Some landmarks are so iconic that the association with their city or place is instant and automatic. The Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge, for instance, are immediately recognized as symbolizing New York. Similarly, the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower evokes the City of Chicago. One of the most recognizable such structures is the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee in Los Angeles, California. This week’s blog is about the famous sign and the part it played in the death of a young actress.
Origin of the Hollywood Sign
You might not know it, but the sign that’s become synonymous with Hollywood and movie-making didn’t start out saying “Hollywood.” Instead, real estate developers Woodruff and Shoults erected it in 1923 to advertise a new housing development: Hollywoodland. The original Hollywoodland sign included about 4,000 light bulbs. The lit sign spelled out “HOLLY,” “WOOD,” and “LAND” in individual segments, then the three segments together as “HOLLYWOODLAND.” A searchlight near the base attracted even more attention.
When first constructed, the individual letters in the Hollywoodland sign were 50 feet high and 30 feet wide. Woodruff and Shoults planned for their glorified billboard to stand for only a year and a half. But in that time, the sign became an internationally recognized symbol of the American film industry, so it stayed.
The Suicide of Peg Entwistle
Millicent Lillian Entwistle (she went by “Peg”) was born in Wales. She came from a theatrical family: her father was an actor and her uncle managed actor Walter Hampden. Peg and her father ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio and then New York City around 1913.
In 1925, Walter Hampden gave Peg an uncredited part in a Broadway production of Hamlet (she carried the king’s train and brought in the poison cup). For the next seven years, she acted in numerous Broadway plays, the last in 1932.
Peg was in Los Angeles in May 1932 with a role in the play The Mad Hopes. When the play closed, she won her first and only credited film role. She played Hazel Cousins in the Radio Pictures (precursor to RKO) film Thirteen Women.
On September 16, 1932, Peg made her way from her Uncle’s house where she was staying to Mount Lee. From there she made her way to the top and to the Hollywoodland sign. She leaned a workman’s ladder against the giant “H,” climbed to the top, and jumped. Two days later, a woman hiker found Peg’s purse and a shoe near the Hollywoodland sign. She then saw Peg’s body about 100 feet below. In her purse was a suicide note: “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.”
The Hollywood Sign in Later Years
As the years passed, the sign designed to last 18 months deteriorated a lot. The “H” was destroyed in the 1940s when, according to the Hollywood Sign Trust, heavy winds knocked it down. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce contracted to have the sign repaired. However, they had the “LAND” removed so the sign reflected the district and not the real estate development. The Chamber also decided not to replace the 4,000 light bulbs because of the expend of illuminating the sign.
By the 1970s, the sign had deteriorated again. The Chamber solicited donations and in 1978 replaced the sign with a more permanent structure. The new sign had letters slightly smaller than the original but was made of metal instead of wood. In 2008, workers stripped the letters down to the metal and repainted them white.
More About Peg Entwistle
James Zeruk, Jr. wrote a biography of Peg, Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide: A Biography. Another take on the Peg Entwistle story is H.P. Oliver’s The Truth Be Told. In this book Oliver claims that Peg didn’t commit suicide but was murdered by a Hollywood drug dealer.
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