By Maxine Hansen
Updated January 29, 2008
Johnny Grant, long-time close friend and associate of Jackie and Gene Autry, died peacefully in his suite at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Wednesday, January 9th, 2008.
Johnny and Gene were friends and associates for over fifty years. The two had met during the World War II. Johnny worked at Gene's flagship radio station KMPC as host of the Freeway Club from 1951-1959 where he was one of the nation's first disc jockeys to mix regular traffic reports between playing songs and interviewing celebrities. He revitalized and produced the Hollywood Christmas Parade from KTLA. When Gene married Jackie it was his friend Johnny he called on to help with the ceremony and to serve as his best man.
Born in Goldsboro, N.C., the young cub reporter for radio station WGBR hitchhiked to Washington to cover President Franklin D. Roosevelt's third inauguration. Johnny made his show business debut on radio in 1939 as a local newscaster for his hometown radio station, WGBR, in Goldsboro, N.C. He received national recognition for his unprecedented coverage of a trial wherein he talked the judge into allowing him to stand in the courtroom doorway and broadcast live reports.
While serving in the Army Air Corps he continued his broadcasting career on several outlets, including New York's WINS Radio, where he hosted a special daily show for the millions of servicemen and women stationed in the area.
But it was Hollywood that won Johnny's heart. He was "lured" to Hollywood, he recalled, after seeing Mickey Rooney in the 1938 film Boys Town. He arrived in Tinseltown after his service discharge, and landed a small role playing a reporter in the Babe Ruth Story which starred William Bendix. Johnny also had a part in Irving Berlin's White Christmas and played himself in the 1966 film The Oscar. He did Lucky Strike cigarette commercials on radio's The Jack Benny Show.
Johnny interviewed stars in the lobby of the famed Ciro's restaurant on Sunset Boulevard as well as other venues. His wide range of interviews cover everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe DiMaggio, Betty Grable, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and in fact if you were in the business, chances are Johnny interviewed you.
Along with Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra he co-hosted the first national telethon ever produced, a fund-raiser to help send America's Olympics athletes to Helsinki in 1952. He was one of the creators of the Arthritis Telethon. He also served as producer for the U.S. Marines' "Toys for Tots."
Johnny's service to his country included 15 USO trips to Korea, 14 to Vietnam, trips to Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia, Berut, Lebanon, and was the only Hollywood personality to make two trips to visit troops in Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield/Storm. In all Johnny made over 60 USO trips – more than any other person, the last made about a month before his death. Johnny was a retired Major General in the California State Military Reserve.
In 1980 he was honored with the title of Honorary Mayor of Hollywood and officiated over the Hollywood Walk of Fame Ceremonies. In fact, he conducted his last ceremony the Friday before his passing.
Although he couldn't join us for the Gene Autry's Friends Convention held this past summer, he was on hand via phone to welcome our attendees to Hollywood and to express his love for Gene Autry.
Johnny personified the town he called home. He was larger-than-life and loved life. Above all he was the consummate showman and the heart and soul of Hollywood.
Earlier today Jackie Autry commented on Johnny's passing:
"Johnny Grant was one of the Cowboy's and my most cherished and closest friends. When Gene and I were married he turned to Johnny to put the ceremony together and Johnny served as our best man. Whatever we needed he was always there to give his support and encouragement. It was the same with the community he loved so much. When I think of Hollywood, I think of Johnny. Whatever future Hollywood has, Johnny laid the foundation for it. He was and always will be Hollywood's champion and brightest shining star."
For Memorial Service information please visit the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce website here.
In lieu of flowers Johnny Grant's family has asked that donations be made to the following charities:
Hollywood Historic Trust, which maintains the Walk of Fame
Check Payable to: Hollywood Historic Trust
7000 Hollywood Boulevard
Hollywood, CA 90028
The Salvation Army
Check Payable to: The Salvation Army Hollywood
5941 Hollywood Boulevard
Hollywood, CA 90028
The Bob Hope USO
Check Payable to: Bob Hope Hollywood USA at LAX
203 World Way, #200
Los Angeles, CA 90045
Hollywood, CA 90078
The Hollywood History Museum
The Hollywood Museum / Max Factor Building
1660 N. Highland Ave.
Hollywood, CA 90028
Addiditonal information on Johnny Grant can be found at the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce website.
KTLA's website has the Associated Press news story on Johnny's passing. They also have a very well done video news story on Johnny Grant that includes comments from Gene Autry. View both here.