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The Hollywood Sign: Unlikely Rival for the Statue of Liberty

Millions now see the 90-year-old former real estate billboard as a symbol of America

Flimsily constructed as a billboard for the Hollywoodland housing development at its feet, the Hollywood sign has evolved over its 90-year history into an international symbol of opportunity.

Though it’s long been known as an emblem of Hollywood wealth and glamour, in recent decades it has come to represent America itself for millions, especially around the Pacific Rim.

“They see (the Hollywood sign) in television, they see it in movies, and they see it as representative of the advertising of the American dream,” says Hollywood Sign Trust chairman Chris Baumgart. “It’s the allure of opportunity. Specifically, it’s the opportunity to make it in the entertainment business. But big picture, that’s the hope and dream that America represents.”

The sign is fenced off and under 24-hour surveillance, so it’s illegal to get within arm’s length. Yet tourists make the climb anyway. Hope Anderson, who directed the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign,” says, “There’s this feeling that if you get close to the sign, and preferably can touch it, that some kind of magic will be imparted to you.”

Anderson, who was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Japan, and studied Japanese history at UC Berkeley, says: “It’s almost become this religious icon and people feel that if they touch the Hollywood icon … they’ll be the star that they know themselves to be.”

They’re often disappointed to be kept at bay, but as Baumgart says: “Isn’t that what dreams are all about? Just out of reach.”

Producer Luo Yan, a former movie star in China who moved from Shanghai to the U.S. in the mid-1980s and now splits her time between Beijing and L.A., observes the sign’s location adds to its mystique.

“Because it’s on a mountain, it means ‘on top of the world,’ ” Luo says. “It’s everything about America, not just Hollywood.”

Even showbiz vets feel the sign’s allure. Howard A. Rodman, VP of the Writers Guild of America West, says while the sign is owned by the city, “Really, it’s the property of the world.”

“To me (it) represents the continuation of that dream of what movies could be, of what entertainment could be. And, if we listen to our better angels, the kinds of stories that we, who live under its shadow, can tell the world.

“That gives me inspiration and courage as I get up every morning to write.”

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