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Features

29 Mar 2018

BY Abra Dunsby

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Meet Bill Mack, owner of the original Hollywood sign's letter H

Ahead of the Heart of Hollywood World Tour coming to London, Abra Dunsby catches up with Bill Mack, artist and owner of the original "H" from the Hollywood sign

Artist Bill Mack
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We catch up with Bill Mack, artist, owner of the original H from the Hollywood sign, and bright spark behind the upcoming Heart of Hollywood World Tour

Why is now the time for the world to see the "H" from the original Hollywood sign?

The 100th anniversary of the sign’s creation will be in five years’ time, when the sign will return to LA. This is also the 40th year since the sign was last seen in public.

 

How did you end up with the letter H from the original sign?

In 1978, a new sign was unveiled to replace the old one, which had fallen into disrepair. That same year a promoter bought the original sign, stored it and forgot about it. Eventually in 2007 I was contacted to see if I wanted to buy it. Owning an important historical artefact fit my ego, and I ended up justifying it by doing something good with it and painting iconic images of movie stars on it.

 

What’s so significant about the sign?

The sign was there before the movie industry was there – it was originally made to promote a residential neighbourhood called Hollywoodland. The ‘land’ part of the sign was removed in 1949. The sign became the name for the movie industry in general. It was built to last a year, but it ended up lasting so much longer. It has the DNA of so many actors on it, as they used to go up and touch the "H" for good luck. When you see it, and you see the size of it, you grasp what it really is. It’s the height of four double decker buses.

 

What does the "H" look like now?

It had deteriorated badly by the time it was removed. We renovated it, but also tried to keep some of the original imperfections there. It still has the holes in it, which helped it to stay up in the wind. We took metal from the "H" to reconstruct the letter, but also from the other letters, so the "H" represents the entire sign.

 

What does the sign mean to you?

As a Hollywood collector, owning the "H" from the Hollywood sign is the Holy Grail. It represents everything… It’s also the letter that actress Peg jumped off. [Actress Lillian "Peg" Entwistle committed suicide by leaping from atop the letter H after becoming depressed about not finding acting roles]. It’s the "H" that Marilyn Monroe would have seen, that James Dean would have seen… they were both gone by the time the second sign came around.

 

What else is in your Hollywood collection?

I have the drum set that The Beatles used to write songs on, such as PS I Love You and Please Please Me. I also have the Golden Globe accepted by George C. Scott, before he refused the Oscar. I also have used lipsticks that Mariyln Monroe wore.

 

What else can visitors to the Heart of Hollywood World Tour see?

We’re currently working with the Hollywood Museum in LA to decide what will go on display. There will definitely be Marilyn in it – her furniture, costumes and documents. There’ll also be a Superman costume worn by Christopher Reeves and a jumpsuit worn by Elvis. Plus there will be photo opportunities for people who visit – we plan for the "H" to be outside so it’s visible from far away.

 

What is your favourite thing about the sign?

There are so many stories about it, making it hard to compare it to any other piece of memorabilia. The "H" became the symbol for the entertainment industry, and Hollywood became a word for dreams. It’s about entertainment and happiness. It’s not just unique to America – it’s also a liberal word that speaks to people around the world.

 

Why did you decide to paint Hollywood icons on the sign?

By working on the metal from the sign, it brings the characters to life. For a painting I made of Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I included a piece of fabric from the dress she wore in the movie. And on a painting of Marilyn, I’ve included a real lock of her hair. It might still have a bit of her DNA on the painting. It brings the stars to life.

 

Did you know?

  • The Hollywood sign cost $21,000 to make and included thirteen 15-metre high letters painted white. Using mule teams and tractors, the panels were hauled up Mount Lee. Four thousand 20-watt light bulbs were mounted on the letters.
  • The bulbs were maintained daily by caretaker Albert Kothe. To do the job, Kothe lived in a tiny shack behind the first letter L.
  • The sign was meant to last a year but survived for more than 50 years. It endured a termite infestation, the “O” tumbling down the mountain, and arsonists setting fire to the bottom of an “L.”
  • Hugh Hefner help raised funds for the new Hollywood sign by hosting a lavish fundraiser at the Playboy mansion. Alice Cooper sponsored an “O” in honour of Groucho Marx. Other letters are sponsored by Andy Williams and Gene Autry, among others.

  • The new sign was unveiled on Hollywood’s 75th anniversary celebration in November 1978, live, to a television audience of 60 million.
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