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Hooray for Hollywood


By Steven Wagner

Published Oct 1, 2007 8:00 AM

It is a coveted piece of land — a stretch of hillside with a view to die for. On it, like sentries standing watch over dreamland, are 50-foot-high corrugated steel letters that symbolically reach for the stars. It is the Hollywood Sign, as recognizable in Sri Lanka as in Los Angeles.

It is more than a landmark. It is an icon. And it has a steward — who is a Bruin.

Since 1992, Chris Baumgart '73 has chaired the Hollywood Sign Trust that manages the icon. But he is a hands-on trustee. Baumgart's "duties" have included checking the superstructure for signs of buckling, evaluating the paint for wear, examining protective fences and inspecting the security cameras he helped to install.

"It's a priceless piece of nature," he says, "a signature of a way of life [and] a very important element of the Southern California economy."

Baumgart's links to the sign began in 1988, when he joined the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce board of directors, quickly heading the then-inactive Hollywood Sign Committee. Since the committee evolved into an independent trust in 1992, its successes have included the installation of an Internet-based security system; the development of a Web site,, and two major refurbishments.

"All nine of us contribute in our own way," Baumgart says of the trust, disavowing any notion that he alone is the official caretaker. "I press a lot of the Web and security issues, but others [on the trust] deal with other issues."

Originally reading "Hollywoodland," the sign was erected in 1923 as a real estate promotion. In 1949, the Chamber of Commerce removed the word "land." In subsequent years the sign fell into disrepair, with letters collapsing and vandals having their way. Today, to prevent access to graffiti "taggers" and others with bad intent, fences surround the sign and nearby security cameras. If there is a breach, security personnel can respond immediately.

One breach that could not have been prevented occurred in 1999, when lightning struck the sign, destroying the security system. Other challenges have served to make Baumgart's tenure memorable as well, including New Year's Eve of that year, when he helped usher in the new millennium by illuminating the sign for one of the few times since it ceased to be a billboard. And in 2005, Baumgart spotted a man trying to light the steel sign on fire. He alerted authorities.

And the sign endures. It is, after all, "about dreams," says the Bruin who protects it. "Dreams of success and making it in the business and dreams that are put on screen."