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'Hollywoodland' Author Digs Into Neighborhood Roots

Mary Mallory's book explores the history behind one of the world's most iconic signs.

Though she grew up in Mineola on the plains of east Texas, like many children around the world enchanted by the movies, Mary Mallory was drawn to Hollywood. These days she lives in Los Angeles, and this May, with the publication of she’s become a Hollywood historian.

Hollywoodland is lovingly packed with archival photographs and historic details about the singular hillside village up in the summit of Beachwood Drive.

Mallory, a film historian and photo archivist at the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, is also on the board of directors of Hollywood Heritage. It’s there she first encountered the voluminous collection of beautiful photographs released to the public as part of the Images of America series of historic books.

“I always loved old movies and old-fashioned songs,” she said on her lunch hour on an overcast June morning in Hollywood. “I grew up going to the movies and watching them on TV.”  She studied film history at the University of Texas in Austin before moving to Los Angeles, where she’s been entranced by the history of what’s often been called “America’s most famous neighborhood.”

Hollywoodland, as the book explains, was a 1923 real estate development in the hills up above that famous neighborhood, the brainchild of the developer S.H. Woodruff, with the able support of Harry Chandler of the LA Times. This new hillside neighborhood promoted a European elegance, and featured quaint elements such as stone retaining walls and stone stairways built into the hills.

“Woodruff was a good salesman,” Mallory said, “and he was also a tinkerer, an inventor. He was an architect in San Francisco in about 1911, where he learned all about building hillside neighborhoods. From there he went to New York and then to Hollywood. He also had some problems with the law.”  

Despite his somewhat shady past, Mallory explained, Woodruff's vision of the future was clear, and is preserved in the advertisements for Hollywoodland, which proclaim it the “supreme achievement in community building.”

“It was really a Hollywood idea of what an elegant American neighborhood should be,” she said. “Close to the bustle of downtown Hollywood, it was even closer to the bucolic bliss of hillside living.”

The horse stables, which still operate at the top of Beachwood Drive, were a big attraction, inviting city-dwellers to live like carefree cowboys in the hills, “with the freedom to ride your horse but only four minutes from Hollywood,” Mallory said. “And Hollywood was a  nice town that was really growing because the silent studios here were building and growing.”

Hollywoodland was conceived as a dream, but an affordable one for upper middle class people, with the average house then selling for $10,000 to $20,000.  Much of the expense, Mallory explained, came from the large amount of concrete necessary to bolster the hillsides behind and around each home.

Chandler’s participation ensured that the LA Times would provide frequent publicity for Hollywoodland. “There were stories about it in the Times [for] three or four weeks,” Mallory said. His political clout enabled Hollywoodland not only to create its own matrix of winding roads, it was granted the opportunity to erect an immense 50-foot sign up in the hills festooned with light bulbs to announce its presence to the world below with a gargantuan billboard that read: HOLLYWOODLAND.

“Well, code regulations were a little different then,” Mallory explained with a laugh. “There were also other signs up above Whitley Heights and elsewhere, but none as big as the Hollywoodland sign.”

“The idea for the sign came when Chandler went to John Roche,” she explained, “an ad man for the Times, and told him he wanted something big enough so that people could see it all the way from Wilshire Boulevard. So Roche designed this sign—actually the separate 50-foot tall letters—lit up with light bulbs. But it was intended to be temporary, which is why they built it with old telephone poles and pipes and wire.” A giant white dot, meant to punctuate the sign, was also installed in the hills below.

The sign unintenionally became the symbol not for the real estate development above Hollywood, but for all of Hollywood itself, but that transition didn’t occur overnight.

“If you look at any photos of Hollywood in the LA Times prior to 1949,” Mallory said, “you see no photos, no mention of the sign. Sherman gave it to L.A. but by the end of the 1940s, the H fell off and it was looking pretty shabby. The city Parks and Recreation wanted to tear it down, but people protested, and said it’s a landmark, and it should stay. After all, it had been there more than 20 years, which meant a lot of people grew up with it, and they didn’t want to see it torn down.”

“So the city of Hollywood decided to keep it, and since the ‘LAND’ portion of the sign was the worst off, they discarded that and made it the Hollywood sign. People donated money to refurbish it and to this day it’s one of the most iconic landmarks in all of Los Angeles.”

Though people often speak about a mythic “lost Hollywood,” as if no parts of that era remain, that history can still be seen unchanged in the remarkable mélange of architectural styles—Egyptian, Moorish, modern, post-modern—up in the hills.  Yet that diversity was not the original intention.

“Originally only four types of design were allowed,” she said, “English Tudor, French Normandy, Spanish—or what they called California Spanish —and Mediterranean. Plans for Hollywoodland petered out in 1935, after the big stock market crash, but also because Woodruff was involved in building a similar community in Dana Point. And so things changed.”

“In 1950, the land was available, and though there was a housing committee, pretty much any style was allowed, which is why there is such a mixture of styles now. And in 1961, there was a big fire that destroyed more than 50 houses along Deronda and Rodgerton and other streets. Some of those lots are still empty, but most were replaced by the modern houses now standing.”

In 1924, soon after the birth of Hollywoodland while the lots were being sold, William Mulholland decided to build a dam and giant reservoir, to be known as , up above Hollywood in what was then Weid Canyon. Residents along Holly Drive directly below the proposed dam and elsewhere were understandably concerned about having a gargantuan reservoir of water up in the hills, above their houses, in this earthquake prone region. Mulholland promised there was no danger to Hollywood, but when Mulholland’s St. Francis Dam, a twin to the Hollywood dam, broke and caused a horrific flood that leveled towns and killed more than 400 people, hundreds sold their homes in Hollywood and fled the area.

The DWP closed the dam for several years, during which a huge terrace of trees to obscure the dam, which as Mallory pointed out, “would be very visible from the 101 today if not covered.”

Conspiracy theories have floated for decades that Mulholland was in cahoots with Chandler to build Lake Hollywood below Hollywoodland to give the residents of the new community a comely lakeside view. The beautiful lake vistas from Castillo del Lago and other stately Hollywood mansions preserved in the book seem to support this theory, although Mallory maintains no proof exists that connects Mulholland and Hollywoodland.

“Obviously there is some kind of connection but I never found any paperwork that ties them together.”

was also designed as part of the Hollywoodland vision. “They wanted a little village nearby so residents didn’t have to leave the neighborhood,”  Mallory explained. “There were two markets, one for produce and one for everything else, and a barber shop. The which is still there is the original office, the center of headquarters for Hollywoodland, and the first building there. The construction company used to be across the street, but now there’s a parking lot there.”

The book took five months of solid work, most of which was spent at the library downtown poring over photographs and news stories from the LA Times. Mallory, who will be doing many book signings throughout the summer, said it is available for purchase on Amazon and at .

allen hatch June 19, 2011 at 01:34 PM
Great article! My most recent obsession has been the Hollywoodland area and its history. Can't wait to see the book. Allen Hatch PygmyPinscherAntiquesHollywood
sarajane June 19, 2011 at 05:21 PM
Yes Hollywoodland is a great outline of the story of Hollywood. It is a must for anyone in Los Angeles who really wants to get a grasp of the rich history that exists here. It never ceases to amaze me the amount of great stories our city has. Los Angeles is so big it can feel overwhelming but if you do some digging in the cracks, you would be amazed at what comes up and this book offers a great glimpse into that. http://holisticdentistlosangeles.com
Paul Zollo June 19, 2011 at 05:55 PM
Many thanks to Janet Hoffman for her great help in setting up and informing this article. Janet, Hollywood is lucky to have you.
Mary Mallory June 19, 2011 at 10:11 PM
Thanks, Paul, for such a wonderful article. Hollywood Heritage is very lucky to have Janet help promote our activities. A couple of little corrections, Alan Duignan is the photographer of the photo of me, he did great work. Also, Woodruff began working as an architect in New York, went to San Francisco around 1911, and ended up in Los Angeles in the late teens. The LA Times published stories about Hollywoodland 3-4 times a week for four years, so Chandler really heavily promoted it.
Paul Zollo June 20, 2011 at 06:37 AM
Glad you liked it, Mary - hoped to do your book justice. I changed the photo credit cause I can do that much - hope the book is a big success.

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