Venturing out in the dead of night, mastering the steep slopes of Mt. Lee, dangling 45 feet in the air, the incurable pranksters of California Institute of Technology struck again.
Just before dawn Monday, the HOLLYWOOD sign was draped with plastic and left to read simply: CALTECH.
"It's a 100th anniversary present for Hollywood," a Caltech freshman who facetiously identified himself as "John Doe" told The Times.
As residents on neighboring hills and motorists on the Santa Monica and Harbor freeways pondered the dubious gift Monday morning, officials of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which maintains the 64-year-old landmark in Griffith Park, said they were not amused.
"We are not kidding and laughing about this at all," huffed Bill Welsh, chamber president.
The incident is under investigation by Hollywood officers--"except for our Caltech graduates," Los Angeles Police Lt. Sergio Robleto said.
And the city's Department of Recreation and Parks rushed to remove the new plastic coverings, sending teams in with special tree-trimming equipment to help scale the 45-foot-high letters.
The students, of course, had just climbed up, Doe said.
The prank was the latest in a long line of stunts by students at the Pasadena institution, which have included stealing a fighter plane and towing it to a professor's home, switching green and red lenses on city stoplights and rigging the 1984 Rose Bowl scoreboard to show Caltech winning the game, instead of one of the teams actually on the field.
Though the 1,800-student university is academically well-known for its focus on science and technology, "The school is most famous for its pranks," Michael Keating, editor of the institution's student newspaper, California Tech, crowed Monday, saying of the latest feat: "This was a good one."
Not So Difficult
Doe said in a telephone interview that he and eight companions--seven men and a woman--did not have such a hard time. "The letters have ladders in back, so it's just a matter of getting around barbed wire, get above that, and climb the ladders to the top," he said matter-of-factly.
They had made two previous nocturnal visits, he said, "to measure the letters," and then prepared "computer graphics on each letter, (showing) exactly how each piece would fit."
"We clipped safety ropes on so we wouldn't fall," he said. "We tied a row of plastic along the top behind the letters, then rolled them down the front."
As the pranksters climbed back down their respective ladders, they stopped and secured the plastic, actually "common paint dropcloth," to each of the steel beams that support the letters.
"It required some daring," parks spokesman Al Goldfarb said of the feat.
But Welsh said he was angered by the stunt because it was dangerous and might attract copycats who could get hurt. "They cut concertina wire around the base of the sign," he said. "That wire is under tension. When you cut it it snaps back. It could have badly injured people."
"We didn't have any trouble with that," Doe said.
Welsh said the chamber planned to contact student and administrative officials at Caltech to demand reimbursement for the costs, which he had not determined, of restoring the sign.
"If there were any expenses, someone should communicate with us and we will engage in a dialogue" on the matter, Ted Hurwitz, Caltech's vice president of institute relations, said.
According to Robleto, the stunt was a violation of laws against trespassing and vandalism, both misdemeanors.