After Johnny Grant

The last time I talked to Johnny Grant was just before Halloween. A couple of venerable actors had been perplexed that our friend Norman Corwin, the founding father of radio drama and subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, did not have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I called up Johnny in his Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel penthouse. Hollywood's honorary mayor for life professed astonishment that Corwin was a man without a star. Get me the paperwork, he said, and I'll take his name to the committee personally, immediately.

The first time I talked to Johnny Grant was when I was covering one of the hundreds of Walk of Fame star dedication events he arranged and emceed for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Eventually I'd give speeches myself at three of them -- for my friend Michael York, for Times film critic Charles Champlin and for a special star for The Times itself.

For a while, in the late '90s, Johnny and I didn't talk at all. He was miffed over a sharp column of mine about the secrecy and over-commercialized vibe of the Walk of Fame, which, after all, belongs to the city of L.A., not the Hollywood Chamber. His letter to the editor said: "I hope I'm still around if and when her nomination comes in for a Walk of Fame star. ... That will be the day I enjoy a really big laugh." But then a mutual friend died -- a woman made famous against her will, unlike most people Johnny dealt with. We talked a lot and cried a bit, and that was that.

The Johnny Grant who died in his rocking chair Jan. 9 was a dynamo from an age when places like Hollywood were run by interlocking circles of acquaintances who decided the public good in private. A contact, a lunch, a handshake -- and matters were settled.

As Johnny's type went nearly extinct, so did Hollywood. For years, L.A. almost let its most famous asset slip away. (That's one reason the Hollywood Chamber wielded power -- by default, because the city didn't.)

Sam Yorty, the 1960s mayor, told me once that as he traveled the world, people would ask, "Los Angeles -- is that anywhere near Hollywood?" Yet by the 1970s, the Hollywood sign, one of the most recognized of man-made landmarks, was collapsing. The Hollywood Chamber stepped in, dismantled the carcass and recruited deep pockets to replace the sign.

The sign and the Walk of Fame have a curious custody split: The city owns them, but the chamber owns their trademarks, and the royalties are meant for their upkeep.

Whether that's what the money was going for got the attention of state investigators in the early '90s. The chamber was all set to give up control of the landmarks to settle the matter when Johnny met with the new attorney general, Dan Lungren, a friend from Johnny's many GOP emceeing gigs. Ultimately, a lawsuit settlement let the chamber keep control and repay the trusts that maintain the landmarks. That case, and later accounts by CNN and stories like mine, began to open the chamber's closed doors. The names of star committee members became public. The L.A. City Council now seconds star nominations; council President Eric Garcetti told me he voted "no" on Rodney Dangerfield only because someone had to see that he got no respect.

Johnny wants his ashes scattered at the foot of the Hollywood sign, ashes to ashes, dust to stardust. It falls to me to broach the suggestion that Johnny's passing is an opening to even more openness. Should the city have more say-so over the sign and the walk? Can more royalty money be made? And should it be shared with the rest of Hollywood?

Garcetti, who delivers his state of Hollywood speech in a week, lauded the man "who believed in Hollywood when no one else did." He'd be willing to think about Los Angeles "more strategically act[ing] in concert" with the chamber. "Johnny helped to open the door to a second golden age, but we have a lot of work to do to fully realize it."

For 40 years, someone was always losing money predicting Hollywood's imminent comeback. The pathos bottomed out when L.A. paved the streets with a recycled-glass asphalt that made the streets glitter. They weren't clean, but by God they were bright. Now this 'burb is booming. Public and private money has given Angelenos a reason to go to Hollywood even if they don't need more plastic mini-Oscars or vinyl stripper shoes. Tourists who once got off the bus at Grauman's Chinese, looked aghast at the grime, took a few snaps and rode away 23 minutes later -- someone clocked it -- now stay around, and so does their money.

Hollywood didn't die in the last reel, and Johnny lived to see what he had lived to re-create. We will go on arguing over its character -- is it too funky, or too fake? Too much history, or too much hipness? Too grubby, or too gentrified? At least it's still here to argue over.

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