One of the most popular tourist attractions in Hollywood, California isn’t a place, but a sign. The Hollywood Sign, created in 1923 to promote the new real estate development Hollywoodland, is the most visible representation of an elegant neighborhood now known as Beachwood Canyon.
Hollywoodland contains many special features and sophisticated homes that attract artists and celebrities, and has served as a filming location for movies and television shows. The neighborhood possesses a real history and beauty, resembling a charming European hillside town.
Early residents of what is now Beachwood Canyon raised crops in the 1880s. In 1905, streetcar tycoons and brothers-in-law Eli P. Clark and M. H. Sherman acquired 640 acres at the very top of the canyon.
In honor of William Shakespeare’s 300th birthday in April 1916, the community staged an outsized production of Julius Caesar in the center of Beachwood Canyon. Such actors as Douglas Fairbanks, DeWolf Hopper, Theodore Roberts, and Tully Marshall starred in the presentation, along with Hollywood High School’s football team and hundreds of others.
Clark and Sherman formed a partnership in 1923 with Harry Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and respected real estate developers Tracy E. Shoults and S. H. Woodruff, to create an exclusive hillside community, with Chandler providing free advertising through stories in the newspaper, and Shoults and Woodruff lending stellar reputations as developers of Los Angeles upscale Windsor and Marlborough Square tracts.
The partnership announced the opening of Hollywoodland in the March 31, 1923 edition of the Los Angeles Times, promoting it as the first themed hillside residential development in the United States. Advertisements claimed the neighborhood “the supreme achievement in community building,” and promoted its European atmosphere.
Car drives up Heather Drive below the Hollywood Sign. Courtesy of Bison Archives.
Developers Shoults and Woodruff planned special amenities to help lure buyers. Head architect John L. DeLario designed a small series of shops at Hollywoodland’s entrance that featured two markets, a cleaners, barbershop, and beauty salon.
In addition, two stone gates were constructed below 2690 W. Beachwood Drive. Granite quarried in the area was employed in constructing hillside and roadway retaining walls and neighborhood stairways.
At the top of Beachwood Drive, developers built Hollywoodland Stables, a place where residents could board or rent horses. Miles of bridle trails were constructed connecting to Griffith Park trails.
Putting green and tennis courts were built near the top of the area. To beautify the neighborhood, horticulturalist and landscape architect Theodore Payne was hired to plant wildflowers.
The partners also inaugurated a jitney service to ferry residents from their homes to Hollywoodland’s entrance, where they boarded buses that whisked them into Hollywood or downtown Los Angeles.
Cars drive post Beachwood Village stores, circa 1926. Courtesy of Hollywood Heritage, Inc.
Billboards promoting real estate developments proliferated around Los Angeles, but Hollywoodland’s outshone them all. Advertising man John Roche designed letters 50 feet high and 30 feet wide spelling out the name Hollywoodland to dwarf any other sign in the area.
The Hollywoodland Sign was constructed of lightweight materials such as chicken wire, pipes, telephone poles, and sheet metal, and was completed in July 1923.
The Sign was lined by 4,000 20-watt light bulbs placed eight inches apart that spelled out “Holly,” “Wood,” “Land,” “Hollywoodland” continuously when lit at night. On clear nights, it was supposedly visible all the way to Catalina Island.
The Hollywoodland Sign became notorious on September 18, 1932, when actress Peg Entwistle committed suicide by jumping off of it.
Maintenance of the Sign ended in 1939, and it soon grew disheveled from peeling paint and missing sheet metal sections. The Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department, owners of the land around the Hollywoodland Sign since 1945, wanted to demolish it in 1949. After outspoken public protests, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce acquired the Sign, removed the word “land,” and rechristened it the “Hollywood Sign.”
Original sales brochure for the new Hollywoodland development, circa 1924. Courtesy of Hollywood Heritage, Inc.
After Tracy Shoults early death in July 1923, S. H. Woodruff replaced him as lead developer of Hollywoodland. He allowed only four architectural styles on the development’s hillsides: French Normandy, English Tudor, Mediterranean, and Spanish. Lead architect DeLario designed the magnificent Castillo del Lago overlooking Lake Hollywoodland, and created Beachwood Village at the development’s entrance. He conceived a massive estate of seven levels to be built on the peak above the Hollywoodland Sign for comedy producer Mack Sennett, but which was never constructed because of Sennett’s financial problems.
Other respected architects also designed sophisticated homes, which added to the fairy tale atmosphere of the area. L. Milton Wolf built the large English Tudor Wolf’s Lair at the top of Flagmoor Place.
Renowned architect Richard Neutra created the Mosk House on Hollyridge Drive in 1934, and John Lautner designed additions to Wolf’s Lair, as well as a redesign of the Super Market exterior in the 1950s as well.
Hollywoodland entrance, 2690 Beachwood Drive, circa 1925. Courtesy of Hollywood Heritage, Inc.
Artists, musicians, and actors have called Hollywoodland home over the years because of its sophisticated atmosphere and somewhat secluded location. Graphics designer Romain di Tirtoff, also known as Erte, was the first celebrity resident of the neighborhood. Actors as diverse as Bela Lugosi, Robert Montgomery, Gale Sondergaard, Ned Beatty, Spring Byington. Jon Cryer, and Kathy Bates have lived here. Such artists as writer James M. Cain, writer Aldous Huxley, screenwriter/director Herbert Biberman, film director Norman Z. McLeod, and composers Max Steiner and Miklos Rozsa have also called it home. Musicians like Benny Carter, Stan Kenton, Peter Tork, Madonna, and Moby have also resided in the area.
Woman poses with street sign on Mulholland High Way, circa 1926. Courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The area has also hosted numerous movie and television shoots over the years. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Conquered the World, House of the Damned, Down Three Dark Streets, Hollywood Boulevard, The Limey, Return From Witch Mountain, Mulholland Drive, and the upcoming feature The Artist have filmed in Hollywoodland. Television shows like Monk and The Closer have also filmed here. Throughout the years, many films have included quick shots of the Hollywood Sign in them as location signifiers or comic footnotes, including Hollywood Blvd., Earthquake, Superman, Mighty Joe Young, The Truman Show, The Day After Tomorrow, and this summer’s Friends With Benefits.
Hollywoodland Sign illuminated at night, circa 1930. Courtesy of Acedemy of Motion Piture Arts and Sciences.
While opened for development in 1923, Hollywoodland continues to bewitch current Hollywood residents with its grace, elegance, and charm. DH
Mary Mallory is author of Arcadia Publishing’s “Hollywoodland” based on Hollywood Heritage’s S. H. Woodruff Collection. It documents the history of the neighborhood at the upper end of Beachwood Canyon, best known for its giant advertising billboard, now the Hollywood Sign. The book’s 180 photographs also include images from Bison Archives, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the author, and individuals. The 127 page book is available at the Hollywood Heritage Museum and other local bookstores and retails for $21.99. Ms. Mallory serves on the Hollywood Heritage Board of Directors and the Cultural Affairs Committee of the Studio City Neighborhood Council. She also writes theatre reviews for “The Tolucan Times” and occasional posts for The Daily Mirror.