Hollywood’s Sign of the Time

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Filed under: Pranksters, Publicity Stunts, The History of Pranks

Forever Hollywood
by Kevin Ferguson
LA City Beat
June 2008

The RaffeysThe Hollywood sign was our Everest once – artists and men of vision hoofed it up Mount Lee and (depending on one's receptivity to change and general placement on the deference to authority scale) defaced it, vandalized it, or created monumental public art from it … because it was there. Before the locked gates, the motion sensors, and the security cameras, you could turn Los Angeles's most famous landmark – "our Eiffel Tower" according to Tom LaBonge – into any screed, any message, as long as it was nine letters or less. From 1976 to 1996, a small and diverse group of people did exactly that to our most famous landmark – the one that marked our land, in fact, as a city of the world: In those 20 years our Hollywood sign was edited at least 13 times.

Rarely was the message a proper jeremiad. Rarely would it change the lives of those who beheld it. Rarely did it instruct us how to live, or offer the answers to life, the universe and everything. (Forty-two.) Most of the time, in fact, it was utterly banal – rock bands or frat boys seeking some pub.

A few times (due mostly to the efforts of one artist), the sign made the leap to beautiful pith, more distilled and concise than the sparest haiku, the most soulful wit. But even the rest of the time, when it was just some joes looking for promotion, a maneuver on that scale must be considered art too.

Decades ago, the sign had its first run-in with change, albeit unintentionally. One night in the early 1940s, when it read HOLLYWOODLAND (the name of the 1923 real estate development the sign was intended to promote), its caretaker, Albert Kothe got smashed (since it was the '40s, doubtless on rye) and drove his car through the H, destroying the letter outright and leaving it to spell OLLYWOODLAND. In 1949, the sign was refurbished by the Los Angeles parks department and the LAND was taken out, rendering the sign a statewide landmark rather than a promotional tool for development.

The late Daniel Finegood was the first to climb the mountain and change the sign since Kothe's wild ride. It was Jan. 1, 1976, when California relaxed its marijuana laws; the furniture maker and artist altered the sign to read HOLLYWeeD. He would do it three more times: HOLYWOOD on an Easter Sunday, OLLYWOOD for Oliver North and the Iran-Contra hearings, and OIL WAR during our first Iraq War. "He always had a fascination with physical art," said his daughter Natalie. "Different signs express different signage, and he used what was already there as a medium." (Apparently the children of artists talk that way too.)

Natalie remembers nights she and her mom would drop Daniel and his buddies off at the base of the hill after mass gatherings at the Finegood home: neon signs all over the place, friends working, sewing together enormous canvas sheets. Above all things, Finegood the artist used humor to examine signs – literal signs – and their meaning. By changing them, usually deleting or altering no more than one or two letters, the meaning would change completely. Once, Finegood rented a room in the now-gone Hotel Rector in Hollywood, specifically requesting a room next to the first R in RECTOR. Natalie says that the next day the sign read ERECTOR.

Good public art is a rarity, and most of the hooligans looking to change the sign weren't after art, but a billboard. In 1984, in a promise befitting a rock star's sense of narcissism and grandeur, the Raffeys – a self-described "white pop jive band" from New Orleans – told their fans they would move to Hollywood and put their own name across the epic sign. The Raffeys' aims were as world-changing as Angelyne's (who was herself knocking off the artistic vision of the late great Judy Holliday). But despite their intent, and possibly without their knowledge, they created art anyway. After all, there were harnesses involved.

While Raff Raffey (singer and guitarist) and Max Chain (singer and keyboards) waited for the rest of their band to follow them across the country, they slept on the sand in Venice Beach and made friends with a beach bum named Ted before moving into a cramped one-bedroom in Venice. (Is there any other kind?) Not long after, the Raffeys decided to take the first steps in getting their names on the Hollywood sign, hiking up Mount Lee to see their canvas up close. No one in the band had any idea the sign was as huge as it turned out to be: Each letter is 45 feet, or about four stories, tall. Raff was ready to throw in the towel, the task too daunting. Moreover, the Raffeys were poor, since they were musicians and presumably sans either girlfriend or day job. The operation would have only a virtual budget.

They drew the schematics for their night op on graph paper; they would need around 160 bed sheets to cover the sign. With no money, they first tried begging: "We went door to door telling people we were a frat, and we needed sheets for a rush," Raff said. "We only got one or two sheets." Then, as so often happens, thievery saved the day: Max found an unlocked Holiday Inn linen closet, took all the sheets, and ran. They set up shop in an abandoned Venice dairy, borrowed a sewing machine, and got to work. By now it was December, and they had less than a month to put up the sign; following Finegood's blueprint, they would execute the operation on New Year's Eve: "There are only two nights you could go up there and the helicopters won't fly: the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve," said Raff. "The crazies get drunk, get guns, and start shooting into the air."

When you're talking about modifying the Hollywood sign, all planning is done on a monstrous scale. Finegood always had a crew of old friends to help out. His methods were almost the same as the Raffeys used: large black and white sheets of material to cover up the letters. The HOLLYWeeD sign – a college art project that earned him an A – was easier than most because it only involved changing two letters. His most labor-intensive piece was the OIL WAR sign, which required six letters to be either changed or covered completely.

All of these projects are collaborative, as anything on this scale must be, but nobody remembers the names of the dirt movers who physically created Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, or any of the seamstresses who sewed the grand shrouds for Wrapped Reichstag; they remember only Christo and his chick. Some of the most notorious undertakings were done by groups of scheming college students, often fraternities. The first school to successfully get its name on the sign was the U.S. Naval Academy (the sign read GO NAVY) in 1983 during a football game against the Army. Similarly, USC (USCWOOD) and UCLA (GO UCLA) students put their schools' names on the signs in 1987 and 1993, respectively. It was rumored that up to 40 Caltech students participated in their 1987 operation (the simple and elegant CALTECH). The Raffeys had a grand total of six: the four band members and two accomplices, their friend Andrew Rupert and Ted the beach bum.

Raff had to work that night – see what happens when you assume musicians don't work? He arrived at the sign around 1:30 a.m., but the work had barely begun. He was running material up the hill when Ted, who was running with him and was also a smoker advancing in age, stopped suddenly: "He says ‘Raff, slow down. My heart's palpitating. I think something's gonna happen.'" In the calmest voice he could muster, Raff told his friend that if he died, he would leave him.

As morning loomed, the Raffeys stepped up their effort. A hastily tied-down rope sent Raff flying from 45 feet – he was saved by a $75 climber's vest.

The sun rose, and all that remained to put up were four exclamation marks to cover the extra letters. If they left without the punctuation, their original vision for the sign would be incomplete, but the plan was to play an unauthorized show in public that coming day. "We wanted to get arrested," Raff said, "but not there."

That day, the band set up and performed in front of a friend's shop on Venice's Ocean Front Walk. They had a lot of experience doing guerilla shows, setting up in a middle school, mall, etc., in around 10 minutes, complete with a fake contract to buy time in case an authority came by. This time, though, they wanted the law there – they wanted everybody there. Most importantly, they wanted to get arrested, because they knew that would make news, too. As they hoped, the police came. But instead of arresting or even fining them, they shook each band member's hand and left.

That's right. The Raffeys couldn't get arrested in this town.

In order to be charged with vandalism, you pretty much need to be caught in the act; the same rationale extends to taggers and why they stay mostly (save Buket) outside the law's reach. Daniel Finegood researched this thoroughly before he performed the HOLLYWeeD operation and never received anything more than a few angry phone calls from city officials.

Save for a few mentions on Jeopardy!, it was all for naught. The band broke up not long after. Members splintered off: Some went solo and others got jobs. Raff got into recording and engineering, which is his career today. In 1986, Max Chain attempted to modify the sign a second time, in an effort to promote his new solo record. This time the sign was to say MAX CHAIN. He used all the same methods as the Raffeys, the sheets, the sewing, the dye. All preparations went smoothly, and on the second attempt (they'd forgotten the X the first time), they'd changed the sign. But morning dawned tragically foggy: Almost no one saw the Max Chain sign. Thanks to what Chain claims was a media blackout effort by then Hollywood Chamber of Commerce President Bill Welsh, the incident received virtually no news coverage whatsoever. The Man had got him down.

There is only one other reported incident in which a musician used the sign for self-promotion, and it ended just as badly. Jizzy Pearl sang lead vocals for a local hair metal band called Love/Hate, set to release Wasted in America in 1992. The band took an enormous cross and attached it to the sign's Y. Around 4 p.m., news helicopters noticed that Pearl – with a hair farmer's humility – had strapped himself to the cross. Pearl, it seemed, could be arrested. The band's label, Columbia, was displeased.

Three years after the Jizzy Pearl incident (and a few months after the UCLA prank) the security system was upgraded, making it more and more difficult for the sign to be altered. The Hollywood Sign Trust spent $94,000 to install closed circuit cameras focused on the sign, but with a flaw that makes one wonder if the planning was perpetrated by Donald Rumsfeld: All of the vandalism incidents happened at night, and the cameras had no night vision. Two years after the cameras arrived, the sign was changed to PEROTWOOD. It was the last time the sign was ever rejiggered; just this year, the Trust installed motion detectors, more cameras, and 24 hour surveillance monitored from a room in Los Angeles City Hall.

Modifying the sign is virtually impossible now, though maybe someone will climb the mountain again. Today the only real threat to the sign's image is a proposed luxury home development, northwest of Mount Lee. City officials have been scrambling to raise the $22 million necessary to buy the land. But even if the development goes through, it wouldn't block the view of the sign – it would just blemish nearby Cahuenga Peak's pristine landscape.

Some, like Daniel Finegood, considered the night ops acts of art, some called them pranks, and others called it outright vandalism. Finegood exchanged words with the Los Angeles Times over perceptions of his art: In 1983 he responded to the Times's characterization of a sign-altering as "vandalism" in a letter. He wrote, "An artist's role throughout history has been to create representations of the culture he exists in. By hanging four relatively small pieces of fabric on the landmark, we were able to change people's perception of the Hollywood sign."

He was on the right track. If Hollywood stands unceasingly for anything, it's both change and perception. The two are always vital here – never aging or weakening, always fresh and new. They are eternal in our city's soul, as gleaming as a starlet's teeth. It's possible L.A. stands for self-promotion, too – and, just maybe, hair bands.