California Dreaming: Centennial Celebrations and a Nostalgic Tour of Old Hollywood
Hollywoodland sign, before the “land” was dropped, LA, 1932. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images) Inset: Vintage souvenir linen postcard of the Biltmore Hotel, ca 1938. (Photo: Nextrecord Archives/Getty Images)
This is a town that’s long been associated with youth, where billboards advertise Botox clinics and where actresses with lines on their face are often discarded like In-N-Out burger wrappers.
But the script has been flipped around this year; La La Land is celebrating the old and wrinkled.
In a remarkable set of historical coincidences, southern California in 2023 is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Hollywood Sign, the 100th birthday of Warner Bros. Studios and 100 years of the Walt Disney Company. It’s also the 100th year of operation for the legendary Biltmore Hotel and the Los Angeles Coliseum.
“It’s exciting to see L.A. celebrating not one, but five of our own centennials this year, including the iconic Hollywood Sign,” said Adam Burke, L.A. Tourism president and CEO. “Add to that an exciting collection of new, cutting-edge sporting venues, innovative restaurant and hotel concepts, world-class museums and major attractions, and there’s never been a better time to visit our City of Angels.”
Here’s a look at the major anniversaries and some suggestions on where to celebrate the surprising history of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles, the original name of a city that will celebrate the 250th anniversary of its founding in 2031.
The Hollywood Sign
The world’s most famous sign, located at some 1,600 feet of elevation atop Mt. Lee, barely made it to its 50th anniversary, so it’s something of a miracle that it’s celebrating its 100th year of existence.
The sign was built originally to promote a real estate development called Hollywoodland. It featured thousands of lights that went off in sequence, so Angelenos would see the words “Holly,” “Wood,” and “Land,” and then “Hollywoodland” fully lit in the southern California sky. The sign was only expected to remain in place for 18 months or so, but became something of an icon and was left alone. The “land” portion fell off in the late 1940s, and the sign began to fall into disrepair.
By the late ’70s, it was drooping badly in places and looking rather weather-beaten. But a group of wealthy patrons (including Hugh Hefner of Playboy magazine fame, Gene Autry and Alice Cooper) stepped in to give the old girl a facelift.
The city created the Hollywood Sign Trust in 1992 to help preserve the iconic symbol of L.A.. With the 100th anniversary approaching, officials took great pains to give the sign a new metal frame and a fresh coat of paint
“I’ve talked to so many people this year about their first memories of the sign, or why it’s so important to them,” said Hollywood Sign Trust spokeswoman Elizabeth Johnson. “It seems to always boil down to hopes and dreams.
“To young actors, it still represents their journey to become a writer or filmmaker or producer. Jodie Foster said it symbolizes home to her. To others I guess it’s just inspiring.”
The sign is protected by a chainlink fence to keep people from climbing the it (would an Instagrammer or TikTokker do something like that?) or otherwise damaging what might be the most photographed nine letters in the world. But, you can take a hike that gives you great vantage points from below or make the trek to the top of Mt. Lee on your own.
My wife and I opted for a guide from Bikes and Hikes L.A. and lucked out with Noell Hoffman, a terrific and entertaining guide who pointed out houses once owned by Madonna and Mick Jagger, and told stories of long-ago Hollywood.
The Bikes and Hikes people start their tour off on Innsdale Drive, which is at about 800 Feet of elevation in the Hollywood hills, just east of the 101/Hollywood Freeway. It rained a lot in L.A. this winter and the grass was as green as an Irish meadow, dotted with brilliant yellow and purple wildflowers.
Our trail, a mix of dirt road and well-paved roads, started out with a moderate slope but later escalated into a reasonably steep yet still manageable road to the top. We stopped to hear great stories about the history of the sign and the Hollywood area, and of course posed for group photos.
On the way back down, Hoffman, a waitress at a posh downtown restaurant, regaled us with stories about celebrities such as Adele (extremely demanding and fond of drowning her Wagyu beef in a small mountain of ketchup), Sting (loves rosé wine) and Keanu Reeves (“one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet”).
Warner Bros. Studio Tour
The studio that brought us Bugs Bunny, Casablanca, Batman, Friends, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Wizard of Oz and Big Bang Theory celebrated its 100th anniversary on April 4.
It was on that day that a group of four brothers, Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack Warner, opened a film studio a few miles north of Hollywood. Jewish immigrants from Poland, the brothers established themselves as one of the biggest names in the history of entertainment.
I took the tour recently with a great tour guide named Mark, who showed us around the 110-acre lot, still one of the busiest working studios in Hollywood. Mark showed us city sets that were used in everything from The West Wing to The Dark Knight and Friends. One of the sets was done up to look like Latham, New York, for the final episode of Seinfeld.
Another backlot looks like a New England village and was used to film everything from Ocean’s Eleven to The Waltons and Gilmore Girls. We also passed by sets used in Blade Runner, Casablanca and La La Land.
Mark took pictures of tour guests sitting on the famous sofa from Friends, which you can find placed in front of an outdoor fountain used in the opening credits of the show.
After your tour, you can grab a snack or a coffee at Central Perks (also from Friends) and check out displays centred on Warner Bros. superheroes such as Batman and Superman. Visitors also can mix potions in a Harry Potter apothecary, don a Harry Potter hat, and check out memorabilia from My Fair Lady and Game of Thrones.
Want to join the celebration? Warner Bros. has launched a slate of products and experiences for fan , including toys, apparel, special videos, concerts and more.
Millennium Biltmore Hotel
This iconic downtown L.A. landmark is celebrating its anniversary with parties, events, a new logo and property updates.
The 11-storey, 1,600-room hotel was built in the Beaux-Arts style and cost US$10M, a very sizeable sum at the time (equivalent to more than US$150M today). Almost no expense was spared, as evidenced by the ceiling frescos and abundant tapestries, gold and marble.
It might be the closest thing California has to Fairmont Le Château Frontenac or the Fairmont Banff Springs.
Not only have eight Academy Awards ceremonies been held on the premises, but legend also has it that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself was first established during an event held here in 1927. Some say the “Oscar” statue was designed on a Biltmore hotel napkin.
Dozens of movies have used the stately Biltmore as a filming spot; Splash, Beverly Hills Cop, Chinatown among them. When The Beatles stayed here they had to be flown in by helicopter to avoid the crowds.
You can stop in today at the gorgeous Gallery Bar and Cognac Room and try a special Biltmore 1923 cocktail, with gin, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc and absinthe.
The L.A. Conservancy offers tours of the hotel.
Walt Disney Company
Walt Disney and his brother Roy founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in Hollywood on Oct. 16, 1923. Their empire would grow to include amusement parks around the world and blossomed into one of the largest entertainment companies on the planet.
In Anaheim, Disneyland has a special presentation called “The Disney Gallery Presents: Disney 100 Years of Wonder.” Disneyland in January debuted a new ride to celebrate the anniversary, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. Two new nighttime shows highlight the 100th celebration: Wondrous Journeys at Disneyland Park and World of Color — ONE at Disney California Adventure Park.
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
The Coliseum, which incorporates Egyptian, Spanish and Mediterranean revival styles, was finished in 1923 and was a prominent feature of the 1932 Summer Olympics. Look for the old stadium to have a starring role in the 2028 Summer Games.
In addition to hosting college and NFL football, the stadium was briefly home for the L.A. Dodgers. It also has staged concerts from the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Prince.
There are several cool touches, including the Olympic rings, placed above a soaring, rounded arch high above the east end of the field. Public tours are available.
More Old-Time Places to Check Out
Musso and Frank (1919) is a legendary spot in Hollywood, with waiters sporting red tuxedoes and martinis as dry as a Santa Ana wind. Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra are said to have been regulars, and the restaurant features prominently in several episodes of the TV show Bosch. Other old-time dining spots include Du-Pars (great breakfasts at the wonderful L.A. Farmers Market), The Formosa Café (Chinese) and Big Dean’s Ocean Front Café in Santa Monica, which dates back to 1902. I also recommend Philippe’s the Original, which opened in 1908 and is famous (as is rival Cole’s French Dip) for serving hot roast beef “French Dip” sandwiches. Barney’s Beanery is a West Hollywood standby that looks like a roadside Florida bar on the inside. It’s been dishing up casual meals since 1927 at a spot that’s just a few steps from what used to be Route 66. The Roosevelt Hotel opened in 1927 and hosted the first Academy Awards program in 1929. It lasted 15 minutes.
Okay, What’s New in L.A.
Expected sometime this year, Destination Crenshaw will be the largest public/private Black art program in the nation, stamping Crenshaw Boulevard with a transformative infrastructure project boosting the community through economic development, job creation and environmental healing while elevating Black art and culture. This spring the Hammer Museum will complete its two-decades-long project transforming the campus in Westwood Village. The Grammy Museum in downtown L.A. has a special Rolling Stones photo exhibit on through June of this year. Super Nintendo World officially opened at Universal Hollywood in February. The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures has a special “The Art of Moviemaking: The Godfather” exhibition that runs until March 17, 2024. Expected sometime next year, The Automated People Mover (APM) is the centrepiece of Los Angeles International Airport’s US$5.5 billion Landside Access Modernization Program (LAMP), which will provide the long-awaited connection from LAX to the city’s surprisingly large public transit system.