Johnny Grant, honorary mayor of Hollywood, dies


UPDATED 10:29 p.m. PT Jan. 9, 2008

Flowers rested Thursday on one of the sadder stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: the one in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre bearing the name of Johnny Grant, known the world over as the honorary mayor of Hollywood.

Grant was found dead Wednesday in his 14th-floor suite at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Police said he apparently died of natural causes. He was 84.

That star, plus his handprints and footprints, were added to Grauman's courtyard in a 1997 ceremony that included a flyover by World War II-era planes. Grant had arrived in a rickshaw accompanied by a police motorcycle escort, a marching band and two hook-and-ladder firetrucks, their ladders raised to form an archway.

Ana Martinez-Holler, a spokeswoman for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce who had worked with Grant for 20 years, said he'd had several recent health problems, including a broken bone in his back.

"Hollywood won't be the same without him," she said.

Grant said his ashes must be scattered at the foot of the Hollywood sign, emblem of the area over which he presided unofficially for nearly 50 years. "It's a magic word all over the world," he said.

"Today the city of Los Angeles mourns the loss of one of its cherished sons, Johnny Grant, the indefatigable mayor of Hollywood and its greatest icon," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Thursday. "Angelenos will always remember Johnny as the heart of Hollywood Boulevard, the dignified guardian of its gilded prestige and the human shine behind every one of its stars.

"Johnny spent more than 50 years in front of a camera and on the radio, but his fame was not something he treated lightly," Villaraigosa said. "Even before he became the official ambassador of Hollywood, he rose to what he saw as his duty -- to country and to Hollywood -- to share his energy and enthusiasm on countless USO trips to combat bases in Vietnam and Korea."

Said MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman: "Hollywood lost one of its brightest stars in Johnny Grant. He was a one-of-a-kind ambassador for our industry and a great friend of the Motion Picture Assn. For more than 50 years, Johnny was Hollywood."

Recording Academy chief Neil Portnow said Thursday: "Not only was Johnny Grant a beloved Hollywood icon, he was a humanitarian that touched the lives of everyone he met. Hollywood shines a little less brighter with this loss."

Bespectacled and always beaming, Grant would greet tourists as if they were long-lost friends. He hosted at least 500 Walk of Fame inductions, being photographed alongside a succession of stars as their names were immortalized or at least preserved for a while.

Over the years, Grant chatted with Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton and was a friend to several presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. He counted President Reagan as one of his closest friends.

He had produced the now-defunct Hollywood Christmas Parade since 1987 and, like his friend Bob Hope, took Hollywood to the troops, emceeing shows in Guantanamo Bay, South Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon and Bosnia. In November, he made his 60th trip overseas to entertain troops.

He closely oversaw the recent makeover of Hollywood Boulevard, a tourist destination that had fallen into decay by the early 1990s.

Said Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti, whose district includes Hollywood: "Johnny Grant was Hollywood's greatest star. He brought Hollywood the industry and Hollywood the neighborhood together."

Born May 9, 1923, in Goldsboro, N.C., Grant was a cub reporter for radio station WGBR when he hitchhiked to Washington to cover President Roosevelt's third inauguration. The diminutive reporter sat in a tree to write down what he saw for his report.

He joined the U.S. Army in 1943, then came to Hollywood after his discharge, where he landed a small role playing a reporter in "The Babe Ruth Story" (1948), which starred William Bendix.

He was lured to Hollywood, he once recalled, after seeing Mickey Rooney in the 1938 film "Boys Town."

"If that little guy can do it, so can I," he remembered telling himself.

Grant also had a part in Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" (1954) with Bing Crosby, and played himself in 1966's "The Oscar."

He did Lucky Strike cigarette commercials on radio's "The Jack Benny Show" and radio celebrity interviews at the Ham & Egger restaurant on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street.

He also did radio interviews in the lobby of Ciro's on Sunset Boulevard, now the Comedy Store, which was the personification of glamour and glitz in the 1940s and '50s. His guests included Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Grable, Mel Torme and Joe DiMaggio.

"This really was Hollywood," Grant said of those days.

Grant was one of television's earliest game show hosts, hosting "Stop the Clock" on the Dumont Network beginning in 1946. He began as a color commentator on West Coast college football games in 1949 and hosted "7 to 8," an NBC morning program from 1953-54.

Together with Crosby, Hope and Sinatra, Grant co-hosted the first national telethon ever produced, a fund-raiser to help send America's Olympic athletes to Helsinki, Finland, in 1952.

Grant was one of the West Coast's most sought-after masters of ceremony and emceed more than 5,000 civic and charity events. Through his humanitarian efforts, he helped produce hundreds of events, raising millions of dollars for the USO, Boy Scouts of America, the Arthritis Foundation, police and fire services, veterans organizations and others.

He was one of the original entertainers to make trips overseas to entertain U.S. troops in the field, making 15 trips to Korea and 14 to Vietnam.

He is the lone recipient of the Bob Hope Combat Entertainer Award from the International Korean War Veterans Assn. for his entertainment tours to the front lines. The award was presented personally by Hope.

Grant also received the Gen. Matthew B. Ridgeway Award for patriotic and valorous service above and beyond the call of duty. He also was one of the few recipients of the Combat Entertainer's Badge, presented by the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam. He received a second CEB in 2001, while entertaining soldiers in Korea. The award, in the spirit of the Combat Infantryman's Badge, is for entertaining troops in the combat zone.

The Los Angeles Press Club honored him in 1987 with its Legends of News Award.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.