest, and that Hugh Hefner saved the sign along with a few other celebrities who are seemingly disconnected with each other about everything but preserving the sign. I read this when I first moved to LA and found it a concise history of Hollywood as told through the sign itself so there are many things that are glossed over. I enjoyed the anecdotes but could've used more - all of the anecdotes are mostly about silent f This book taught me that anybody who is anybody in Hollywood came from the Midwest, and that Hugh Hefner saved the sign along with a few other celebrities who are seemingly disconnected with each other about everything but preserving the sign. I read this when I first moved to LA and found it a concise history of Hollywood as told through the sign itself so there are many things that are glossed over. I enjoyed the anecdotes but could've used more - all of the anecdotes are mostly about silent film stars and producers - if you want to know about the industry of cinema get a different book. I thought the writing was fairly simplistic and read it quickly. I would recommend it to people who are interested in the idea of a place because, after all, the Hollywood sign is an icon, a signpost for a place within everyone's imagination much more than it is a dirty boulevard or scraggly hillside.

  7. 4 out of 5

    The Book : An Online Review at The New Republic

    HERE'S A WELCOME ADDITION to the ingenious Yale series on “Icons of America” (edited by Mark Crispin Miller), which already includes Kyle Gann on John Cage’s 4’ 33”, Josh Ozersky on The Hamburger, and Molly Haskell on Gone With the Wind. This time the subject is silent, bigger than a burger but as much a gesture at eternity as Scarlett O’Hara’s plans for tomorrow. Read more... HERE'S A WELCOME ADDITION to the ingenious Yale series on “Icons of America” (edited by Mark Crispin Miller), which already includes Kyle Gann on John Cage’s 4’ 33”, Josh Ozersky on The Hamburger, and Molly Haskell on Gone With the Wind. This time the subject is silent, bigger than a burger but as much a gesture at eternity as Scarlett O’Hara’s plans for tomorrow. Read more...

  8. 4 out of 5

    cathy

    Loved it. I probably loved it even more because I saw Dr. Braudy lecture on the thopic and had a chance to chat with him afterwards. Very interesting, informed and thorough in his historical handling of this L.A. icon.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Bruce Thomas

    Story ending up a bit disappointing as the book was more a history of Hollywood than of the sign itself. I wanted more details of the sign, not so much of the history of the film industry. The solid information about the sign could have fit into a 4 page brochure.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Michael Doyle

    Not simply focused on the history of the sign, itself. The author tells the sign's story in the historic context of urban development, economic development, and studio history in Los Angeles. Made the book compelling in a completely unexpected way. Wish it had been longer. Not simply focused on the history of the sign, itself. The author tells the sign's story in the historic context of urban development, economic development, and studio history in Los Angeles. Made the book compelling in a completely unexpected way. Wish it had been longer.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Claudia

    Very interesting take on the iconic status of the sign and its importance as a world pop culture icon, and its history within Los Angeles.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Marya

    Some of it was really too academic (it's summer after all) for me, but there was much of it that was enjoyable. Some of it was really too academic (it's summer after all) for me, but there was much of it that was enjoyable.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  14. 4 out of 5

    Andrija

  15. 4 out of 5

    Christena Alcorn

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lea Richey scruggs-parker

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Samuelson

  18. 4 out of 5

    Cory Peach

  19. 4 out of 5

    Brantlea

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dana Berry

  21. 4 out of 5

    Karli Vincent

  22. 5 out of 5

    Annika

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sanketh

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jill

  25. 4 out of 5

    Charlie

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Waldman

  27. 4 out of 5

    Mychellem

  28. 4 out of 5

    Henrik

  29. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Collins

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mandy

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