Monday, May 3, 2010

Sign Language

After several anxious months, the Hollywood community breathed a collective sigh of relief last week when it was announced that the land above the world-famous “Hollywood” sign had been saved from the clutches of developers who had planned to construct a series of luxury homes along the sight.

When the plan to build "McMansions" around one of L.A.’s only recognizable landmarks was announced, there was a panic. The Trust for Public Land quickly launched a campaign to raise the 12.5 million needed to save the hillside. I remember being in my car when I heard the news and vowed that the second I got home, I was going to write a check for the “Save the Peak” fund. However, when I got home and looked at my bank balance, I decided that perhaps I should leave saving the sign to some of Hollywood’s more famous and better-funded citizens. After all they had saved the sign once before in the 1970’s when it had fallen into terrible disrepair. Surely, this would all be resolved by the end of the week.

It wasn’t. Things started getting serious. A deadline was announced and gradually a few heavy-hitters started chipping in, but it wasn’t looking good. However, this being Hollywood, there was a happy ending when last week Hugh Heftner stepped up (at the last possible second) and saved the day, donating the final $900,000 needed to purchase the adjoining land. As my friend, Phil put it, “Ah, the power of naked women.”

When I heard the good news, I was again in my car on the east side of town, so I decided to swing over to Gower Avenue which when you’re traveling north, has a spectacular view of the sign. I flashed back to my first (and only) real encounter with the sign back in the mid-1980’s. It was my first scouting trip to Los Angeles. I was a young idealistic guy who’d put down roots in the theatre community in New York, but the allure of L.A. was hard to ignore. I’d decided to check it out.

I was staying in Laurel Canyon with an old roommate of mine who, unlike me, was always up for an adventure. It was the morning after one of her famous kick-ass parties and several of the party guests were still there; sprawled out over on various couches and chairs, when our hostess announced that, hung-over or not, we were all going to hike up to the Hollywood sign. Being new to these parts, I had no idea what that entailed.

As it turns out, you’re not actually supposed to hike up to the sign. There are fences and sternly-worded signs that make it pretty clear that the steep footing around the sign is not safe and the city is uninterested in hauling your broken corpse up from the canyon at taxpayers’ expense. That however, didn’t deter my friend or her posse. Up we went.

Once there, I have to admit it was pretty magical. The view was amazing and to a young, but already jaded East Coaster like myself, the whole concept of movie-makers having come to this rugged landscape, and carved out an empire was sort of thrilling. A couple of members of our party managed to climb up into the “O” next to the “H” and pictures were taken. It was then decided by our fearless leader that we would continue up the hillside to explore what appeared to be a radio station at the very top of the peak.

Just as we reached it, one of our party took a tumble and got a nasty gash in his leg. As we leaned him against the chain link fence around the station to examine the wound, I began to notice signs posted on the fence that were even more ominous the ones we’d already ignored. These signs were bigger and used phrases like “penalty of law” and “you will be arrested.” Then suddenly, a loud electronic voice blared at us; warning us that we were trespassing and that the police had been called. This scared the shit out of us, since the small “station” appeared to utterly unmanned. Clearly, we were being watched on hidden camera. My former roommate, never one to be easily intimidated, yelled back at the disembodied voice that one of us was injured and he needed to “cool his jets” (a phrase that was popular in the 80’s).

As we tried to determine if our friend was going to be able to hike back down the mountain, a figure emerged from the station and approached. If we were anxious before, this guy took things to a whole new level. Disheveled and overweight, with stringy, longish hair, pasty-white skin and beady little eyes, he looked like something out of a horror movie. His appearance could best be described as “mole-like.” Covering his eyes with his hand, he squinted at us as if he hadn’t seen human beings (or the sun) in quite some time. Ambling up, he began to quiz us from his side of the fence in a strange gravely voice.

We explained our situation and said we’d be off the property as soon as our friend (who was suddenly feeling much better) could walk. Pasty man began to back off his defensive stance within a minute or so, and launched into a rather lengthy explanation of the history and purpose of the station – an explanation none of us had asked for. Apparently, it was one of several underground, emergency communication centers for the city of Los Angeles and was staffed 24-7 in case of a big disaster like an earthquake or a terrorist attack. I remember at the time, thinking “terrorist attack?” But this was the 80’s when such things seemed utterly ludicrous to most Americans. To me, the guy seemed a little lonely. He was clearly the only person on duty and appeared glad just to have somebody to talk to.

Eventually, we got our injured soldier on his feet and started back down the hillside. Pasty waved at us, then oddly stood at the fence, his hands jammed in his pockets, and watched us for quite a while as we made our way down the hillside. The image of the station, the weird pasty guy and the towering letters spelling out “Hollywood” sort of embedded themselves into my consciousness. I wondered if I could ever really fit into such a strange place; a town almost entirely made up of optimistic newcomers. A place without much history and no discernable weather. An arid patch of mountainous desert slammed up against a massive ocean. A teaming city of cars constantly in motion; going somewhere; in pursuit of something. And all of this nuttiness perched atop a massive ever-shifting fault line that could reduce it all to rubble at any moment. I told myself I’d have to be crazy to move here. Six years (and two failed attempts later) I did. Eighteen years later, I’m still here. Still a newcomer. Still optimistic. Still nervous.

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at

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Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this D! I think that is the secret too-to remain optimistic even during the low points. There is a reason you are still here....:-)

-Jami R.

SopranoAscending said...

Loved your tale, David. I wonder what ever became of Pasty?
Stephen Fry just blogged about his four month stay in a home under the sign, nice photo included, to write his second memoir.

Anonymous said...

I'm waiting for the pic of you in the Hollywood O! Fun story. Thanks.

Suzenne said...

What you didn't mention in this story was the fact that in lieu of water, our "fearless leader" (who was a dyed-in-the-wool Texan) brought tequila, salt and limes to quench our thirst on that typically hot LA day.
(Could that have had something to do with A.'s fall on the barbed wire? Hmmmmm, perhaps.)
Thank you for the hike down (UP!) memory lane, David.
I sure wish I could lay my hands on those photos...

-(was then known as) Suzy S.