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Calling all stars

Times Staff Writer

This is not a feature story about celebrities. For a change, it’s a story for celebrities.

Hello, stars?

Hollywood’s calling.

The thing is, Hollywood has been your meal ticket. You cannot deny that. So, are you doing your part for the hometown?

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Have Aspen in mind for the Thanksgiving week? Maybe a tropical beach? Tired of adulation and flashbulbs and want to hunker down while your personal chef grates white truffles over your eggs? When Hollywood’s person rings, has your person got orders to fend off everyone? Sorry, you say, it’s not in your contract?

Excuses are plentiful.

But listen up: Mickey’s in. And Godzilla. And the Simpsons: Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart and Maggie. Magic too. A crop of the up-and-coming preteen talent pool has said yes, along with -- sign of the times -- a loser from “American Idol.” And don’t forget the short guy with the square pants, ol’ SpongeBob himself.

But the 73rd Hollywood Christmas Parade needs more of you famous folks.

It is, after all, the holidays. Spell it, T-h-a-n-k-s giving.

“Hollywood has been good to all of us,” says Johnny Grant. Naturally, he’s behind all this. Who else would be beating the beaches of Malibu and the bushes of Beverly Hills and Mulholland Drive at age 81?

Mr. Honorary Mayor, Mr. Walk of Fame, Mr. Tinseltown’s jolliest booster has interrupted his “retirement” to try to bring some luster back into Hollywood’s biggest and longest-running public celebration of ... well, of celebrity.

“We’ve all used the brand name Hollywood to enhance our careers,” Grant continues. “MGM never promoted their pictures as ‘Culver City’s most thrilling.’ Warner Bros. never referred to a new release as ‘Burbank’s most captivating.’ Universal Studios is out in the Valley, but what does it call itself? Universal Studios Hollywood.”

Now, if only more of you heartthrobs would take the dare and show the crowds some smiles for a couple of hours on Nov. 28, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

How about a little stardust for the ordinary people?

“Come on down and be part of us. Join us,” Grant says. After all, “it’s a tradition. People really like to say thanks to their celebrities. This is the only chance they get.

“An event like this proves that when you come to Hollywood, you just might see a star. It adds to the glamour of the Boulevard of Dreams. It’s part of the ethos of our community.”

Oh, but it’s a big job putting it together.

Times have changed

Things have changed in Hollywood. DVDs now rule. Jack Valenti is gone. Paris Hilton is a star and no one knows what she does. Everything except the Christmas Parade -- the old spectacle is having troubles, again. A short history: From the beginning in 1928, it’s been a project of the Chamber of Commerce to attract holiday shoppers. The parade has traveled the storied streets every year since, except in 1930 for reasons no one can remember and from 1942 to 1944, on account of war. This year’s edition will be the 73rd, and the 21st time that Grant will be executive producer -- actually his 22nd time shouldering the load, if you count last year when he was grand marshal.

Thanks to television coverage, the Hollywood parade has become one of those touchstones for baby boomers and their children growing up in Southern California -- not the global blowout of the Rose Parade but rather something a little closer to the hometown celebrations of Middle America gussied up to prove that none of us is in Kansas anymore. It was first broadcast in 1948, but more than a few residents can be forgiven for believing that it was Grant’s parade from the beginning.

Grant has a man-in-the-moon, bubble-cheek face, with a perpetual smile to match. For more than a decade now, he has lived in the penthouse of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, a half block from the parade’s reviewing stand.

In the hotel’s fanciest restaurant, over a cheese sandwich dinner, he reminisced about all those parades past -- by way of publicly lobbying on behalf of this one. One year he rode a trick bicycle in the parade. Another time, a horse. Now he walks with a cane. It’s been that long since he first started traveling the parade route and that long since 1978, when the event fell on hard times and Grant was summoned to take charge.

He was widely known in town from his career as a television personality and celebrity interviewer for KTLA. He had a Rolodex going back to the days when Hollywood’s telephone numbers had half as many digits. He also had the ear of KTLA’s then owner Gene Autry.

Grant talked to Autry about the trouble parade organizers were having.

“He told me, ‘Tiger, turn it around,’ ” Grant recalls. “He never knew how much of his money I spent doing it.”

Grant’s first call was to Bob Hope.

“Hey, Tig, I’m producing the Hollywood Christmas Parade now,” Grant recalls. He called Hope “Tig” and Hope called him the same thing. “He said, ‘Have you checked with the office about my schedule?’

“I told him, ‘It’s amazing but you’re clear.’ ”

“He said, ‘I’ll be there.’ ”

In those days, a holiday circuit had grown up around the parade. Stars would eat at the Brown Derby. They’d ride down the decorated boulevards in cars and floats. Then off to Palm Springs or Santa Barbara.

“Now they all have gatekeepers. You call and it takes three or four weeks to get an answer. These young celebrities today are able to charter a jet and go wherever they want. Back then, we had a studio system -- and they could tell them where to go. No more.”

At a philosophical moment in the dinner conversation, Grant recalls the advice that Autry and Hope started him out with: “They said there is a difference between fame and popularity.”

Back to its roots

But Grant says he understands the new Hollywood, and its glamour still casts a spell on him. “There are so many demands on these new personalities. Nine out of 10 people they meet every day want a piece of them.

“It’s been a little frustrating. But we’re still going to have a hell of a parade.”

Grant served as executive producer until 1998, when he retired to write a book -- a still unfinished project. In subsequent years, the parade ran into rough times. Too few celebrities showed up to attract sponsors. Live television ceased. It became a money loser, although hundreds of thousands still came to watch. There were intermittent discussions of calling it quits.

In 2002, NBC dreamed up the idea of ignoring the parade in favor of a one-hour variety show taped at the scene. The producer of this new-style “spectacular” was quoted in The Times as saying the parade had outlived its time. He called it “an old and tired entertainment form that isn’t as interesting as it used to be.” He promised no more marching bands, no horses, no “cars with octogenarian stars in them.”

The “spectacular” did not last a second year.

Now the restored parade is marching backward to its smile-and-wave past with a budget of $600,000 and hopes of seeing black ink again -- and also with fingers crossed about its perfect record of never having been rained on, or so the lore has it.

There will be marching bands, of course, beginning with the madcap kids from USC, not to mention a more serious bunch from USMC. Horses? Count on it. Magic Johnson will be the grand marshal. Five studios are sponsoring floats. And at least 50 politicians, entertainers, cartoon characters, athletes and reality TV veterans have signed up to ride -- among them television’s Brad Garrett and George Lopez. There’s room for more and a hunger for bigger, Grant says. If you have a marquee name, call. “I’ll get you in,” he promises.

One big hurdle was surmounted when Grant’s former employer, KTLA, agreed to broadcast the parade locally and on its sister stations in New York and Chicago. (The stations are properties of the Tribune Co., which also owns the Los Angeles Times.) As usual, Grant, a retired major general in the California State Military Reserve, also arranged for footage to be made available for troops abroad via Armed Forced Radio and Television.

On parade night, Grant will run the show from the seat of a golf cart at the starting area near Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. With a two-way radio in his ear, he’ll be listening for trouble. Like the year he had to summon the police when a flashy hairdresser invited himself into the procession in a rented Rolls-Royce. Or the time he had to arrange a fire department helicopter to get Stevie Wonder to the parade on time. And then there was the year when a woman gave birth in the staging area, blocking Santa Claus’ float. There wasn’t much he could do about that except gather some B-roll of Santa for TV viewers in the event of a repeat this year.

One more thing, the oldest joke in the business. “I warn everybody,” Grant says, “you’ve got to go to the bathroom before you get in the car.”

*

Holiday tradition

What: 73rd Hollywood Christmas Parade

When: 5 p.m.-7 p.m. Nov. 28

TV: KTLA, live coverage

Where: The 3.2-mile parade route starts at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Orange Street and runs along parts of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards and Vine Street.


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