The man in the red coat and top hat strolling along Hollywood Boulevard had a few words of advice for the tourists from Texas.
“When you get to Beverly Hills, it’s Ro-day-o Drive,” Gregg Donovan says. It’s not some bull-riding event, so don’t pronounce it that way, he tells them.
Donovan should know. He spent 11 years as Beverly Hills’ official greeter before being laid off as the recession deepened.
These days he has traded Rodeo Drive for Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. Instead of working for the Beverly Hills Conference and Visitors Bureau, he now represents a tour bus company.
But the shtick remains the same.
He belts out “Welcome to Hollywood! You have arrived!” in a multitude of languages (100, he claims) and poses for photos or waves at passing cars, a regal figure sharing a sidewalk with people dressed like action figures.
Sure, he misses some of the celebrities he once used to see — Brian Grazer, Larry King, Tom Hanks.
“Now the stars I see are the ones on the sidewalk,” said Donovan, 53.
But in slipping on the red coat and top hat that once gave him near-celebrity status, Donovan says he feels right at home on Hollywood Boulevard, though there are clear differences.
“Compared with Beverly Hills, there are a lot more people on the street in Hollywood.”
A former child actor, Donovan worked as a concierge at the Riviera Country Club and the Biltmore and Beverly Wilshire hotels and served as a valet for comedian Bob Hope before taking up his red coat and top hat. He is credited with winning an honorary British knighthood for Hope in 1998 after lobbying Buckingham Palace for four years.
“Once I put the red coat on I become Superman,” he said. “I can talk to anyone and I’m not intimidated by celebrities.”
Donovan says he was blind-sided by the unexpected layoff from his Beverly Hills gig. He said he refused to accept a $7,000 severance package when the visitors bureau asked him to give up his red coat, and the rights to his “ambassador” image and “Welcome to Beverly Hills! You have arrived!” slogan.
After living on residual checks from cameo roles as a greeter in films such as “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles,” “Hollywood Homicide” and “Six Days in Paradise,” Donovan decided to pull the coat out of the closet and go back to work.
“I feel reborn. It took me a while to get back,” he said.
As he makes his rounds on the Walk of Fame, he intones “Welcome to Hollywood! You have arrived!” He drums up business for L.A. City Tours (his photo is on the tour bus brochure), tells tourists about nearby restaurants and other boulevard venues, but stops short of taking tips like the costumed characters do.
Donovan, who lives in Santa Monica, said he starts his 8 1/2-hour workday by standing in Bob Hope’s cement footprints in front of the TCL Chinese Theatre. “I have the same size feet he had,” he explains.
Over the years he said he has worn out 10 red coats and three top hats. “Now I have to get another hat,” he said. “Cousin Sal from the Jimmy Kimmel show tossed this one in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard last week.”
Sal Iacono was taping a segment of the late-night show called “Hug Cam,” although the hat incident never made it on the air.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was an expensive hat,” he said.
“I had to run out in the street and get it before it got run over. It was scuffed up. I thought about calling him bad words … in 100 languages.”
“But, hey,” he shrugs, “this is Hollywood.”