The Hollywood Sign is as much a marker of location as it is a marker of industry. First established 100 years ago as “Hollywoodland,” the bold, mountain-bound letters are a bona fide fixture of the Los Angeles landscape, influencing the way the city has expanded—and the imagery of the films featured in its shadow are made – especiallytimemore. In a new PBS series, Iconic America: Our Symbols and Stories with David Rubenstein, the Hollywood sign takes center stage in one of the show’s eight episodes, which explore American history through important national symbols.
“This is designed to use the medium of television, which is a very effective medium for communicating things, by taking eight iconic symbols that are geographically scattered across the country and saying, ‘Here’s what you don’t know about these symbols . Here’s what you need to know. And why don’t you try reading and learning more about it?’” David M. Rubenstein — co-founder of The Carlyle Group, patriotic philanthropist (who owns a copy of the Magna Carta and has on permanent loan to the National Archives) and the host and executive of the series producer – tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The Hollywood Sign is a symbol that means a lot to people because you don’t have Hollywood signs anywhere else in the world… Only in America and only in LA”
The hour-long episode on the board that was originally designed as a real estate ad premiered this week and is available for view online; the subjects of the series’ other seven installments – which will be released on a rollout schedule over the coming months – are Fenway Park, the Gadsden Flag, the American Cowboy, the Statue of Liberty, the American Bald Eagle, Stone Mountain and the Golden Gate Bridge.
And while PBS’ Iconic America is an entertaining, accessible approach to history, Rubenstein’s dedication to helping educate the American public is a high-stakes endeavor. “For the past 10 to 15 years, I’ve been fairly involved in preserving American historical records and buildings: Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Lincoln Memorial, things like that. And part of that effort is to educate Americans about our history about the theory that you have to have an informed citizenry if you want to have a representative democracy that actually works,” he says. “That was the theory when we set up our government: you would have an informed citizenry. But we now know that as people we don’t take history very much in school. History majors are down to two percent of college majors. And the result is that people don’t know much.”
Maro Chermayeff, an executive producer on the show and a partner at the Emmy Award-winning production company Show of Force, says they started making this programming about two years ago, at a time when monuments were being removed and the U.S. public began to recontextualize historical objects, was a fertile basis for a show about symbols and their cultural impact. “Maybe this is a great way to touch on history, but also to talk about how history and the symbols of history have changed over time,” says Chermayeff. She adds, “And they mean different things to different people. And their meanings change based on what is going on in social, cultural and political elements.”
Filming for the Hollywood installment began in the fall of 2021 and saw Rubenstein on location and in conversation with a range of historical thinkers, community members and experts on topics such as film and real estate.
“We interviewed people who were experts on how Los Angeles came together as a city, (and) how the future Hollywood was a separate kind of subordinate area and later merged into Los Angeles,” says Rubenstein. “We talked to people in the movie industry, because they are the people who are the living embodiments of what people around the world think of as Hollywood, which is the people who have made movies, or people who have produced movies, or in movies. “
Former Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing, Orion Pictures CEO Alana Mayo, sociologist and author Nancy Wang Yuen, Melissa Rivers, and Sylvester Stallone are all featured in the segment.
“What I love about (the Hollywood sign) is that it was a symbol that was the word, and that word then became the symbol,” says Chermayeff. “It became a way, like[with]every episode in the series, to use that symbol and allows you to have all kinds of discussions. We talked about real estate, we talked about art, we talked about how a city builds. Hollywood was just an open book because it hangs over Hollywood. It overshadows the city so you can really talk about whatever you want. And there is so much to talk about in Hollywood.”
The shadow play the board creates against the earth rests on paths offered to discuss the importance of light and darkness in the film noir genre with writers like James Ellroy. And conversations with Hollywood realtor Josh Flagg unpacked real estate speculation and how a city – and its central industry – are designed.
“I think it was the only episode that was really about: when does it symbolize collective ambition? And what does that mean?” Chermayeff muses. “Because that doesn’t apply to anything else.”