Johnny Grant returns home
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 24, 2005 2:01 AM
When Hollywood's Honorary Mayor hit the stage at Walnut Creek Country Club on Friday night, little did the audience know he would be accompanied by such legends as Eleanor Roosevelt, Bob Hope and Marilyn Monroe.
Johnny Grant has been the recipient of his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony and a staple at every ceremony where they are presented. This afternoon he will be receiving the first local version of that in his hometown, along with actress and singer Anne Jeffreys, also a Goldsboro native.
"From Tinseltown to Hometown," part of Wayne Community College's gala weekend paying tribute to Grant and Ms. Jeffreys, also produced endowments in each of their names that will be used to fund future scholarships at the college.
On Friday evening, Grant was the subject of a one-hour interview by another Goldsboro native, Carl Kasell of National Public Radio. The audience was treated to a virtual trip down memory lane that painted vivid pictures of old and new Hollywood.
First, though, Grant paid tribute to his local roots. Born in LaGrange, he recalled growing up in Goldsboro, buying his first suit for $12.50 at Edwards clothing store.
"And you got two pair of pants," he said. "With my luck, I burned the coat."
In his younger days, he worked at WGBR radio. He said he remembered well the first time he was allowed to do a station break, but the only thing breaking was his voice.
"I didn't have a frog," he said. "I had three, man."
He went on to serve in the military, where he was hosted a radio show. He interviewed such celebrities as sports greats Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey and on one occasion crossed paths with Eleanor Roosevelt at a nightclub.
"It was the first time I saw anyone get a standing ovation just for walking in," he said.
When he later had the opportunity to interview her, he said, "She couldn't have been nicer."
Through the radio job, he also met Bob Hope and Gene Autry, who became two of his greatest friends.
"I worked with Gene many, many years," he said. "He was the kindest man. I owe a lot to him."
Grant said that Hope and Autry encouraged him to look them up if he was ever in Hollywood, which he did. But there were other words he especially took to heart, he said.
"It was Bob and Gene who said if you ever get to be well-known, use it to help others," he said.
Once in Hollywood, he continued to be on the radio and did some announcing on such TV shows as "Hit Parade." On Friday night, he regaled the crowd with stories about some of his favorite stars, including Marilyn Monroe.
He said during one of his radio broadcasts, someone brought in the just-released copies of a calendar featuring Monroe. Grant said he phoned her and asked if she had seen the calendar; she said no.
When he got off the air, Grant drove to her home to present her with a copy of the calendar. He said she answered the door wearing only a towel on her head.
Grants said he does not believe Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, citing information he received about several bugging devices found at her home and suspicious findings during her autopsy.
"There was a lot of intrigue" surrounding her, he said. At the same time, "She was much brighter than people give her credit."
His avid interest in community service brought Grant to more prominence, earning him his own star on the Walk of Fame in 1980. He was later appointed honorary mayor and now holds lifetime status in the role.
He is one of a few celebrities who had both hand and footprints immortalized in cement in Hollywood. Illustrating how crazy show business is, he said when no reporters showed up the day he was honored, he concocted a publicity stunt of his own.
"I knew if I misspelled my name in the cement, it would be in the papers the next day," he said. So he intentionally left out one of the N's in his first name.
"An hour and a half later, the LA Times called," he said. "'I hear you misspelled your name,' they said. The next day, there was a five-column picture of my misspelled name."
Soon after, "Wheel of Fortune's" Vanna White "sent me another N," he said.
Being Hollywood's honorary mayor has afforded him some semblance of notoriety, he said.
"People get to know you and they really think they know you," he said. He told how he was once stopped by a little old lady who informed him, "I saw you on TV last night and you sure do resemble yourself."
On another occasion, Grant said while having a heart attack and seeking medical attention, he was approached by a woman wanting to have her picture taken with him.
"I told her, 'Fine, but right now I'm having a heart attack,'" he said. "'It'll only take a minute,' she said. So I let her take my picture."
His greatest claim to fame, he is quick to say, was when he helped orchestrate the "Welcome Home, Desert Storm" parade in 1991. Calling it a moving cavalcade of military history, it featured a W.W.I ambulance, people dressed as doughboys, and represented each of the major wars, culminating with a Patriot Missile. There was even a "flyover," he said.
The parade, also broadcast on TV, drew 1.3 million people along the route.
The reason Grant backed the effort, he said, was to pay tribute to the unrecognized Vietnam War vets who never had a parade when they returned from war. Gen. William Westmoreland, prominent leader during the Vietnam era, was asked to participate.
"It was the most dramatic day in the history of Hollywood," Grant said. "There was absolute quiet when Gen. Westmoreland drove out.
"Then people began cheering, whistling, crying, hugging...It was the day the healing began on the Vietnam War and I'm very proud of that."
Kasell suggested Grant has more than enough stories to write a book about his life. Grant said he is working on one at the moment.
"It's amazing what people will tell you if they know you," he laughed. "There's a lot of secrets out there. I can tell more in the book."
Winkie Lee, feature editor of the News-Argus and co-chairman of this weekend's gala, said she well remembered her first occasion meeting and interviewing Grant 18 years ago.
"He's one of my favorite people," she told the crowd Friday night.
After talking about his life and work in Hollywood, she said she remarked that he seemed to really enjoy what he did.
She said, "He replied, 'I feel just like a kid in a sandbox.'"
"I just love what I do," he says now.
"I believe if you make up your mind to do something, there's a way to do it. You might get kicked around a little bit, but if you can't get over the mountain, go around it."
He also paid tribute to "two of the most beautiful women to come to Hollywood, Anne Jeffreys and Ava Gardner, both from this area."
He said every time he would run into Miss Gardner, she would ask when he was coming home and request that he bring back some Scott's barbecue, which he usually did.
A tribute to Miss Jeffreys took place Saturday night at Wayne Community College. Clips of her various performances were shown and discussed and she performed several musical selections.
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