Simon Calder: The man who pays his way

Gazing on a sunny afternoon is not enough

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The Independent Travel

Appropriately for the home of make-believe, the roads that wind through the scraggy hills above Hollywood are decorated with signs whose accuracy would be improved if they read exactly the opposite. Steer your rental car east into Lake Hollywood Drive, for example, and you see one of a number of big yellow signs in the area that insist: “No access to Hollywood sign.”

Yet suppose you follow the road almost to the reservoir from which it draws its name. Park on the hill at the junction with Wonderview Drive. Then wander up Wonderview, noting the homes with a vista that only an excessive amount of disposable income can buy, protected by gates made from excessive amounts of steel. Beside a big yellow barrier denying access to vehicles stands another sign. This one provides details of the nearest source of rattlesnake anti-venom: 1.8 miles away, in Burbank. I took this hike last Sunday, and was crestfallen to see that remedies against poisonous reptile bites are available only from Monday to Saturday. But the risk is outweighed by the prospect of one of the world’s greatest urban hikes.

Paying due attention to the further prohibitions on alcoholic beverages, smoking and loitering, you begin the ascent. After half an hour of zigging then zagging uphill, you reach a lone Mountain Oak – known as the Tree of Life among those whose DNA contains traces of the Sixties. Examine the introspective comments in the visitors’ book, then spend another half-hour scrambling through the chaparral that stands high over Hollywood.

Stride across a vertiginous ridge with Los Angeles on one side and the San Fernando Valley on the other, and you reach two items of interest. The first, bolted to a rock, is a brass plaque commemorating the Playboy magnate, Hugh Hefner, who helped pay for the area to be conserved. The second, despite that warning about “No Access,” is the back end of the Hollywood sign. Almost.

The 45ft-high capital letters, planted on the uneven platform of the hills, first announced themselves to the world in 1923. The steel symbols constituted a rudimentary marketing message by realtors (estate agents) seeking to extract some value from what was then a patch of marginal house-building terrain known as Hollywoodland.

The last four letters were shed along the road to stardom. Today, the Hollywood sign comprises a tantalising tourist attraction – with the message, “look but don’t touch”. The backs of the letters are about 100 feet away behind a high mesh fence. You would not need the climbing skills of Spiderman to clamber over the barrier. But warning notices specify that anyone who strays too close faces a fine under the Los Angeles Municipal Code of $103.

Given the high prices for tourist attractions in LA (a one-day pass to Universal Studios costs $84), some of the people whose noses and cameras were pressed against the fence last Sunday were evaluating whether it might be worth the fine to inspect the sign at close quarters.

A rumour went around that offenders are plucked from the hillside by police helicopter, making $103 a positive bargain. You can almost hear over-eager tourists saying, “Get the handcuffs ready”: less than £70 buys a Hollywood close-up plus a helicopter ride. The Independent Traveller does not, of course, condone such behaviour – and any British tourist tempted to test the legal system should note that an arrest will render them ineligible for any future visit under the Esta visa-waiver scheme.

Celluloid heroes?

High in the hills, the air is as fresh as it ever gets in this sprawl of suburbs. Down on Hollywood Boulevard, though, the atmosphere is tacky. As Ray Davies sang in the Kinks’ minor hit, “Celluloid Heroes”, this is the thoroughfare where “Success walks hand-in-hand with failure”.

Along the 10-block stretch of stardom’s Main Street between Vine and Orange, even the evidence of success at ground level is tarnished. The names of stars of screen and sound are picked out on a sidewalk pitted with discarded gum in a variety of calibres.

It’s all a bit Audrey Hepburn (which, I speculate, is Hollywood rhyming slang for “tawdry”). The footprints and/or handprints of A-listers embedded in the concrete approach to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre are outperformed by actors (let’s be kind) in Spiderman costumes hustling tourists for photos and tips.

One location with a touch of class is the mall and hotel complex at Hollywood and Highland. It boasts an arch fitted with three balconies from which to worship at the altar of celebrity, peering at the Hollywood sign from a distance of almost two miles – more of a tourist distraction than an attraction. 

Hollywood whites

Gazing on a sunny afternoon is not enough for the more adventurous. It would be a touch of class on the part of the authorities to allow visitors to acquaint themselves more closely with the Hollywood sign – in the way that another great tourist icon on the Pacific Rim permits. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is actually enhanced by people climbing over it on professionally organised tours. It is alive with slightly-difficult-to-spot tourists, all wearing camouflage-grey onesies to avoid distracting drivers.

Many visitors to California would surely pay, say, $103 to dress up in Hollywood whites and hop from H to O to L along Hollywood’s holy grail – making the land of make-believe seem a little more real to star-struck tourists.