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Hollywood sign saved

| April 27, 2010 9:00 PM

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The Hollywood sign, a beacon to stars and star-struck alike, has been saved from urban sprawl under a land conservation pact announced Monday after a donation by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner capped a multimillion-dollar fundraising drive.

"It's a symbol of dreams and a symbol of opportunity and hope," actor-turned Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told a press conference below the towering letters. "The Hollywood sign will welcome dreamers, artists and Austrian bodybuilders for generations to come."

The huge sign overlooking the city was in danger of having its distinctive setting on the flanks of the Santa Monica Mountains crowded by construction of estate homes on nearby Cahuenga Peak.

But a $900,000 donation from Hefner, who helped save the sign itself 32 years ago, and a $500,000 matching grant completed a $12.5 million fundraising drive to protect 138 acres from development that would have altered the globally recognized symbol of the world's film and television capital.

"My childhood dreams and fantasies came from the movies, and the images created in Hollywood had a major influence on my life and Playboy," Hefner said.

Schwarzenegger praised the public and private partnership that raised the money to keep the property out of the hands of developers.

The Trust for Public Land conservation group raised $6.7 million in private funds, the state offered $3.1 million, and local funds totaled $2.7 million.

Schwarzenegger said private donations came from all 50 states, 10 foreign countries, The Tiffany & Co. and a number of individuals, including J. Paul Getty heir Aileen Getty, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

Cahuenga Peak, just west of the sign's location on Mount Lee, features a 360-degree panorama of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

Moviemaker and aviation mogul Howard Hughes bought the property in 1940 to build a home for then-girlfriend Ginger Rogers. But that never came about, and the Hughes estate sold the property in 2002 for $1.7 million to the Chicago-based investment group Fox River Financial Resources Inc.

It was put on the market again two years ago for $22 million, but The Trust for Public Land negotiated a lower price.

Ironically, the sign was originally erected in 1923 to promote a real estate development, with its 30-foot-by-50-foot letters spelling "Hollywoodland."

But as Hollywood was entering its golden age, the sign already symbolized the allure of stardom. In the 1930s a young, struggling actress climbed the sign and leaped to her death.

By the late 1940s the sign was falling apart and the "land" portion was removed, giving it the appearance known today. It continued to decay even after the city made it a cultural monument in 1973.

Hefner came to the rescue in 1978 by organizing a fundraiser that enabled a complete rebuilding of the sign, which had to vanish from the skyline for several months.

Wildlife Conservation Board executive director John Donnelly said the permanent protection of Cahuenga Peak is a significant addition to the city's 4,210-acre Griffith Park and will enhance wildlife corridors throughout the region.

"Today, we have the Hollywood ending we hoped for," said William B. Rogers, president of The Trust for Public Land.