The Hollywood sign, which adorns the side of a hill in California and was originally erected in 1923, is one of the most recognizable images in American pop culture. Considered a “symbol of Hollywood cinema,” the famous white letters on a black background have inspired countless memes and social media posts, and even been the inspiration for a board game.
But did you know that the sign was originally supposed to be a bat symbol? Indeed, the Hollywood sign was originally designed to represent a “bat phone” or a “bat signal” and was inspired by an image of real bats drawn by designer Arthur Leonard. The sign’s letters were actually supposed to be in the shape of bats’ wings, but the production team couldn’t find a font that looked like bats’ wings, so they used a type of cursive that resembled handwritten text.
The Beginnings of the Hollywood Sign
The Hollywood sign was originally designed to be a tribute to the countless birds that were hit by airplanes during World War II. In fact, in 1943, the Federal Aviation Administration began requiring that airplanes spotlit by the sun display a black box in the shape of a bird on their wingtip.
The aviation industry lobbied hard to get the requirement waived, as many birdwatchers had become very attached to the songbirds that frequented the area, and in 1945, the government relented and lifted the ban on displaying avian symbols on planes. However, the sign’s true inspiration comes from a source even more unlikely than birds: the writings of William Shakespeare.
The Importance of Literary Influences
Before the Hollywood sign was officially approved, the movie industry had tried out several similar designs, including one that sported a drawing of Shakespeare in leather pants holding a sword. The director George Cukor even considered naming the movie “Shakespeare in Hollywood,” but the idea was nixed due to copyright issues.
The approval of the sign’s design, which was unanimously voted in, came with a stipulation that it not be used for the title of a film. The reason? The Writers Guild of America sued the studio that owned the copyright to Shakespeare’s work in 1935, and won, forcing the studio to pay the guild royalties every year.
The Impact of the Harry Potter Franchise
The Harry Potter series has been such a lucrative property that Warner Bros. was able to forgive the studio for using the Hollywood sign as inspiration for one of its TV spots in 2012.
But that was the movie crew’s only misstep. After receiving numerous complaints from the public about the negative impact that the series was having on real-world witches and wizards, Warner Bros. issued a public apology and removed all of the series’ merchandise from shelves in 2015.
Other Influences Beyond Literature
The Hollywood sign’s design was inspired by many different sources, including Harry Potter, Back to the Future, and even the Bible. But the sign’s biggest influence is actually on display outside of literature. According to city archives, the sign was originally designed to be a “bat phone” or a “bat signal” for amateur radio enthusiasts who lived and worked in Hollywood.
But why bats? During World War II, amateur radio operators used their equipment to gather information from the front, and many of these operators stayed in the area after the war and kept up with their hobby. In the 1960s, ham radio operators and film students would often congregate at the top of the hillside, using their equipment to talk to one another while watching the sunset. It was during this time that the bat symbol became attached to the Hollywood sign, as it was a well-known fact that many radios were also attached to the backs of bats.
How Did This Influence Pop Culture?
If you’re a pop culture fan, you’re probably familiar with many of the influences that went into the making of the Hollywood sign. But perhaps the most surprising influence is the fact that the sign was originally designed as a “bat phone” or “bat signal” for radio enthusiasts. So how did this influence culture?
Well, when designers Arthur Leonard and Louis La Rue saw that the sign was inspired by a bat phone, they decided to create a board game titled “The Hollywood Sign,” which was released in May 2020. Designers said that they put a lot of work into the design and that players should expect a couple of hours of entertainment for each game.
Inspired By Actual Bats
However, while designing the game, the designers found out that many of the actual bats that inspired the sign were not cooperative enough to be used in board games, so they had to make some modifications. The designers explained in a tweet that they had to “modify the creatures’ behavior” to make them work for the purposes of their game.
And this is the best part: the designers gave the bats the ability to talk, which allowed them to share their desires and demands with the people who controlled them. Of course, most people who play the game don’t actually want to control real-world bats, but the point is that they get to have some fun with this symbol that they might not get to play with in real life.
Lessons For Today
While it is fun to learn about the history of the Hollywood sign, it is also important to keep in mind the reason why it was designed the way it was. Before the war, airplanes were a significant source of fear for many people. Seeing an airplane fly overhead could strike fear in the hearts of those who witnessed it, as many people were afraid that it was going to crash and hurt them. This was certainly an element of why the sign was designed the way it was, but it wasn’t the only one.
As time went on and people got more used to the sound of airplanes, the reason for the sign being designed this way diminished. It still serves as a symbol of sorts, but it’s mostly just a monument to a design decision that was made long ago.