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 nearly forgot the motion picture stars that came up with the money to refurbish it. The monstrous sign was virtually in the center of Griffith Park, one of the largest public parks 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. 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.
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. 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.
In January 1942, a Los Angeles newspaper held the Southern California speed skating championships. 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.
By then, the Hollywoodland sign had been shrunken to Hollywood and the light bulbs were lost somewhere to history.
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.
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.
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.