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Film

How Hugh Hefner helped to save the Hollywood sign

@Russellisation

A figure of key cultural influence in the late 20th century, the magazine publisher and founder and editor-in-chief of Playboy magazine, Hugh Hefner, developed quite the reputation in the 1960s. Releasing the first issue of the influential magazine in 1953, featuring Marilyn Monroe in a nude calendar shoot, Playboy quickly built notoriety for selling sex and lewd imagery to younger generations. 

As a result of this, Hugh Hefner became a peculiar figure seen as an obscene individual by conservative individuals and something of a royal in the cultural sphere of America. Extending his brand into a world network of Playboy Clubs, Hefner lived a party lifestyle, residing in luxury mansions where his ‘playmates’ would also live, sharing his wealth, popularity and lavish situation. 

Calling Los Angeles his home, Hefner was drawn to the glamorous location in the early 1970s and never left until his tragic death in 2017, throwing iconic parties with the biggest names in showbiz all throughout his life. Though, whilst he was known as a lothario, Hefner was also a humanitarian and an activist, often fighting for First Amendment rights, issues of animal welfare and, surprisingly, the preservation of the Hollywood sign over several decades.

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Originally reading ‘Hollywoodland’, the white banner of California commercialism was erected in 1923 and has since become one of the most iconic American landmarks, symbolising one’s arrival in the land of glamorous cinematic dreams. 

Sitting on the side of Mount Lee, by 1978 the sign had been there for 55 years and had become shattered by half a century of weather and poor maintenance. Needing the sizeable sum of $250,000 at the time to completely replace each massive letter, The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce needed assistance to raise the funds needed for the project, with Hefner stepping in to help the only way he knew how. 

Announcing a party and fundraising event at the Playboy Mansion, Hefner sent out invitations to the richest industry names with the plan being to auction off individual letters to those in attendance. Raising the necessary funds, Hefner encouraged the rock legend, Alice Cooper, to purchase the ‘O’ whilst the singer Gene Autry brought the ‘L’ and the entire Warner Bros. Records decided to purchase the other ‘O’. 

Paying for the repair and restoration of the sign, this wouldn’t be the last time the publisher would have to come to the landmark’s aid, with its existence being once again questioned in 2008. 

Listing 138 acres of land beside the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign, a group of Chicago investors threatened the integrity of the great landmark with the sale, meaning that new developments could obstruct the view of the tourist attraction. The only way out of this sticky situation was for the Trust for Public Land to buy the property and gift the sign and the land to the city, an acquisition that needed $12 million to pull off, with $900,000 needed in the final few days before the deadline. 

Chiming in to pay the sum that almost topped $1 million, Hefner helped save the Hollywood sign for a second time, preserving the sight for tourists across the world to visit and enjoy. So influential was the publisher in saving the landmark, in fact, that the Trust for Public Land installed a plaque on a large rock beside the sign, reading ‘Hugh Hefner Overlook’.

“The sign is Hollywood’s Eiffel Tower,” Hefner lovingly said to the New York Times, explaining his fascination with the landmark and its importance to the American people. As the late icon of 20th century Western culture concludes, “This sign represents the dreams and aspirations of people around the world”.

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