LOS ANGELES – Like pilgrims flocking to a holy shrine, they come from all over the world to pay homage, not to a deity but to something similar – the people they see on TV and in the movies.
They are the seekers of the Hollywood Sign, that symbol of the Land of the Rich and Famous. And just like those on pilgrimages to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome or the Acropolis in Greece, they press to get as close as they can to the immortality of fame that it represents.
Unlike visitors to other sites, however, Hollywood Sign seekers can’t just take a bus or join a tour group. Arriving at the sign that towers magnificently over Los Angeles’ skyline requires traipsing through a densely populated hillside neighborhood of 20,000 people, one dotted by multimillion-dollar homes located on steep, narrow, almost impassable canyon roads.
“There will probably be 10,000 of them here this weekend,” said Guy Pohlman in a voice echoing a mixture of foreboding and disgust as he stood in front of his home just a few doors down from a once-secret back way to the closest hiking trail to the sign atop a mountain peak in LA’s sprawling Griffith Park.
“I’ve seen people stand on my wall to get a picture,” Pohlman said. “I’ve seen them stand on my neighbor’s garage. I’ve seen them stop in the middle of the street and stand on their cars. They block our emergency vehicles. They block our mail delivery.”
Sometimes they get stuck at the top of Pohlman’s narrow street and struggle to turn around without bashing into a neighbor’s wall. Sometimes a resident comes out of a house to scream at them to go away.
But still they come.
“It’s as if you want to touch the feet of the statues of the saints,” pop-culture historian Leo Braudy said of what drives them. “There’s a kind of desire to get something of that aura for yourself.”
You can’t quite touch the Hollywood sign, thanks to a protective fence, a bank of security cameras and the threat of arrest. But you can get close enough for a great photo, one of those poses where you pretend to be holding the sign aloft like Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders.
It’s a fine souvenir to send home to let the folks know you’ve been to the land where the movie stars live. And the easiest way to do that is to drive right through one of their neighborhoods. It’s a place called Hollywoodland that the sign, ironically enough, was erected in 1923 to promote when the homes were built.
The people moved in, the sign was abandoned, and like a cheap movie set, it began to fall apart. By the time the city got around to declaring it a landmark in 1973, it was falling down.
Eventually, a deep-pocketed coalition forked over the money to fix it, and in 1978, the nonprofit Hollywood Sign Trust was created to protect it.
In the years that followed, it became a Hollywood starlet of sorts, painted, face-lifted and beautiful – but unapproachable. It was just too difficult to find a canyon route to the sign.
That changed when smartphones became popular, and residents say the neighborhood hasn’t been the same since.
“Now you have Sally or Suri or whatever her name is and she tells you just how to get there,” City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area, said of the directions-giving iPhone voice.
Even worse, said Vincent Jeffords, who lives down the street from Pohlman, “If you Google ‘Hollywood sign and hiking trails’ on your smartphone, it will send you right here.”
Indeed, doing so will even give you one website listing Pohlman’s address – perhaps posted by the guy who stood on his wall – as the best place to take a picture.
The city recently responded by restricting weekend parking to locals and putting up an electronic pedestrian gate to the trail’s better known entrance. Now, people coming to see the sign on weekends must at least walk really far.
LaBonge would like to see further parking restrictions and perhaps a shuttle service from the park.
For his part, Pohlman says, he doesn’t mind people walking through his neighborhood so long as they stay off his wall and don’t trash his neighbors’ property. He’s come to accept that his home has become sort of a bivouac point.
Seemingly to prove his point, two young women suddenly emerge at his carport – sweaty, out of breath and asking for water.
Zeta Kearney, a wedding planner from the Spanish island of Ibiza, and her friend Elyse Smith, an oil trader from London, have just taken selfies at the sign, one of which will be on Kearney’s Facebook page.
“It was great,” Kearney says. “We had so much fun we’re coming back tomorrow.”