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Parading a Desire to Retire -- Again

Hollywood 'mayor' says this year's Christmas event will be his last because he wants to write a book. He's been down this road before.

November 06, 2005|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Around Los Angeles, it's a common misconception that Johnny Grant started the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade, although Grant is 82 and the parade will be 74 on Nov. 27.

Hollywood's honorary mayor ran the parade for 22 of those years, not counting a five-year break, but he says this year, his 23rd, will be his last.

"I just think it's time to step aside and let some young blood come in," Grant said.

"This is it. I really mean it this time."

Grant ran the parade -- a spectacle of marching bands, horses, movie studio-sponsored floats and B-list celebrities that typically draws a million spectators to Hollywood Boulevard -- from 1978 to 1998, when he swore off the event to write a book.

Over the next five years, the parade spiraled downward. Television coverage became hard to get without celebrities, and celebrities didn't want to appear on a show without coverage. NBC's nontraditional street "spectacular" of 2002, a variety show-style event that featured a stuntman leaping from a 12-story building, was generally considered a disaster. And so, in 2004, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce asked Grant to come back.

A retired public affairs director at KTLA-TV Channel 5, Grant persuaded the station to resume coverage of the parade and studios such as Warner Bros. and Paramount to sponsor floats.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, this year's grand marshal, will be joined by some cast members from TV's "Lost" and "Malcolm in the Middle," and the parade will be carried on all Tribune stations across the country. (Tribune Co. also owns the Los Angeles Times.)

Arranging things isn't easy, Grant said: "In the early days, you picked up the phone and called the celebrity direct. Now they all have gatekeepers."

Todd Lindgren, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, has been shadowing Grant's moves over the last year, preparing to take over as executive producer when Grant leaves. Not only has Lindgren learned how Grant wheels and deals to get studios to sponsor floats, celebrities to appear on them and television to cover it all, he has heard all Grant's stories.

"Johnny likes to tell the one where Stevie Wonder missed his plane and arrived at LAX late," Lindgren said. Grant "actually got a helicopter down to LAX, flew Stevie Wonder from LAX to Hollywood and landed him in front of KTLA and put him on a float. Stevie Wonder didn't even have a chance to use the bathroom."

Not many people have such a history, conceded Grant, who said he would continue living at the Roosevelt Hotel, overseeing the Walk of Fame and serving as honorary mayor, a role bestowed on him by the chamber and which he calls a lifetime appointment. (Previous honorary mayors included Lawrence Welk and Monty Hall, neither of whom ran with the position quite like Grant has.)

This time when he quits, he said, he also plans to write a book. About Hollywood.

"If I don't do it fast," Grant said, "I won't have the time."

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