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The Hollywood sign that towers over Los Angeles is now 100 years old

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The Hollywood sign towers over Los Angeles. It's a location marker and a symbol for showbiz. Those nine white block letters, each 45 feet high, represent the pursuit of glamorous aspirational lifestyles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOING HOLLYWOOD")

BING CROSBY: (As Bill Williams, singing) Out where they say, let us be gay, I'm going Hollywood.

MARTÍNEZ: When I was a kid, I was captivated by the sign, which I could see in the distance from my bedroom window. Turns out, lots of people from all over the world also feel the same way.

KAYLA WINTERS: It was on our itinerary.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah.

WINTERS: Like, we have it marked off as one of the things we had to do when we came this way.

LEONARD MONTANEZ: It just feels like the center of the universe. I've sat behind the O's. It's pretty fun, you know? Wrote my name back there. I don't know if it's still there. Yeah. I don't know if it's still there anymore, though.

ANGELA MONTANEZ: Living in the U.K., it represented that whole kind of entertainment culture and that fame, celebrity, beauty. All of that was exciting. And I think the Hollywood sign is iconic of Los Angeles and the film industry.

KARINA VEGA: (Through interpreter) You've seen it in movies. You've seen it in series. You've seen it in magazines and books. So that's why it's important.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Kayla Winters, Leonard and Angela Montanez and Karina Vega at Lake Hollywood Park, one of the best places to see the sign without risking arrest. And it's also the best spot to take a selfie with this Hollywood icon. Now, to get the story behind the sign, I met up at Lake Hollywood Park with someone steeped in the history of Tinseltown and everything it represents.

Alison Martino was born in Hollywood, the only child of singer Al Martino, who played Johnny Fontaine in "The Godfather" movies. Alison is a writer and amateur historian who created the online community Vintage Los Angeles. And even though a day rarely goes by when she doesn't catch a glimpse of the Hollywood sign, seeing it never gets old.

ALISON MARTINO: I never take it for granted. You know, driving up Beachwood, and right when it just appears, it gives me chills still.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Let's go back to the beginning. The Hollywoodland sign was built a century ago to promote a housing development in the Hollywood Hills. The sign became city property in the mid-1940s. The land part was dropped a few years later. But eventually the sign, much like many others who come to Hollywood, had a little work done, reinvented itself and then got famous.

MARTINO: It was very flimsy. It was not meant to last. So it did have a few repairs over the years, but it ended up staying 'cause then Hollywood became, you know, Hollywood, a place. So Hollywood, the sign, was now - was depicting the industry of Hollywood. So it kind of morphed into that.

MARTÍNEZ: When you say it morphed into representing the industry...

MARTINO: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Did the industry realize that it was morphing into that, that the sign and the industry were connecting?

MARTINO: It's really good timing...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

MARTINO: ...For that sign to go up. But it just became part of Hollywood, and it's interesting how we almost lost it. And in the '70s - so can you imagine that the H is gone? The O is half there, and graffiti everywhere. And people could get up to the sign a lot easier back then. So a lot of vandalism and crazy things went on up there, especially in the '60s. But then in the '70s, when this was sort of kind of in shambles - so they actually were going to get Fleetwood Mac to perform a benefit concert up at the sign. And then it didn't happen. And then Hugh Hefner decided to throw a campaign at the Playboy Mansion and had an auction and had a bunch of actors and musicians come and auctioned off each letter for, like, 30,000. So do you know who those people were that bought the letters?

MARTÍNEZ: No. Who bought them?

MARTINO: OK. So Alice Cooper - and he bought the O for Groucho Marx 'cause that was one of his dearest friends. So he said, I want the O for Groucho. OK. That's great. And then Andy Williams got the W.

MARTÍNEZ: For Williams, I'm assuming.

MARTINO: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: OK.

MARTINO: Yeah, for Williams. Those guys were heroes. I mean, they actually saved the sign.

MARTÍNEZ: What's your personal connection with the Hollywood sign and what it represents and what it means?

MARTINO: It's a symbol of creativity and fantasy and films and music and movies. And this is where it happens. It's not going to happen anywhere else like Hollywood. This is where it came from. That sign is not only the most famous sign in the world, but it means something to you personally on what you want Hollywood to be for your sake. What do you want to do in Hollywood, right? I don't know how to put it into words. Like, I'm so proud to have been born just a few blocks away. Sometimes I say it doesn't seem real. You know, after all these years, it's still seems like a set.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you think it'll survive another hundred years?

MARTINO: It's going to survive another hundred years.

MARTÍNEZ: Tell us why it's going to survive.

MARTINO: Because it's our monument. Is the Eiffel Tower going to last another hundred years?

MARTÍNEZ: Think so. Probably. Statue of Liberty? Same thing?

MARTINO: The Statue of Liberty. This is our monument. I mean, I remember on New Year's Eve, 2000, where do you go? Everyone has a monument to go to. We wanted to go to the Hollywood sign.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you think you'd ever get to a point where you wouldn't feel something when you see it?

MARTINO: No.

MARTÍNEZ: I still do every day.

MARTINO: I'll always feel something when I see it. I'm feeling something right now. I wouldn't drive all the way up here for nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINO: I mean, I brought my mother here. I mean, you know, we always love seeing the sign. I can't get close enough to it. So you've asked me what the Hollywood sign means to me personally, and I'm having a really hard time putting that into words. I mean, it makes me think of fantasy. What does the Hollywood sign mean to you?

MARTÍNEZ: Being close to magic. That's what I'd always say. I'd have trouble, as you did, trying to describe...

MARTINO: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...It to other people, too, especially when people would look down on me for having a sign be the symbol of the place that I live and me being so proud of it. But I grew up in Koreatown, and I used to see it every morning when I'd wake up.

MARTINO: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: And I really didn't know what it meant until my stepdad took me to Paramount, drove me through - you know, right by Paramount and took me through Disney and said, look, this is where all those movies that you're obsessed with...

MARTINO: Right.

MARTÍNEZ: That's where all - they're made.

MARTINO: Right.

MARTÍNEZ: And I thought, I'm that close to all this magic. That's when I was able to finally just say, wow, that's why I love that sign so much. And it's still here a hundred years later.

MARTINO: And it's still here a hundred years later. Happy birthday, Hollywood sign.

MARTÍNEZ: Alison Martino, thanks for having us out here.

MARTINO: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARTY IN THE USA")

MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) I hopped off the plane at LAX with a dream and my cardigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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