The Story of Hollywoodland
by Gregory Williams
From the moment of its inception, Hollywoodland defined the lifestyle known as “living in the Hollywood Hills.” With a steady stream of publicity, it acquired and retained the adjective “famed.” A lot of this is due to the huge metal sign crowning the tract, the neighborhood landmark. Originally it read “Hollywoodland,” but missing its last four letters, what started as a real estate promotional stunt has become the international symbol for the Hollywood film industry. On any day, tourists stand smack in the middle of Beachwood Drive, having their pictures taken with it.
It’s hard to figure a giant flashing electric sign as a classy touch, but in the twenties, the developers attracted the sophisticated and artistic crowd they intended. “Hollywoodland, one of the show places of the world” is how they saw their 500 acre subdivision. To their credit, they sensitively laid out Hollywoodland. A charming small town feeling has presided for close to seventy years.
The draw of the place? A lot has to do with location. Longtime resident Irene Wyman remembers these hills and canyons back to 1915, before Hollywoodland appeared. “It was so lovely with the oak trees, holly bushes, greasewood, and poppies. Ferns grew under the trees and by the little stream beds. Up in Ledgewood Canyon, we found two natural springs with overhanging rocks. We would crawl back to the small basins where the springs dripped down to pools and drink the cool water.”
For all of us kids growing up here in the fifties and sixties, the undeveloped area of Hollywoodland opened our imaginations. We explored the canyons like real frontier, building forts on unfinished tract roads and mining for quartz in a canyon filled with rocks spilled over from the grading of Mt. Lee.
Jannette K. Mathewson, living here as a little girl in 1924, loved the foxes” and their almost nightly playtime on our porch. The great cowboy artist, Charles M. Russell, was also enthralled watching them.” Coyotes and cottontails, deer, squirrels, possums, raccoons, lizards, tarantulas still make their homes with us. Unfortunately, the foxes have disappeared. According to some natural scientists, the coyotes ate them. No wild animal living here can escape this area with Mt. Lee and neighboring Griffith Park now completely surrounded by city and freeways.
Another draw to Hollywoodland, expressed in the developer’s phrase “freedom of the hills” applies to residents of Hollywoodland lucky enough to live and work within the canyon. An artist, writer, or musician can hole up with creative work yet remain close to the rest of the world. When our father, Dino, moved us here in the fifties, our neighborhood included painter Edward Biberman who lived across the street, painting scenes of Southern California and writer Aldous Huxley who lived and worked down the hill from us. (Mr. Huxley’s long, thoughtful walks at that time often included my four year old sister.) My grandfather, Alex Williams, had been here since the beginning of the tract with ownership of the commercial property at the west gate. At one time or other, every one in the family got to live and work in the canyon, dispensing with a daily commute. It is a treat.
Undoubtedly, Hollywoodland’s strongest appeal lies in the original homes of the tract. Part “kitsch,” part beauty, they range from a vine-covered cottage you know houses seven dwarves to Normandy castles fit for royalty. That the original Hollywoodland homes offer suitable settings for Hollywood period movies seems appropriate. Most retain an elegant aesthetic to them, how they are situated on the hillsides, how they present themselves to us, the spectators. They were laid out by thoughtful, artistic people who, it seems, wanted to create an environment of beauty , not tract housing as we know it today.
Much has changed as new houses have appeared in the neighborhood over the decades. Architectural restrictions were lifted when the developers bowed out in the forties and since then, people build houses to suit their own tastes. Some houses are great, some are awful. When land was cheap in the sixties, platform homes perched on steel stilts became the architectural rage. It was an inexpensive way of construction which is no longer allowed by the Los Angeles building code. The eighties trend of “mansionization,” building large homes that fill their lots, seems like a half-hearted attempt to recapture some of Hollywoodland’s past glory. As the new houses go up, the spaciousness that marked the development disappears.
Still a sense of community remains. The commitment from seventy-five years of homeowners blesses the neighborhood with its own vitality and character. The future is secure as people discover charms originally voiced by the developers in 1923. As Los Angeles congests, the uniqueness of this area becomes more pronounced, where you can still hear the hooting owl or the howling coyote, where you can step outside your door and witness a beautiful sunset.
by Steve Grant and Jay Teitzell
1888 – A bucolic hillside area populated by citrus farmers is given the name “Hollywood” by Harvey Henderson Wilcox and his wife, Daeida, as part of a residential development. It is Daeida who selects the name after she meets a lady on a train whose summer home is called Hollywood.
1903 – At an election held November 14, the residents of Hollywood vote to incorporate as an independent city.
1910 – Independence is short-lived. The community votes to annex to the growing city of Los Angeles in order to assure a reliable water supply. (To this day, Hollywood is a community within the City of Los Angeles.)
1911 – Albert Beach paves the way to the Hollywood Hills and names “Beachwood Drive” after himself.
1916 – May 16 – Hollywood participates in the world celebration of William Shakespeare’s 300th birthday. A star-studded performance of “Julius Caesar” is mounted in the huge outdoor natural amphitheater at the top of Beachwood Drive (where the Beachwood Market and Village is now).
1923 – February – Developers Woodruff and Shoults conceive of “Hollywoodland” as a neighborhood of “superb environment without excessive cost on the Hollywood side of the hills.”
1923 – The construction of Lake Hollywood Reservoir commences in order to provide the burgeoning city with water and pressure. The Lake is first filled in 1925.
1924 – The “Hollywoodland” sign is constructed at a cost of $21,000 atop Mt. Lee. Thirteen 50-foot letters and four thousand 20 watt light bulbs pronouncing, in classic advertising phonics, “Holly”… “wood”… “land”… Hollywoodland.”
1929 – The stock market crashes and the Depression dashes developers’ plans for extending Hollywoodland further east. The limits of our neighborhood are essentially set.
1931 – The Hollywoodland “bus,” a Model A Ford, is the first public transportation
serving the hilly neighborhood from the Hollywood 3 flats.
1932 – Peg Entwistle, despondent over her lackluster acting career, jumps to her death from one of The Hollywoodland Sign’s 50-foot letters.
1933 – Where The Humpty Dumpty Store previously stood, The Beachwood Market now opens its doors for the first time.
1934 – On New Year’s Day, torrential rains flood the Hollywoodland canyons with mud and debris.
1935 – The now-ubiquitous Griffith Park Observatory appears on the horizon in neighboring Griffith Park.
1938-39 – Bugsy Siegel opens a Speakeasy at the Castillo del Lago mansion on Hollywoodland’s Durand Drive.
1944 – Hollywoodland developers deed the land north of Mulholland Highway (including The Hollywoodland Sign) to the City of Los Angeles. Later, it becomes part of Griffith Park.
1949 – The Hollywoodland Sign, originally built to last only 18 months, is in total disrepair (and all the light bulbs have long-since been stolen). The City begins removing it but is halted by a public outcry Ð the citizens have come to love the symbol. Instead, the sign is refurbished and shortened to “Hollywood.”
1952 – The Beachwood Market expands after purchasing the Safeway Market next door.
1956 – Scenes from the classic film, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” starring Kevin McCarthy, are shot in front of The Beachwood Market and Village.
1958 – Chef Milton Pinkney takes command of the kitchen of the Beachwood Coffee Shop.
1961 – May – A hillside brushfire damages 30 Hollywoodland homes and destroys 24 more including that of Aldous and Laura Huxley of Deronda Drive.
1962 – February – Torrential rains once more flood canyons with mud and debris. Cars are carried downhill by the force of the waters.
1962 – July – “Home Magazine” features the geodesic dome of thick plastic sheets built on Durand Drive. The owners are notorious for being “well-tanned.”
1978 – The second restoration of the sign begins, led by prominent celebrities and city officials. Cost is $27,000 per letter using sheet metal and a steel framework. The public contributes significantly.
1998 – January 7 – The Hollywoodland Homeowners Association kicks off the 75th Anniversary of Hollywoodland with a gala screening of “Titanic” at the Vista Theatre, newly restored to its 1920’s splendor. Many attend in period dress – one gentleman wearing a vintage tuxedo with seaweed filigree.
1998 – October – “The Village Plaza” (originally called “The Village Green”) is dedicated in front of The Beachwood Market. This public area and “micro park” is the culmination of 10 years planning, fundraising and lots of hard volunteer work.
1998 – December – “The Hollywoodland Storycookbook” is released commemorating the 75th anniversary of Hollywoodland.