LOS ANGELES – The world-famous HOLLYWOOD sign that has been used by TV and movie directors in more scene-setting shots than a film student could ever count was first erected in 1923 to promote real estate in the fledgling capital of celluloid.
Eighty-five years later, some fear the sign and the hillside on which it sits are threatened by, yes, a real estate deal.
An investment group that owns 138 sage-covered acres above and to the left of the 45-foot-high, steel-and-concrete H put the land up for sale last month for $22 million.
Some Los Angeles residents are afraid mansions will be built there, spoiling the sign's uncluttered, postcard-perfect backdrop. They worry, too, that the land will no longer be accessible to the hikers, sightseers and romantics who often climb the hill for solitude and a panoramic view of the Los Angeles basin.
Residents led by a city councilman are fighting to preserve the parcel, known as Cahuenga Peak.
"That is our Eiffel Tower," Councilman Tom LaBonge said. "There is the Hollywood sign. There is the open space. And that's all there is. This is ours and it should remain ours."
The parcel has a distinctly Hollywood back story: It was once owned by billionaire Howard Hughes.
Lore has it that Hughes bought it in 1940 — 17 years after the publisher of the Los Angeles Times spelled out his plans for a nearby subdivision in King Kong-size letters — with dreams of building an estate to share with Ginger Rogers.
The romance fizzled — Rogers later said the idea of being holed up with the tycoon on the isolated hilltop gave her the willies — and Hollywood's highest crest was left to the deer, the coyotes and the visitors who ignore the no-trespassing signs.
In fact, most people here assumed the property had long ago fallen into the public domain. That is, until Fox River Financial Resources, the Chicago investors who quietly purchased the peak from Hughes' estate for $1.7 million in 2002, put the one-of-a-kind parcel on the market recently.
Based on the bargain-basement price paid by the investors, it appears the Hughes estate's trustees were unaware of what it was worth or too busy managing the billionaire's vast holdings to care, said Ernie Carswell, a real estate agent handling the property.
Either way, the current asking price stems from valuable information the owners unearthed after buying the property: In 1949, Hughes secured the right to build a hillside road on land owned by the city Department of Water and Power. That would make the hill more accessible, and thus more attractive to homeowners.
"Deep beneath all the layers was the Hope diamond. Someone found it, and it was our sellers," Carswell said. "The day that happened is when that property skyrocketed in value."
Carswell said the parcel is farther away from the Hollywood sign than many people realize, and that at a distance, even a mansion would be a mere "speck" on the mountain.
To the many fans of the Hollywood sign, however, carving up 1,820-foot Cahuenga Peak makes as much sense as cutting up the Hope diamond to make a lot of engagement rings.
"I think people would do everything from bake sales to jog-a-thons to stop this," said Yvonne Chotzen, who often walks her dog on the trail below the sign. "There is huge passion for it."
LaBonge wants the city, which owns the ground the sign stands on and the land on three sides of it, to acquire the old Hughes property. But he said the city cannot legally pay more than $6 million, a price based on its most recent appraisal.
The councilman is talking to conservation groups about buying the land. Another option, he said, is asking Hollywood heavy hitters to chip in as they did in the 1970s, when Hugh Hefner, Alice Cooper and other celebrities paid $28,000 each to replace the sign's nine crumbling letters.
Historian Marc Wanamaker, president of the preservation group Hollywood Heritage, doubts the Ginger Rogers-Howard Hughes love story. But he said there is no denying the significance of the Hollywood sign, which is instantly recognizable around the world.
"It's true the Hollywood sign was originally a sign to help sell development. But by 1945 the City Council of Los Angeles had made it the official iconic sign of Los Angeles," Wanamaker said. "It's just become part of the culture and landmark status of Los Angeles, extremely important."
Carswell said there is something ironic about the effort to block real estate development around the site.
"Those letters were a real estate developer's advertisement. That's the whole way the sign got there," he said. "So I think it's the perfect circle."