Johnny Grant was looking down my dress from the stage at the Hollywood Palladium the first time we met. It was 1952 and I was dancing to Stan Kenton’s music with my date, Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight champion of the world, 40-some years my senior. I looked up at the elfin little guy on stage and we exchanged smiles.
Though Johnny Grant died in 2008, he is still legendary in Hollywood, inextricably connected to the Walk of Fame. While Johnny did not create the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he recognized its potential. Originally begun in 1960, the Walk of Fame had fallen into disrepair and obscurity by 1968. Johnny, then a member of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, began drawing attention to the Walk of Fame by requiring celebrities to attend their own presentation ceremonies. Worldwide press coverage began increasing and eventually, by sheer force of his personality, Johnny revitalized the Walk of Fame and Hollywood into first-rate tourist destinations once again.
In the process, the Hollywood Walk of Fame became almost as much a symbol of Johnny Grant as it was of Hollywood. He presided over the presentation of more than 500 stars, including mine. As the honorary mayor of Hollywood for more than 30 years, Johnny Grant was also a tireless organizing force around Hollywood’s image as the movie capitol of the world.
The night back in 1952 that Johnny was looking down my dress, he was a well-known radio personality in Los Angeles, hosting a live broadcast of Stan Kenton’s orchestra. He was the first radio disk jockey anywhere to intersperse live traffic reports and celebrity interviews with music. Moreover, he pioneered the new medium of television, creating the first Entertainment Tonight-style news program.
I was still dreaming about breaking out of the cocoon that was little Joanie Olander. It would be ten eventful months before Universal Studios signed me to a contract and created created Mamie Van Doren, but Johnny Grant would be a part of my life for the next 50 years.
Johnny and I dated often over the years. It was never really a romantic attachment between us. We enjoyed each other’s company immensely, perhaps for dinner and a show or dancing. If occasionally we necked a little, we both understood it was just for fun. Though he never married, Johnny was famous for always having a beautiful woman on his arm. If it wasn’t me, it would be Jayne Mansfield, Anita Ekberg, Angie Dickinson, or the latest and most voluptuous Miss Universe. (He was a breast guy, of course.)
Johnny spent much of his life bringing entertainment to service men and women around the world through personal appearances and USO tours. A few weeks before his death, Johnny made a tour to Iraq to entertain the servicemen and women. He asked me to go with him to Korea in 1956 with Bob Hope’s show, but my son Perry had just been born and was too young for me to leave. In the 1970s, when I fell ill in Vietnam during my tour to entertain the troops, Johnny helped me retrieve the belongings I had left behind when I was medevaced back to the states.
In February of 1994, a friend called to tell me that the L.A. Times announced that I was to be the recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was a pleasant shock, and I immediately called Johnny.
“I didn’t want to tell you, Mamie,” he told me laughing. “I wanted you have the surprise of reading it in the paper.” He went on, “Some of us have been trying to get you on the Walk for years, but Bill Welsh kept voting against it. I don’t know what you did to Bill, but he kept shooting you down. Angie Dickinson sponsored you this time, and we got it past him.” (Bill Welsh was the president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce for many years and a local television personality. I have no idea why he developed a dislike for me. I barely knew him.)
I often spent hours on the telephone dishing the dirt with Johnny. Occasionally his roguish side would come out and we would have phone sex. When I told this story at a testimonial luncheon for Johnny, the audience was hysterical. Johnny merely nodded and smiled. “Yes you did, Mamie, it’s true.”
Sitting next to Johnny on the dais that day and listening to the other speakers, I noticed that he had nodded off. When it was time for him to speak, he roused himself and addressed the room energetically for fifteen minutes. A few days after the event, I got word that Johnny was in the hospital. I immediately called and he started chattering like the old Johnny.
“Mamie, the battery on my pacemaker ran down,” he said, explaining why he dozed off at the tribute. “They had to charge me up! I could use a little of that dirty talk we used to do!”
In November of 2007 I hosted a series of gala events introducing a new line of wines bearing my name and picture on the label. I invited Johnny to attend the evening launch party in L.A. “Mamie,” he said, “I don’t usually go out that late anymore. By that time of night, I’m here in my rocking chair watching TV. But if you really want me there, I’ll do it.” I understood and told him to stay home, be comfy, and know that I loved him.
About a week after New Years in 2008, I called Johnny at home in his suite on the top floor of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. There was no answer, so I left a message. A few days later I saw on the evening news that Johnny had died. I called Ana, his secretary, and she explained that Johnny had retired early on the evening of January 9th. When he didn’t answer the door the next morning, the hotel staff went in and found him dead in his rocking chair, the TV still on. My message was still on his answering machine.
Johnny never tired of telling the story of our first date in his new Jaguar roadster. We were driving to Hollywood over Coldwater Canyon, the major thoroughfare to and from the San Fernando Valley before L.A.’s freeways were built. Coldwater climbs steeply over the Santa Monica Mountains before descending into Beverly Hills, and as we neared the crest, Johnny’s Jaguar began to overheat. He pulled into a gas station at the top of the hill, and I sat in the car while Johnny and the station attendant peered under the hood. The Jaguar had a firewall with large holes for the control cables to pass through. After a few minutes, Johnny came around to my side of the car and whispered in my ear, “Mamie, you’re going to have to get out of the car. The attendant won’t stop looking up your skirt through the firewall!”
Johnny always finished the story with his delightfully lascivious laugh, “Mamie was so hot she blew up my Jaguar!”
I’ll always remember that laugh. Certain people in this world have real magic. Johnny was one of them. Sleep well, Johnny.