01/10/08 — Goodbye, Johnny: Goldsboro's star succumbs at age 84

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Goodbye, Johnny: Goldsboro's star succumbs at age 84

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on January 10, 2008 2:16 PM

LOS ANGELES -- As a young man, Wayne County native Johnny Grant sat in the Paramount Theater and watched Mickey Rooney on the screen.

It was then that he decided to become a movie star.

More than a half-century later, he was the honorary mayor of Hollywood.

Grant, 84, died Wednesday evening, apparently of natural causes, said Officer Jason Lee, a police spokesman. He was found dead on a bed in his 14th-floor suite at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Lee said.

Today he is being remembered as a "friend to everyone."

Local retired businessman J.D. Pike, who graduated a few years behind Grant from Goldsboro High School, recalled Grant's "effervescent personality" that would serve him well in his career. Even as a youth, he was a "real popular personality, an outgoing type of individual and very upbeat, good at what he did," Pike added.

"I think that went a long way toward elevating him in the position he was in. ... He certainly represented our city well."

Grant, a lifelong bachelor, was perhaps best known as the jolly host alongside more than 500 celebrities he inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

He hosted red carpet Oscar arrivals and Walk of Fame festivities, appeared in bit parts in movies, and produced Hollywood's annual Christmas parade.

Grant joined Bob Hope as a USO ambassador, bringing entertainers to war zones to perform for U.S. military personnel during the Korean and Vietnam wars and battles in the Middle East, appearing with many stars of stage and screen.

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

Hope and cowboy movie star Gene Autry were among his closest friends.

The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce named him Hollywood's honorary mayor in 1980, a position he held for the rest of his life.

Along with another Wayne native, actress Anne Jeffreys, Grant was honored in 2005 as the first stars on the Wayne Community College Honorary Walkway.

Grant donated $25,000 to the Foundation of Wayne Community College to help pay for student scholarships.

Grant's career in the entertainment industry spanned more than 50 years.

He started in radio in 1939, as a local newscaster for his hometown radio station, WGBR.

Grant received national recognition for his coverage of North Carolina's notorious Irby Holmes murder trial, during which he convinced the judge to allow him to stand in the courtroom doorway and broadcast live periodic reports of the progress of the trial. It was the first time that a live microphone had been allowed in a courtroom. The defendant, a part-time preacher, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He asked the judge for permission to preach a final sermon and was refused, but he was allowed to write his sermon and Johnny delivered it on-the-air.

During World War II, while serving in the Army Air Corps, Grant broadcast from Seymour Johnson Field, now Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. He also was heard over New York's WINS Radio, where he hosted a special daily show for the millions of servicemen and women . The show was called "Strictly GI," and featured not only news of interest to the troops, but interviews with some of the greatest and most popular entertainment stars of the day.

Along with Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, Johnny co-hosted the first national telethon ever produced, a fund-raiser to help send America's Olympic athletes to Helsinki in 1952.

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 was the first and only recipient of the Bob Hope Combat Entertainer Award from the International Korean War Veterans Association for his entertainment tours to the front lines. The award was presented personally by Hope. He was also the recipient of the General Matthew B. Ridgeway Award for patriotic and valorous service above and beyond the call of duty. Grant 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.

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

His commitment to American service men and women earned him numerous honors, including the Army's Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, the Army's Legion of Merit, two awards of the Meritorious Service Medal, an Army Commendation Medal and Distinguished Civilian Service Medals from the Department of Defense, Department of Army and Department of Navy on behalf of the Marine Corps.

Grant was a retired major general in the California State Military Reserve, the all-volunteer backup and support force of the California National Guard. He was sought out to advise the Guard in his areas of expertise -- morale, public affairs, recruiting and special events. In 1982, the state of California showed its appreciation for his 30 years of service by awarding him The Order of California, the state's highest honor.

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences paid tribute to Grant in 1988, awarding him their highest honor, the Los Angeles Area Governor's Award. It was the second time that he had won the coveted Emmy, having had a total of fourteen nominations.

Among his other major awards are The Variety Club's Heart Award, an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Pepperdine University, Childhelp USA's Annual Sweetheart Award, Holland's Golden Heart Award for his service to the Walk of Fame/Europe, The Order of Merit from Russia and the USO's Distinguished American Award, which puts him in the company of President Gerald Ford, General of the Army Omar N. Bradley, Bob and Dolores Hope, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Nancy Reagan and General James Doolittle. In, 1997, Johnny was the first recipient of the USO's highest honor -- The Spirit of Hope Award -- presented to him aboard the USS Intrepid.

He served as president of the Los Angeles City Fire Commission, the Los Angeles County Social Service Commission, the Police Commission of Burbank, as a White House appointee to the national USO Board of Governors, as an international ambassador to United Nations Forces for the International Korean War Memorial and was Chairman of the Selection Committee for the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Chairman of the Hollywood Historic Trust.

Grant received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1980 for his contributions to television and for his involvement in and support of the Hollywood community. His star is located in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, between those of Zsa Zsa Gabor and his one-time Army Air Corps Commanding Officer, Glenn Miller.