Culture TED Conferences

Hooray for Hollywood: A look at the iconic sign during TED2013

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A group from TED hikes to the Hollywood sign. Photo: Bret Hartman

On the morning after more than a billion viewers worldwide tuned into the Academy Awards and its glitzy salute to motion pictures, 44 TEDsters trekked up to one of the most enduring signs of moviedom for a tour of the fabled Hollywood sign and an update on the successful battle to preserve the scenic hills around it from development.

The journey was led by Tom LaBonge, the energetic Los Angeles City Council member whose 4th District envelops the chaparral-covered hills surrounding the sign. The sign’s history, in itself, would make a terrific film. Erected in 1923 to advertise an ill-fated housing development called Hollywoodland, the bold marketing gambit came to symbolize Los Angeles and the increasing influential movie industry as strongly as the Eiffel Tower evokes Paris or the Empire State Building represents New York City. The ridge on which it rests, with its 1,821-ft. Cahuenga Peak, was bought in 1940 by aeronautics mogul Howard Hughes as a gift to his girlfriend Ginger Rogers and the ‘land’ portion of the sign was lopped off in 1949. Over the years, the Hollywood sign has been revered, parodied, and even subject to some creative vandalism – in 1987, while the circus-like testimony of Oliver North occurred in Washington, DC, during the Iran-Contra hearings, some creatives covered the  40-foot tall ‘H’ of the sign, creating ‘Ollywood.”

The sign eventually fell into disrepair and, in 2002, a group of Chicago-area investors purchased the 138-acre parcel along the ridge top from the Hughes estate, and announced plans to create luxury homes on the site.“This great symbol was in danger of being overrun with McMansions,” said Sam Hodder, California State Director of The Trust for Public Land, which was instrumental in the fight prevent that from happening.

City leaders, Angelenos and conservationists, including The Trust for Public Lands, rallied in an effort to purchase the land and turn it into an extension of nearby Griffith Park. Key donors included The Tiffany & Co. Foundation, which sponsored Monday’s TED tour, as well as Hugh Hefner and Aileen Getty. In July 2010, the 138-acre parcel was purchased from the developers for $12.5 million and the sign and the setting was secured for future generations.

As turkey vultures lazily wheeled in the cloudless sky, TEDsters trekked up Cahuenga to nearby Burbank Peak, home of the lone round pine dubbed the Magic Tree for its resilience to droughts and fires. The fascination over the small tree is almost cultish, and it was saved from a fire that swept up the hill in 2007 by a bucket brigade of locals hauling water up the hill.

On the ridge top, the TEDsters paused to take it all in. The day was warm, the view from the Pacific to the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains in the west was stunning, and there was a great feeling that focused and determined citizen action had preserved an important natural oasis in a sea of people, cars, and freeways.

“When you’re here,” LaBonge said, while taking in the view, “you’re on top of the world.’

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Another view of the walk to the Hollywood sign. Photo: Bret Hartman