Touching icons: Getting up close with the Hollywood Sign - and the one detail you've never noticed

Getting this close to the Hollywood Sign would normally have some nasty consequences.
Getting this close to the Hollywood Sign would normally have some nasty consequences. Photo credit: Newshub

Perched on the high hills of Mt Lee overlooking Los Angeles stands the ultimate symbol of fame, celebrity and ambition - the Hollywood Sign. 

When I arrived at the Loews Hotel in LA, the famed sign was the first thing I saw out of my window - it was also the first thing I showed my friend on the phone. It was a literal sign that I had made it halfway across the world and landed in another planet, a place I had only seen on screen - it was an uncanny touchstone, saying, 'Yes, you're really here'. 

Originally built in 1923 as an advertisement for the Hollywoodland real estate development, the centenarian symbol is now celebrating its 100th birthday. Jeff Zarrinnam, the charismatic chair of the Hollywood Trust - a.k.a Mr Hollywood - gave us a special close-up with what I can only assume is the world's most iconic sign, and a peek into its rich past. 

This tour isn't typically available to members of the public. Trying it on your own could get you fined or possibly arrested. But if the Hollywood Sign is on your list, there are hikes that can take you right up to its guarded fence. You can even watch it on a 24/7 livestream courtesy of its many, many security cameras. 

Hollywood Sign from behind.
Hollywood Sign from behind. Photo credit: Newshub

The Hollywood Sign has far transcended its original purpose. When the development's unsold land was donated to the city in the 1940s, the Hollywood Sign had already fallen into a state of disrepair. Now reading 'Ollywoodland', this deterioration marked a turning point. The sign was refurbished, shedding the unnecessary 'land' and emerging as a cultural landmark, omnipresent through Hollywood's ebbs and flows.

The sign stood tall through the golden age of cinema and weathered a grittier Hollywood in the late '60s, when residents and studios started to move to the San Fernando Valley. By the time the '70s rolled around, the rusted, rotten landmark was in desperate need of another rebuild. 

To fund it, the city sold off each letter for roughly US$27,000. Rock legend Alice Cooper and Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner played pivotal roles in the sign's restoration; and while you might think he would go for the 'H', Hefner actually bought the 'Y'.

The sign was then rebuilt exactly - flaws and all. 

Getting as close to the sign as we did feels like some kind of metaphor for breaking into Hollywood. It's a metaphor that might work better if we had to trek our way up, but instead, we drove, surpassing those working hard for the view. But then again, if you want an easier ride to the top, it's best to have the right connections.

On the dusty journey in Zarrinnam's truck, we ran into a local making their way to or from and he asked her his burning question: "What does the Hollywood Sign mean to you?" 

She replied: "It's just iconic." 

It's a question he asks many people, leading to one of his more standout phrases: "To the top, baby!"

The sign's nine 45ft letters don't just spell out a location. The Hollywood Sign has become a tangible representation of the ambitions and challenges of those trying to make their big break. But not everyone with a Hollywood dream gets realised, as evidenced not only by the contrast of those struggling in the city streets below, but also by the tragic death of British stage and screen actress Peg Entwistle, whose death has become interlinked with the sign's storied, and sometimes sad legacy.

Once through the gate, we held onto a rope for safety and edged down the face of the hill, with the ground sometimes slipping from beneath us. It can be dangerous (I'm pretty sure I signed a waiver that mentioned death as a possibility), but once I touched the corrugated steel of the first H, it was all worth it.

Can you spot the error in the Hollywood Sign?
Can you spot the error in the Hollywood Sign? Photo credit: Newshub

Like all things you see in films, you almost expect the Hollywood Sign to be disappointing in reality - but it isn't. Unlike a celebrity who may look more ordinary in person, the sign only becomes more grandiose. 

But amidst its impressiveness, it's easy to miss the Hollywood Sign's imperfections. Zarrinnam takes pleasure in pointing them out, and once you see them - you'll never see it the same again. 

If you look closely, you'll notice two things: the 'Y' is 14 inches taller than the other letters (hardly noticeable). But, more annoyingly, the triangle spaces in the 'W' are very different sizes.

It goes to show that much like the distorted letter, the glamour and shellac of Hollywood may project an image of flawlessness - but beneath the surface, perfection can be unattainable.

Newshub travelled to LA courtesy of Delta Air Lines and LA Tourism and was hosted by Loews.