Star Power Saves Site

A Hollywood ending for a threatened L.A. park

For 87 years, the Hollywood sign atop Cahuenga Peak has endured as a beacon for would-be movie stars. But the postcard-perfect setting adjacent to those iconic white letters was, until recently, under threat.

In 2002, Fox River Financial Resources, a Chicago-based real estate investment firm, bought the land just west of the sign's 45-foot-tall H from the estate of aviator and moviemaker Howard Hughes, and discovered that zoning permitted the construction of up to four luxury estates on the 138-acre parcel. When the firm decided to sell the land six years later—for $22 million, 13 times its purchase price of $1.7 million—the offers poured in, and the prospect of McMansions spoiling the landmark view seemed imminent.

"Almost any way you see the sign, you see the property," says Paige Rausser, senior project manager for the Trust for Public Land, a California-based nonprofit group. "You can't take a picture of the sign without the property in it."

The land trust intervened, striking an agreement with Fox River in April 2009 to buy the property and save it from development. But there was a catch. The nonprofit had one year to raise $12.5 million, to cover the negotiated price of the land and other costs.

So began a fundraising campaign, spearheaded by the Trust for Public Land and other nonprofits, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, movie industry bigwigs, throngs of concerned residents, and Hugh Hefner, the Playboy magnate.

The land trust covered the letters of the Hollywood sign with fabric banners reading "Save the Peak." Neighborhoods held "Pies for the Peak" bake sales, and schools organized fundraisers. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, CBS, NBC, Disney, and stars including Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Rita Wilson together donated $3.2 million. Tiffany & Co. and Aileen Getty each gave $1.25 million.

The outpouring of support reflected the sign's historic significance. Built in 1923, it originally spelled Hollywoodland and advertised a real estate development financed by Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler and other investors. Constructed to stand for only a year and a half, the letters endured into the mid-1940s. By then, however, the sign had started to deteriorate, and the developers turned the letters over to the City of Los Angeles. To cut maintenance costs and promote Hollywood and the film industry, the city's Department of Parks and Recreation removed the last four letters. In 1973, L.A.'s Cultural Heritage Board declared the sign a cultural landmark.

"In Paris, you see the Eiffel Tower, in Rome, the Colosseum," says Los Angeles Councilman Tom LaBonge, who, along with other city council members, worked in partnership with the land trust. In Tinseltown, he says, the Hollywood sign is the iconic landmark.

With the April deadline looming, the land trust remained short of its goal. That's when Hugh Hefner came to the rescue—again.

The Playboy founder had saved the sign once before, in the late 1970s, when an O had toppled down the mountain, and arsonists had set fire to an L. Hefner hosted a swanky fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion and "sold" a new sign for $27,000 per letter (Gene Autry bought an L and Alice Cooper an O, and Hefner himself purchased the Y) to raise money to bring back the landmark's original luster.

This time, Hefner gave $900,000, which clinched the purchase of the land. It will become part of the city's adjacent Griffith Park. "In 1978, the sign was quite literally falling apart," Hefner says. "It would be foolish to have saved it originally only to let it fall to real estate development now."

Hefner credits the sign and the lifestyle it evokes with influencing his decision to launch Playboy in 1953. "I believe what we talk about as the American dream comes from Hollywood and the movies," he says, calling the sign "the symbol of American dreams." People around the world have thanked him for preserving such a valuable piece of Americana. But he deflects much of the praise: "I did what a guy in my position could do."

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