Just When He Needed a New Hustle, Disco Promoter Hank Berger Saw a Sign from on High

updated 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At 28, Hank Berger was beginning to fret that his future was behind him: He is perhaps America's leading marketing consultant for discos (PEOPLE, April 2, 1979). Then, as it were, a sign came to him. Two summers ago Berger watched on TV as helicopters transported the dilapidated sheet-metal letters of the famed HOLLYWOOD sign to oblivion in an Orange County warehouse. "Instead of just cutting up this veritable legend and passing it around," he recalls thinking, "why not make a really nice commemorative item out of it? If sold properly, it would be worth millions."

Berger and the world will soon know. This month his framed commemoratives hit department stores and gift shops at $30 apiece. Each numbered plaque contains a 1 5/16-inch square of the original metal mounted with a Hollywood Chamber of Commerce seal verifying authenticity, a hand-tinted photograph of the sign in its heyday and an effusive appreciation penned by Berger himself.

He has become an archivist of lore about the sign: e.g., that its 50-by-30-foot letters were installed by a real estate developer in 1923, or that nine years later a despondent actress, Peg Entwhistle, leaped off the "H" to her death. There was one other bit of history. A firm called Hollywood Promotions had originally bought rights to the 480,000 pounds of nostalgic scrap and had bombed out in an attempt to sell chunks as pendants on gold necklaces.

When Berger called, Hollywood Promotions was happy to unload its white elephant. The terms seem almost as steep as the scrubby hillside where the sign's glistening replacement now stands, paid for by donations from Gene Autry and Alice Cooper, among others. Berger had to put up $10,000 and will split any profits with Hollywood Promotions and the Chamber of Commerce. He acquired rights to 60 percent of the metal—a lot of it rusted and peeling—with a potential gross of $5 million and notes he can negotiate for the other 40 percent if he gets that far.

Berger thinks he will. "I've always had the luck of knowing what people will buy," he says. After the Navy and a year and a half at Cleveland's Cooper School of Art, he booked rock groups before making his bundle in the disco biz. To keep costs down, his wife, Shelley, is secretary-treasurer, and his brother-in-law Michael Kiehl, a construction worker, is in charge of cutting up the sign. Berger, meanwhile, is contemplating movies and TV and has co-written a film bio on Jim Morrison of the Doors. "I'd like to promote in every conceivable way," he says without shame. There doesn't seem much danger of Hank Berger pulling a Peg Entwhistle.

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