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The fabled intersection of Hollywood and Vine long ago surrendered its claim to be the center of the film industry. The surrounding neighborhood known as Hollywood might still attract starry-eyed hopefuls fresh off the bus and tourists making the obligatory pilgrimage to compare their footsteps to those cemented at Grauman’s, but the industry had moved on.
No one ever told Johnny Grant, though. Almost single-handedly, he kept the idea of Hollywood alive within the geographic confines of old-time Hollywood. His title as mayor of Hollywood might have been merely an honorific, but he treated it as a full-time job. From his residence at the Hollywood Roosevelt, he ventured forth each day like a small-town dignitary: He made sure the existing stars on the Walk of Fame were kept bright and shiny; he presided over new star unveilings with unflagging enthusiasm; and should any of those stars’ recipients die, he was there first to lay a memorial wreath to mark their passing.
Journalists who interviewed Grant didn’t have to work very hard to pry memories out of him. They just turned on the tape recorder and let him talk. In his presence, the stretches of Hollywood Boulevard that had fallen on hard times faded away, replaced by the bustling thoroughfare of the ’40s, when Grant, then in the Army Air Corps, first visited Los Angeles and wandered into the Hollywood Canteen, located on the site of what is now the parking structure that serves CNN.
“Everybody in the studios participated back then — whether they were secretaries or stars, whoever they were,” Grant recalled of the war effort during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter marking his 80th birthday. He in turn maintained a lifelong commitment to the USO, making his last visit abroad to visit the troops in Afghanistan in 2002.
Just as he never flagged in his efforts to bring Hollywood to the troops, he was equally determined to lure visitors from around the country and around the world to Hollywood. His ebullient persona could be construed as corny, but it wasn’t an act. He was Hollywood’s biggest booster — both Hollywood the town and Hollywood the industry.
Developers are now moving onto his turf as Hollywood Boulevard finally gets a long-overdue face-lift. Some old landmarks like the Brown Derby have disappeared, while others, like the Pantages Theater, are scheduled to get major additions. But even as the neighborhood gets a new lease on life, Grant deserves a final round of the “Hooray for Hollywood” chorus in his honor, for keeping the faith so long.
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