Hefner Donates $900,000 To Save Hollywood Icon

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View of the Hollywood sign after California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made the announcement that sufficient money had been raised to purchase and protect the land around the historic Hollywood sign in Hollywood on April 26, 2010.

The Hollywood sign has been rescued from urban sprawl. A conservation group was raising $12.5 million to purchase 138 acres adjacent to the hillside icon, but was $1 million short. Then the donation from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner closed the gap. The privately owned land had been touted as a potential site for luxury homes or a posh new hotel.

The iconic sign on the hill above Hollywood was at risk of being lost to development. A conservation group was trying to raise $12.5 million to save it but was $1 million short. Then another Hollywood icon stepped in.

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner donated $900,000, and the Trust for Public Land declared its fundraising campaign a success: The Hollywood sign had been rescued from urban sprawl.

It has long been a favorite tourist stop in Los Angeles. On a recent bus tour of the city, members of the Vaghtangadzeh family, New Yorkers originally from Georgia -- the country, not the state -- said it's "one of the biggest things" to see.

"Everybody knows: When you think of Hollywood, you think of that sign," daughter Salme said.

The driver on their tour had changed his spiel to reflect the sign's uncertain future: "I don't know if you realize it," he said, "but the city of Los Angeles has been trying to raise $12.5 million to buy back a portion of the hill that has been owned by a group out of Chicago. Yeah, my boys out of Chicago wanted to do some building up there -- isn't that wonderful?"

A lot of people thought that would not be so wonderful.

The land known as Cahuenga Peak was once owned by industrialist Howard Hughes. He'd planned to build a home on it for his then-girlfriend Ginger Rogers. They broke up, and after he died, the Hughes estate sold the land to developers. It had been touted as a potential site for luxury homes or a posh new hotel. The developers offered to sell the 138 acres to the city, but the money had to be in hand this week.

Everybody moved quickly. The movie studios, and the people who work in them, like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, opened their checkbooks. So did plenty of Angelenos, famous and not. But they were still $1 million short.

Hefner had intervened more than 30 years ago when the sign needed a complete overhaul.

"To say that it was in disrepair is an understatement, because it was falling apart," Hefner said.

And in the final hours of the current fundraising drive, "Hef" provided the $900,000 that closed the gap -- on top of what he'd already given.

As the hilltop fog floated away Monday, the 45-foot-high letters shone brightly behind Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He stepped to a podium with an announcement that brought sighs of relief: "Finally, the $12.5 million was raised to secure the land behind the Hollywood sign. We are very, very happy about that."

So are preservationists and the people who depend on that land for hiking and dog walking and bird watching.

The Trust for Public Land collected the funds that will now donate Cahuenga Peak to Los Angeles' park system.

"With the help of all these people and thousands of people from around the world who wrote checks and contributed over the Internet, we have today a true Hollywood ending," said Will Rogers, president of the trust. "We saved the peak."

Now they can all hike happily ever after. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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