Hollywood sign getting facelift as landmark nears 90th anniversary

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Robyn Beck

(CBS News) The biggest icon in Hollywood -- the Hollywood sign -- is still going strong as it approaches its 90th birthday. But the sign is having its first makeover in nearly four decades.

It's the way things are done in Hollywood: wipe away the signs of age with a facelift. And so the Hollywood sign is getting some work done: two months of stripping down and sprucing up for the historic landmark.

The history of the Hollywood sign goes back to 1923. It was erected to draw attention to a new housing development "Hollywoodland," with letters standing 50 feet tall.

Chris Baumgart, chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust, said, "It was lit with little light bulbs at night that would flash in sequence, Holly-wood-land in sequence all night long. And it was like a billboard in Las Vegas except pre-dating Vegas."

But it wasn't built to last, and by the late 1940s neighbors were begging the city to take it out with the trash. Ironically, it was the arrival of television that may have saved the sign -- minus those last four letters.

Baumgart said, "At that moment, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce came in and said, 'I think we need a symbol, a symbol that the film industry will stand strong and retain the jobs in this community, despite the emergence of television in New York.'"

Perched high in the hills, the sign stands as a symbol of celluloid and dreams. It's been featured in more than 80 films and videos.

Visiting tourists may never get to see a Hollywood star, but they can all have their pictures taken with the Hollywood sign. Many hike up the mountain to get as close as possible.

The sign's star power can even lure stars themselves, such as Melanie Griffith and Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis recalled, "My friend, Melanie Griffith and I had never been there, never seen it, so the other day I said to her, 'Come on!' And we actually found out how you can walk up to it, we, the two of us -- these two girls who are born and raised here -- hiked all the way to the Hollywood sign."

The last time the sign was refurbished in the 1970s, a star-studded gala celebrated the event. Oscar-winning actress Sally Field grew up in Hollywood, and like so many in the entertainment industry, has a deep appreciation of the sign.

Field said, "I was born here, I grew up in it. I've been in this business a very long time and seeing the Hollywood sign up there really represents something very important and powerful as to what this country really is. But also, you have to be able to honor and respect what's come before. And that sign to me represents that."

The sign is grounded in tradition, yet soaring high above the city that just wouldn't be the same without it.

Watch John Blackstone's full report in the video above.