In This Race, They Will Run for Her Life
“I’m going back to help Adrian.”
Jenna Johnson felt lousy, but she knew someone who felt worse: that guy limping about half a mile behind her, Adrian Elizondo, her marathon training partner, her fellow production assistant on “The George Lopez Show,” her friend.
So she turned around on Forest Lawn Drive and started jogging back toward him.
“Of course she did,” Elizondo said. “That was just Jenna.”
On the set of ABC’s top-rated situation comedy, she was the 22-year-old kid with the lowly job and the heavenly spirit.
She was a cheerleader to the camera guys, the “Hello” to the dolly grips, a “Boom” for the mike operators, a direction for the directors, a joyous energy that even awed George Lopez himself.
“Her job was as low as you could get, but nobody ever saw her like that,” he said. “She had a presence. I’ve seen studio executives who didn’t have that presence.”
When she announced she was going to run the Los Angeles Marathon to raise money for AIDS research, she was cheered.
When she collapsed in front of Adrian Elizondo on that chilly Sunday morning across from the cemetery, he thought she was kidding.
“I thought, ‘This can’t be happening,’ ” he said.
There were screams, sirens, CPR, mourners’ faces hurriedly pressed against the cemetery gates, an ambulance, a sterile waiting room, a doctor who solemnly mispronounced her name, maybe it wasn’t her, no, yes, no, it was her.
Jenna Johnson, killed by a non-detectable congenital heart defect at age 22.
Died while training for a marathon. Died after running the wrong direction to help a friend.
How on earth could a sitcom make any sense of that?
“I’m going back to help Adrian.”
It’s the craziest script they could write, but the only script they can understand.
Three months later, on another Sunday morning, they are all going back to help Jenna.
In Sunday’s L.A. Marathon, nearly half of the 100-member cast and crew of “The George Lopez Show” is going to run the marathon, relay style, in her memory.
“She started it,” said Frank Pace, the show’s producer. “We have to finish it for her.”
One mile per person.
Elizondo carrying a green baton for the first mile.
Johnson’s father and brother carrying it for the final mile.
In between, a whole bunch of industry folks who may have never run in their lives, but who couldn’t care less.
The guy who pushes the camera is running. The guy who focuses the camera is running.
The guy who hands George Lopez his watch on the set is running. The woman who marks the slate -- “Take one!” -- is running.
The relay team includes people who have never done anything more strenuous than run to the store for some smokes.
“We have one dude who will be burping up cigarettes the entire mile,” Lopez said.
The relay team includes people whose goal is a 20-minute mile.
“We have one woman from Guatemala, this is the first time she’s ever run in shoes,” Lopez said.
Luisa Leschin, a supervising producer, protested.
“I do too have shoes,” she said. “I found a pair that I was given for Christmas. Two years ago.”
At least she has all the equipment.
“I’m ready to go,” said Angelica Giangregorio, second assistant camera and first-time runner. “I just need to buy the shorts.”
They will pass a green baton and will be linked by orange T-shirts reading, “26 for Jenna.”
They will each be wearing orange bracelets containing the final words from one of Johnson’s final trademark comforting e-mails -- “All is calm and bright.”
And they will spot one another through sticks containing the huge cutout likeness of the face of George Lopez, who is funding the project.
“If you can find anything out there among those thousands of people, it’s my giant ugly head,” Lopez said.
Although the actor will be performing out of town at a previously scheduled engagement, several of the show’s supporting actors will be there.
Black, white, Latino, directors, script coordinators, a dialogue coach, everyone speaking the same language, in a dialect rarely heard amid the often petty hierarchy that is the entertainment industry.
The last shall be first.
All of this for someone who made $575 a week and made the runs to the studio-lot Starbucks.
“Most of the time, the people running around getting coffee, nobody knows who they are,” said Hope Erickson, an assistant production coordinator who coordinated the run. “But everyone knew Jenna. She was so happy, so positive, it rubbed off on everybody.”
Erickson remembers the time she complimented Johnson on a pair of blue jeans she was wearing.
The next day, the jeans were washed and folded and sitting on Erickson’s desk.
Yeah, the kid apparently took this shirt-off-your-back stuff literally.
“I said, ‘Jenna, I am not going to take your pants,’ ” Erickson recalled. “But that’s the kind of person she was.”
Johnson was first spotted by Pace, who is also the soccer coach at Flintridge Sacred Heart, at a national team tryout in July 2004.
She was a film and TV major at the University of Miami who needed an internship to graduate.
Pace offered her a spot as long as she would help him coach his Sacred Heart team.
She did both jobs so well, four months later, they made her a full-time production assistant.
Her long brown hair often tied into a ponytail as she bounced around the office, she quickly became everyone’s touchstone, dispensing encouragement with each script or soda delivered, even forging a bond with Lopez’s 9-year-old daughter, Mayan.
When grumps on the set spoke harshly to her, she just smiled back, then told others she would pray for them.
When workers wanted to play poker after a long day of shooting, she joined them.
Her last voice mail to Erickson, who had been feeling sick, was to express sympathy.
Her last e-mail to Sharon Swab, the second assistant director who let Erickson live in her guest room, was filled with inspirational words after the death of one of Swab’s best friends.
That was the “calm and bright” e-mail.
Swab sent this newspaper another e-mail Tuesday.
“Thank you for writing a story about our angel,” she wrote.
Johnson’s mother, Maryanne, will fly in from Chicago to run the entire race with Elizondo, even though she has had five knee operations and never run more than 11 miles.
“It will be the last time I run with my daughter,” she said. “I’ll make it.”
Johnson’s father, Kurt, will finish the race into a sea of smiling faces that he never thought he would see.
“When she came to Hollywood, we worried about all the horror stories,” he said. “But all we ever received from these people was kindness.”
And Johnson’s show?
Her framed University of Miami jersey, No. 6, will be in the background in future episodes.
She is receiving the producer credit for her last episode.
And she should receive a director credit for bringing so many industry types together for something that does not involve a camera.
Do they give an Emmy for Best Family?
“Jenna Johnson moved people in ways that are hard to define,” producer Pace said. “And now she’s doing it again.”
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.