[As I’ve done for the last few years, I wanted to start the New Year by looking back on some prior years that we can commemorate as anniversaries. Leading up to a weekend post with some 2023 predictions!]
On an obvious (if entirely unintended) symbol for cultural hegemony, and a more truly lasting one.
Few landmarks have changed in meaning more dramatically than has the Hollywood Sign. The mammoth sign was first erected in 1923 and read “Hollywoodland,” as that was the name of the new housing development that the real estate moguls Woodruff and Shoults were building in the Hollywood Hills. They and the sign’s designer Thomas Fisk Goff (an English immigrant, local painter, and the owner of the Crescent Sign Company) intended the sign to stay up for only a couple years, just long enough to secure sufficient buyers for these desirable Los Angeles homes. But the Hollywood film industry became significantly more prominent at precisely this moment, and the sign quickly morphed into a symbol of that cultural phenomenon. For another couple decades it read “Hollywoodland,” but when it began to deteriorate and was slated for demolition in 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce stepped in to preserve the sign, but without the “land” so it could more accurately represent the community and film industry alike. Thanks to another campaign to restore the letters in 1978, it continues to serve as that symbolic landmark to this day, a reflection of both the larger than life and the genuinely mythic nature of Hollywood.
While the Hollywood(land) Sign might be the clearest symbolic representation of that pop culture presence and force, however, I would argue that another 1923 cultural innovation has been significantly more influential than any overarching images or myths of Hollywood. It was in that year that the talented young illustrator and animator Walter “Walt” Disney (not yet 22 years old at the time, and having just moved to Hollywood from Chicago in July) and his brother Roy (older than Walt by a decade and living in Los Angeles already) first created their Disney Brothers Studio. Originally set up to create a series of six short film adaptations of Alice in Wonderland for groundbreaking animation producer Margaret J. Winkler (which resulted in innovative short films that combined animation with live-action), Disney Brothers would truly begin its ascent into the stratosphere five years later with the creation of the character of Mickey Mouse, who appeared in a couple shorts and then in the megahit Steamboat Willie (1928) that truly launched the character and the Disney brand alike.
Neither the Hollywood Sign nor Disney Brothers Studio were in 1923 even a fraction of what they would become over the next few decades, but Disney was of course far closer, or at least a genuine starting point for the work that the studio would continue to do and amplify (rather than a random advertisement intended to last only a brief time). But that’s not the distinction that I want to focus on in this final paragraph. I know that here in 2023 Disney has become a symbol of all that’s wrong with mega-corporations and cultural monopolies and streaming juggernauts and etc., and I understand all that (even though, as I wrote in my Thanksgiving series last November, I love much of what they stream). But I think it’s pretty damn cool that a pair of brothers, the younger a super-talented artistic prodigy and the older a supportive partner, created an illustration and animation studio out of nothing more than their own will and goals, and a century later it’s become one of the most pervasive cultural forces in human history. Even before Mickey steamed onto the scene, Walt and Roy’s 1923 studio was a profoundly powerful embodiment of what Hollywood and creative and popular culture can be, much more so than a collection of giant letters on a hillside.
Last anniversary tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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