He was known informally as "the Mayor of Hollywood," but a more fitting title for Johnny Grant may have been "ambassador." Of all the show business folk who have drifted in and out of Tinseltown - some ruling with an iron fist; many simply enjoying its spoils while they could - no one loved Hollywood, itself, more than Grant, who took it upon himself to be its defender, protector and tireless promoter. The former cub reporter and radio host, who passed away in January, 2008 at the age of 84, was a prominent fixture at thousands of events, ribbon cuttings, parades and grand openings; most notably his true love, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where he oversaw the induction of some 500 stars over the decades, as their names took up permanent residence on the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. More than anything, in a culture often criticized for hype, Grant - with his cherub-like features and an impish grin - embraced hyperbole, glitz and glamour, insisting unapologetically that Hollywood was nothing if not larger than life.
Born May 9, 1923, in Goldsboro, NC, Grant developed an interest in radio while growing up and landed a job as a reporter for a local station soon after graduating from high school. Even then, he demonstrated the kind of plucky resourcefulness that would serve him well. Assigned to cover the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's third term but having no means of transportation, Grant hitchhiked all the way to Washington, D.C., perching himself in a tree to get a better vantage point from which to write about the proceedings. At the outset of World War II, Grant joined the U.S. Army Air Corps., where he utilized his talents by hosting a radio show, "Strictly G.I.," broadcast to U.S. servicemen. After the war, Grant returned to the commercial airwaves as a reporter in New York City, and went on to interview Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Eleanor Roosevelt. A showman at heart, but with a deep love of all things broadcasting, Grant was right there when television began its emergence, hosting the 1946 game show, "Beat the Clock," broadcast by the now-defunct Dumont Network.
Grant had visited Hollywood while still in the service, which had made a significant impression on him. Upon seeing the 1938 film "Boys Town," he became convinced that if the perpetually boyish Mickey Rooney could make it, then surely he could too. Grant packed his bags and headed west, soon landing a small uncredited part as a reporter in "The Babe Ruth Story" (1948). He also looked up Gene Autry, whom he had met during the war and who now owned television and radio stations in Los Angeles. Soon Grant had re-established his broadcasting career, and was hosting celebrity interview shows, reporting on Hollywood news and even providing color commentary for West Coast football games. He also worked as a disc jockey for a program entitled "The Freeway Club," which enjoyed a run on the air from 1951 to 1959.
Grant quickly branched out. In 1952, he joined forces with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope to create what was arguably the first telethon - to raise funds for the U.S. Olympic team. He also dabbled in movies, usually playing small roles as announcers or reporters, such as in "White Christmas" (1954) in a bit part as a television host, and "The Girl Can't Help It," (1956) where he played an emcee. As his own outsize personality grew, he appeared onscreen mostly as himself, with "This Is Your Life" (NBC, 1952-1961), in an episode dedicated to him, as well as "77 Sunset Strip" (ABC, 1958-1964) and "The Lucy Show" (CBS, 1962-68). Even decades later, he would go on to play himself in episodes of "China Beach" (ABC, 1988-1991) the short-lived showbiz insider comedy, "Action" (Fox, 1999-2000), and the feature film Harrison Ford caper "Hollywood Homicide" (2003).
But Grant's real focus was his own particular brand of showmanship, which began to take off with his USO efforts; first in Korea and then Vietnam. Grant went along on dozens of USO tours, alongside Bob Hope and actresses such as Jayne Mansfield, Debbie Reynolds and Jane Russell, and over the years, he earned the respect and friendship of both Hollywood and also the White House, where presidents such as Ronald Reagan were considered close friends. He also appeared in Christmas specials and programs for the armed forces, set up fundraising efforts for soldiers to make telephone calls home, and continued his own service with the California State Military Reserve, where he rose to the rank of Major General. His support of the U.S. military continued well into the modern day. At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, Grant organized Hollywood's "Welcome Home Desert Storm" parade. Grant and his organizers commemorated veterans of previous wars, with World War I veterans riding in floats, World War II and Korean War veterans riding in vehicles, and Vietnam veterans marching behind their wartime commander, General William Westmoreland. With massive crowds and air squadrons flying overhead - ranging from bi-planes to contemporary jet fighters - the event drew national coverage, and was estimated to be largest single-day event, by attendees, in the city's history. Grant became so well-known in political circles for his ability to promote and produce public events, that he joined a 1992 delegation of entertainment industry figures to consult with Moscow officials eager to pick up their expertise after the fall of the Soviet Union.
But it was with the Hollywood Walk of Fame - of which he was named Chairman in 1980 by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce - that Grant had his most influence and drew his most widespread recognition. By that time, the once-heralded Hollywood Boulevard had begun its descent into seedy disrepair. Where there were once movie theaters, restaurants, there were only adult bookstores, tattoo parlors, and souvenir shops offering cheap trinkets and T-shirts to first-time tourists. While the bestowing of a "star" on the Walk of Fame to movie, television and radio stars dated back to the early days of Hollywood, it was Grant who hit upon the idea of turning the tradition into a major event, with media coverage, bands and even an occasional fly-over. While it took years for the area to reverse its decline, the glittery showcase for the Walk of Fame was a hit and continued to the present day. Grant's star, earned the same year he was named chairman, fell between those of actress Zsa Zsa Gabor and bandleader Glenn Miller, directly in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater, where he later placed his hands in cement in a lavish 1997 ceremony.
Throughout the 1980s - as the show business tropes of old gave way to executive power lists and corporate takeovers, and sushi dinners took the place of martini lunches - Grant remained ardent in his belief in Hollywood tradition, even its most quaint incarnation, the televised Christmas parade on Hollywood Boulevard. As the holiday tradition began to fall out of favor, as older, A-list stars were replaced by B and C-list celebrities, viewer turnout dropped, but Grant refused to acknowledge that its day was done. In fact, in the eyes of many, he kept the parade moving by a force of sheer will.
Grant, himself, who never married and never had children, was at times considered old hat, and for awhile may have been looked upon as someone to be humored more than admired. But his perseverance won the day, especially as Hollywood itself began a sort of nostalgic reinvention near the turn of the millennium. As stars such as George Clooney, movies like "Swingers" (1996) and the rise of the cocktail culture restored an appreciation for vintage Hollywood, Grant's vision began to make a comeback. Hollywood itself, which technically was part of the City of Los Angeles, indeed saw revitalization. From his home and headquarters in a penthouse suite at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, from which he would venture down for breakfast every morning, Grant could gaze down out of the window and look upon the restoration of the El Capitan Theater, the return of the Oscars - now at the Hollywood and Highland complex, with its massive elephantine statues in tribute to the epics of D.W. Griffith - and a gradual move from blight to bright.
Grant's passing on Jan. 9, 2008 prompted countless mourners on Hollywood Boulevard to place flowers on his star, a tradition long observed by Grant himself with the passing of performers. The night of his death, Grant was found in his penthouse suite, high atop the very center of Hollywood.