July 13, 2022

The Dedication of the Hollywood Sign

The Dedication of the Hollywood Sign

July 13, 1923. Real estate developers dedicate the Hollywood sign to advertise a new housing devleopment, inadvertently creating an iconic American landmark.


Cold Open - Charlie Chaplin shoots in Hollywood

It’s spring 1914 on the set of a silent movie coming on a blocked-off street in Hollywood, California.

As the crew sets up the next shot, and the director tries to get the frame just right, English actor Charlie Chaplin waits just off camera. Charlie goes over the scene he’s about to shoot in his head. Ostensibly, it’s a simple task. Charlie’s character will cross a busy street where his spurned love interest waits on the other side. But as a performer, Charlie doesn’t do anything “simply”. His unique brand of physical comedy is highly choreographed… with hilarious results. And today, Charlie wants to make sure he nails the bit he’s worked so hard to perfect.

Soon, Charlie gets the signal from his director that they’re ready to shoot. Charlie immediately drops into character. He grabs his hat, twirls his cane, and steps into the street.

A trolly car whips by, and Charlie deliberately stumbles backward, his knees wobbling with comedic precision. But he quickly collects himself, and starts crossing the street again… but this time… a car cuts him off. Charlie deftly spins away from the automobile like a ballerina… But just as he’s dodged one vehicle… several more head straight for him.

Charlie lunges, pirouettes, and falls to the ground, losing his hat in the process. With wide eyes, Charlie grabs his hat, pops up onto his wobbly legs, and dodges traffic until he comes face to face with the actress playing his love interest. She rares her hand back… and slaps Charlie. He slides down a wall to the ground.

The crew cheers as Charlie drops his character, gets up, and leans against the wall. He flashes a smile; looking every bit like the movie star he is destined to become.

In 1914, Hollywood isn't yet known as the center of the American film industry. But the movie Charlie is shooting will help change that. Tillie’s Punctured Romanceis Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length film. And after its success, Charlie’s fame begins to grow. And as Charlie becomes a major movie star, he helps put Hollywood, and Los Angeles, on the map, attracting more and more residents to the area. As one city leader will say, “Mr. Chaplin has done more in the way of advertising Los Angeles than probably any other man.”

As the movie industry booms, and boosts Los Angeles’ growth, real estate investors will look to the Hollywood area as the next major market. In the early 1920s, one real estate development group will set out to create an upscale neighborhood known as “Hollywoodland”. To advertise this new, idyllic enclave in the Hollywood Hills, the real estate group will unknowingly create an iconic landmark when they dedicate what will come to be called the Hollywood Sign on July 13th, 1923.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is July 13th, 1923: “The Dedication of the Hollywood Sign”.

Act One: Creating a new neighborhood

It’s early 1923 in the offices of the Shoults Company in Los Angeles.

Tracy Shoults walks through the office of his booming real estate company with a spring in his step. He’s just had a meeting with one of the most powerful men in LA, Harry Chandler; a wealthy investor and publisher of the Los Angeles Times. In their meeting, Harry offered Tracy what looks to be a blockbuster deal.

Since the rise of the movie industry, Los Angeles has taken on a mythic quality. People view it as a place where dreams come true, and where anyone can become famous. LA’s mystique has attracted people from across the country. And as the city’s population continues to grow, some of Los Angeles’ wealthier residents are looking for an escape. And with Harry Chandler's help, Tracey is going to give it to them. 

Soon, Tracy steps into the office of his second-in-command, S.H. Woodruff. Tracy is the numbers guy; but his right-hand man, S.H. is the type to look at the big picture and think outside the box. Tracy desperately needs S.H.’s creativity today.  

After he takes his seat, Tracy gets down to business. He tells S.H. about the meeting with Harry Chandler, who wants to build a new, upscale housing development in the Hollywood Hills. And the best part, Tracy explains, is Harry wants the Shoults Company to design it. 

Tracy tells S.H. he’s confident the development will be a hit, but only if S.H. comes up with a concept for a neighborhood that will get people buying. From the moment he hears about the idea, S.H. is “all in”. He knows the Hollywood Hills offer a stunning backdrop and unparalleled views. He is already imagining a hillside utopia unlike anything else in the region. S.H. tells Tracy to give him a little time, and he’ll come up with something that will knock Harry Chandler’s socks off, and excite potential buyers.

Over the next several days, S.H. kicks around different ideas for the new neighborhood. He wants the homes to be luxurious, and he wants them to blend in with the natural beauty of the hills. So for inspiration, S.H. looks to classic European designs; he especially likes the look of hillside homes in Spain and across the Mediterranean. Soon, he hones in on a concept.

S.H. pitches his idea to Tracy, saying the new neighborhood will have an old European quality that will appeal directly to wealthy Los Angeles residents who want to feel like they’re escaping the city.

Tracy likes the idea, but he’s a salesman at heart, and he’s not sure he can sell S.H.’s concept, worrying that for many people, an old “European” quality feels stuffy and decrepit. Tracy wants potential buyers to feel like they’re getting the best, new homes on the market.

So S.H. goes back to the drawing board. He works with a group of architects to come up with a style that blends old with new. They draw inspiration from Spanish hillside houses, English Tudor homes, and French Normandy architecture. But they give these classical designs a modern flare. The name they give their unique style perfectly blends the old and new: “California Renaissance”, and Tracy loves it. He tells his team to get busy.

In early 1923, while the architects are hard at work on the home designs, S.H. and Tracy focus their attention on designing the neighborhood. They know their potential buyers are looking for ways out of the growing sprawl of Los Angeles. So they begin to conceive of a gated community that can function as its own village. They want to create a town center with a grocery store, clothing outlets, and specialty shops. They discuss opening art galleries and a symphony; anything that will give residents the escape they crave.

By the spring of 1923, Tracy and S.H. are confident in their concept and their architects’ designs. They take their plans to Harry Chandler for approval. Harry loves it just as much as Tracy and S.H. do. So Harry signs off and takes charge of promoting the new development. As a newspaperman, Harry knows a thing or two about publicity. And soon, Harry will put his skills to good use and put his new community on the map.

Act Two: Building the sign

It’s spring 1923 in Harry Chandler’s office at The Los Angeles Times.

Harry sits at his desk, sifting through a pile of potential publicity materials that his PR team put together. Harry is convinced that the success of his new development hinges on publicity; so he’s trying to find the perfect angle.

Harry has been a publisher at the Timesfor six years. And during his tenure, he’s used his newspaper not only as a source for journalism but as a way to advertise the city of Los Angeles itself. He’s highlighted stories about the glitz and glamor of Hollywood and has helped create the image of LA as a place where dreams come true. Now, he wants to do the same thing for his new real estate development. 

Just then, something on Harry’s desk catches his eye. It’s a mockup of a brochure. It's designed well, has pretty pictures, but his eye is drawn to one word in the corner: “Hollywoodland.”

Harry begins to smirk. He loves the name. It conjures images of a magic “Wonderland” or Peter Pan’s “Neverland;” a mythical place that people would want to run away to. The more he thinks about it, the more Harry thinks it's perfect. But finding a name for the neighborhood is only the first step. Next, Harry has to figure out how to launch the opening with a bang.

Harry needs to create a spectacle worthy of the town where movies are filmed and dreams are made. But he's stuck. So Harry gets up from his desk and heads outside to get some fresh air.

As he walks down the street, he sees billboards advertising candy bars, cigars, and the latest motion pictures. Harry knows he can afford to do the same thing for Hollywoodland, but that won’t help his new neighborhood stand out. It's just more the same. He wants to do something that will grab drivers’ attention, and point them in the right direction. Then, it hits him: a neighborhood tucked away in the hills should advertise from the hills.

When Harry returns to the office, he calls in the publicist who created the Hollywoodland brochure. Harry asks him to design a massive sign that can be perched in the hills; a sign big enough that drivers all across the city will be able to see it.

And soon enough, the publicist returns with a mock-up for a sign featuring 45-foot white capital letters made of wood and sheet metal that spell out “Hollywoodland.” Thrilled, Harry takes the idea to Tracy Shoults and S.H. Woodruff who are both equally enthusiastic.

Together, the three men get right to work. First, they choose a spot for the sign, just below what is now known as Mount Lee. S.H. oversees construction of a dirt road that will allow builders to move materials directly to the site. And by the spring of 1923, Hollywoodland sign is under construction. 

But Tracy, S.H., and Harry have no intention of building a permanent structure. Their hope is that the sign will stand for about two years; just long enough to attract early home buyers and make a name for the neighborhood.

Still, Harry wants the sign to elicit the vibe of a star-studded movie premiere. And every movie premiere Harry has ever witnessed has bright lights outside to attract attention. So Harry tells his team to add roughly 4,000 20-watt light bulbs to the sign, as well as a giant searchlight positioned under the letters. The lighting apparatus will take some time to complete. But, by mid-summer 1923, the Hollywoodland sign itself is standing. But just as the team is ready to reveal their finished sign to the people of Los Angeles, tragedy strikes.

On July 6th, 1923, Tracy Shoults passes away from a heart attack. S.H. takes over the Hollywoodland project, but he’s heartbroken that his longtime partner Tracy won’t be there to see the fruits of their labor.

One week later, S.H. and the others will honor the work Tracy has done. They’ll officially dedicate their sign, and introduce their new housing development to the city. In the process, the Hollywoodland sign will capture the hearts and imaginations of people all across the country, transforming what was meant as a clever billboard into an iconic landmark.

Act Three: Dedicating the Sign

It’s July 13, 1923, in the Hollywood Hills.

S.H. Woodruff, dressed in a sharp suit, gingerly makes his way down a dirt road that leads to the Hollywoodland sign. S.H. has mixed feelings about the day's events. He’s excited to dedicate the sign, to publicize the new neighborhood, but it’s not the same without Tracy Shoults there. Still, S.H. thinks it’s important to celebrate what they achieved together.

The construction of the Hollywoodland sign has taken months, and it has cost the group $21,000; over $350,000 in today’s money. But S.H. is confident that all the time, hard work, and money will be worth it.

On the hillside, S.H. is told by the photographer they hired that it's time for the ceremony to start. S.H. makes his way to a nearby builder’s plow. He grabs hold of it and strikes a pose, as investors and members of the construction team gather around. S.H. thanks everyone for their hard work. And then he turns to the camera just in time for the photographer to snap the picture.

Soon, the photo of S.H. and the group circulates in local papers, before making its way into publications in cities all across America. The Hollywoodland sign, looming from its spot in the hills, captures the public’s imagination coast to coast.

And by winter 1923, the lighting apparatus is finally ready. And that December, the sign glows bright for the first time. Over the years, the bright lights and looming letters become a symbol of the glitz and glamor of Hollywood itself. Movie makers jump at the chance to use the sign in their films, boosting its popularity throughout the country, and causing waves of tourists to flock to Los Angeles, eager to lay their eyes on the iconic billboard.

But the Hollywoodland sign was not built to last forever or to withstand the coastal winds. As time marches on, the sign starts to fall apart. For years, investors in the Hollywoodland neighborhood do their best to repair the sign and keep the lights on. But the constant maintenance is expensive. By the early 1930s, the investors decide to turn off the lights and cease repairs. Eventually, they remove the lights altogether.

The sign remains in a dilapidated state for years; until 1947, when the investors donate it to the City of Los Angeles. At first, many city officials push to have the wind-tossed sign torn down. But residents of the Hollywoodland neighborhood fight back. They say the sign is an integral part of their community. And in 1949, the city agrees to keep the signup and repair it, but on certain conditions: they won’t restore the lights, and they’ll remove the “land” portion, so it just says “Hollywood.”

Today, the Hollywood Sign, as it’s now known, remains one of the most recognizable landmarks in America, and it’s still featured regularly in movies and on television. But this iconic symbol of fame and filmmaking began its life as nothing more than an advertisement for a real estate group when they dedicated what would become the Hollywood Sign on July 13th, 1923.


Next on History Daily. July 14th, 1798. July 14th 1698. An ambitious plan by Scotland to found a colony in Panama goes disastrously wrong.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.