Vail Daily column: Memories from Hollywoodland | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Memories from Hollywoodland

Warren Miller
Valley Voices

Hundreds of millions of people have read the Hollywood sign as they came in for a landing at Los Angeles International Airport. In the early days of the sign, the 1920s, it read Hollywoodland and was illuminated by thousands of electric light bulbs. Each letter was approximately 40 feet high and made of sheet metal attached to telephone poles. The light bulbs illuminated hopes and dreams of the Southern California settlers.

I was lucky because we lived within 2 miles of it and I made a lot of bicycle trips up there. As I understand it, this sign was financed by real estate developers and as I watched the fall and gradual decay of it over the years, I have long ago almost forgotten the motion picture stars that came up with the money to refurbish it. The monstrous sign was virtually in the center of Griffith Park, probably the largest public park in a metropolitan area anywhere in America. It was full of fire roads carved on the side of a hill of decomposed granite. As a youngster, I have no idea how many times I rode up there, but it was a lot. The first time I ever saw ice formed on the ground was on one of those roads and so I rode my bicycle back home, got my ice skates and had a nice afternoon skating while looking down on Los Angeles basin.

I had already spent dozens of days at the Polar Ice Palace making endless left turns for 35 cents. During my first year in high school I came up with the $28 for a pair of custom-made racing skates with offset blades, as offsetting the blades allowed me to lean farther into the corner as I went around and round without the shoe itself hitting the ice.

In the late 1930s, on the old Gilmore oilfields, developers built a convention center called the Pan Pacific Auditorium. It was a much larger building with much more ice and one lap was quite a bit farther. The price was the same and in a 35 cent session there was a 10-minute skate time for men only and another one for women only. During that time we could go as fast as we wanted to or were capable of.

In January 1942, a Los Angeles daily newspaper held the Southern California speed skating championships. I rounded up five dollars, borrowed a friend’s bicycle and rode it to a dance and costume shop on Hollywood Boulevard and purchased a pair of black ballet tights.

I was not surprised when I skated for the first time in those black tights that spectators laughed at my skinny little legs and long racing blades, but I just knew I could skate much faster as there was no wind resistance that my jeans otherwise made.

The race was not staged as you see it in the Olympic television broadcasts, but rather everyone just lined up at a starting line and all left at the same time. During the last of 10 laps, I was struggling in fourth place when one of the men in front of me fell and I coasted home in third place and won the first trophy in my life. It is probably around here somewhere in a box in my closet full of mementos.

By then, the Hollywoodland sign had been shrunken to Hollywood and the light bulbs were lost somewhere to history (and lots of rock throwing by young kids.) Maybe this was about one of the times they propped up the letters to preserve the sign.

I think that’s been seen and photographed by as many people that have seen or photographed the London Tower Bridge or the Eiffel Tower. I’m sure there are other people in other parts of the world who have one goal in life, and it is to see this Hollywood sign.

I rode my bicycle all over Southern California in the 1930s and I could see the sign everywhere I pedaled south to Newport Beach and as far north as Malibu into the northeast corner of San Fernando Valley at Pop’s Willow Lake.

There was a very large flat spot that had been excavated to erect the sign, but it sadly became a trash-filled picnic area with approximately 200,000,000 beer cans left there every summer.

I got to know the road there and back very well on my bike. A lot of my friends thought I was crazy because the ride back down the mountain was steep and you could ride faster than you really wanted to, especially if you knew the dips and curves. Fortunately for me I never did crash on the descent.

The park’s department has put up some heavy chains across the road so that automobiles cannot drive up there to watch the sunset and drink beer. If anyone wanted to do that they had a hike of almost 1 mile to the end of the road which took a bit of the steam out of possible high-jinx that might have been planned.

This was long before the invention of the wetsuit for surfing and diving and in the winter months, when the 20-mile distant ocean dropped to 47 or 48 degrees, there was no sense in riding my bicycle to the beach and freezing.

At the same elevation and several miles to the east is the Griffith Park planetarium. Again, luck was on my side because construction started in the mid-1930s. We used to go up there on Saturdays and see how construction was coming. When they leveled the place for the planetarium they shoved the dirt off the side of the hill and it formed a talus slope. We could run on the flat parking lot and leap into the air and drop as much as 12 vertical feet into knee-deep soft dirt. On one of those leaps, I landed leaning too far forward and did three or four somersaults and finally came to a stop down in the larger rocks at the bottom. It was a very uncomfortable ride back to my house on my bicycle and, of course, in those days the family had no accident insurance. I ended up in the first aid room at the local police station and was treated with lots of iodine and bandages, however, with nothing broken.

That Griffith planetarium got me very excited about astronomy and later astrophysics. I used to try to get my brain around the incredible distances, the size and temperature and velocity of what is zooming around invisibly in the sky almost every night.

My three children were all born in Southern California within 20 miles of where I was born. Today, two of them still live there. This part of the world is still a wonderful place to live if you’re fortunate enough to live within 1 mile of the ocean. Nearby Malibu Beach is where the light surfboard was invented in the late 1940s by Bob Simmons, who lived in Pasadena with his mother, an invention that changed the world forever for anyone looking for freedom. I was one of them, however, I was not very smart because I kept riding my hundred-pound, 11-foot long redwood surfboard for another five years before I wised up. There was a magic time in the 1940s/50s when you hung up your surfboard in the garage, took your skis down and made sure your skid chains worked and started checking the snow report with a local ski shop. It would be many years before there was a surf report, and today I’m pretty sure no one is as dumb as we were, running and jumping down the hill into the pile of soft dirt.

However, the Hollywood sign is still maintained and visible throughout Southern California.

Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto WarrenMiller.net.