The Night Hugh Hefner Saved Hollywood

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“Hef” with Vivian Blane and Rita HayworthLennox McLendon/AP/PA Images

The Playboy publisher and a few close friends saved their local landmark from extinction with a glittering high-stakes auction

One insouciant evening on 29 June, 1978, Hugh Marston Hefner’s ivy-wreathed, Holmby Hills home at 10236 Charing Cross Road brimmed with the stars of the Sunset pantheon: actors, artists, celebrities, directors, models, and writers gathered at the Playboy Mansion to save Los Angeles’ fabled Hollywood Sign.

Hefner’s restoration of “Hollywood’s Eiffel Tower”, which wanders high above the city across Mount Lee, was orchestrated by an elegant fundraising gala. (“To Save The Hollywood Sign, RSVP Marsha 469-8311” read the invitation.) “Hollywood is the city of dreams,” he observed, “and the Hollywood Sign represents those dreams.” Assembled in the gardens as the ceremonial auctioneering commenced, were Hefner’s glamorous sybarites: actresses Rita Hayworth and Vivian Blaine, five Playboy Playmates of the Month, even Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. The nine hallowed letters were for sale at $27,777.77 each, one ninth of the entire $250,000 cost of restoration, and the luminous faithful came forth to support the cause.

“H” went to Hollywood Independent Newspaper publisher, Terrence Donnelly; “O” to Giovanni Mazza, an Italian film producer; “L” to Les Kelley, founder of the car-price bible, the Kelley Blue Book; the second “L” to Gene Autry, an actor of the Singing Cowboy variety; “Y” to Hefner himself: “W” to crooner Andy Williams; the second and third “O”s to Warner Brothers Records and glam-rockster Alice Cooper respectively – Cooper acquired it in memoriam of his dearest friend, entertainer Groucho Marx – while Dennis Lidtke, a successful Los Angeles businessman, purchased the remaining “D”. On 8 August, 1978 the dilapidated Hollywood Sign was razed, before Hefner’s helicopter aided the installation of a colossal steel frame to reinstate the white, corrugated, baked enamel letters. Standing 45 feet tall, and 31-39 feet wide, Hollywood’s radiant new mantle was jubilantly unveiled on 11 November, 1978 to crown the 75th anniversary celebrations of Hollywood’s official incorporation as a city.

“My childhood dreams and fantasies came from the movies,” Hefner said in April 2010, as he once more bequeathed the last $900,000 sought by a conservation group to halt development of the beloved Hollywood Sign’s vista, “and the images created in Hollywood had a major influence on my life and Playboy.”