Johnny Grant, the avuncular honorary mayor of Hollywood, died Wednesday at his suite in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. He was 84.
Grant, who died of apparently natural causes, was perhaps best known as the jolly host of the ceremonies in which he inducted more than 500 celebrities into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The lifelong bachelor lived in a 14th-floor suite at the hotel.
Grant’s mission in life was bringing the Hollywood story to everyone. He hosted red-carpet Oscar arrivals and Walk of Fame festivities, appeared in bit parts in movies and produced Hollywood’s annual Christmas Parade.
“Whether entertaining the troops overseas or inducting screen legends into the Walk of Fame, Johnny embodied the glamour and showmanship of old Hollywood. He was a modern-day P.T. Barnum, tirelessly celebrating the power of film and the town that made cinema the epicenter of American culture and commerce,” said MPAA chairman Dan Glickman. “Every time I saw him, he was quick with a smile and another great idea and big vision for promoting his town and our industry.”
Over the years he emceed numerous premieres with Daily Variety‘s Army Archerd, and he presented Archerd with his own star in front of the Chinese Theater in 1984. On Jan. 3, he told Archerd that he recently helped arrange a star ceremony for Suzanne Pleshette, skedded for Jan. 31.
Grant also joined the globe-trotting Bob Hope as a goodwill ambassador for the nonprofit United Service Organization, bringing entertainers to war zones to perform for U.S. military personnel during the Korean and Vietnam wars and battles in the Middle East.
He helped introduce Debbie Reynolds, Connie Stevens, Jane Russell and Angie Dickinson, among other film stars, to homesick soldiers, leading Hope to quip that he himself was “the rich man’s Johnny Grant.”
Actress Mamie Van Doren described Grant simply as “Mr. Hollywood.” “I dated him in my teens,” she recalled. “He’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever known, so kind.”
Over the years, Grant chatted with Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton, and he was a friend to several presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. He counted Ronald Reagan as one of his closest friends.
Born in Goldsboro, N.C., Grant was a cub reporter for radio station WGBR when he hitchhiked to Washington to cover President Franklin D. 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. After his discharge he came to Hollywood, where he landed a small role playing a reporter in “The Babe Ruth Story” (1948), which starred William Bendix as the legendary New York Yankees baseball player.
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 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). Ciro’s was the embodiment of glamour and glitz in the 1940s and 1950s. His guests included former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Grable, Mel Torme and baseball star Joe DiMaggio.
In 1951, he made his first overseas trip to entertain the troops. He made 15 trips to Korea and 14 tours of Vietnam.
Beginning in 1946, he was host of the gameshow “Stop the Clock,” which aired alternately on Dumont Television in New York City, WBGR Schenectady, N.Y., and WPTZ Philadelphia.
He worked for Gene Autry at radio station KMPC as host of the “Freeway Club” from 1951-59, becoming one of the nation’s first disc jockeys to mix regular traffic reports between playing records and interviewing celebrities. He also served as a White House correspondent for KMPC.
On KTLA television, he hosted “Johnny Grant at Universal Studios” and “Johnny Grant Backstage in Hollywood,” as well as serving as a movie host.
The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce named Grant Hollywood’s honorary mayor in 1980, and he held the position for the rest of his life. He also received two Emmys and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Governors Award.
Among his other honors were the USO’s Spirit of Hope Award, the Variety Club’s Heart Award and the Los Angeles Press Club’s Legends of News award.
— Staff and wire reports