Today Hollywood and the USO lost a very dear friend with the passing of Johnny Grant, the avuncular honorary mayor of Hollywood. I first met Johnny Grant in June 2000 when he came to Korea for a special USO banquet (along with another Hollywood great Piper Laurie) to honor Korean War Veterans. In 2001, I had the chance to sit down with him and interview him for an article I was writing for the Korea Times about his work with the USO.
Legendary USO Entertainer Visits Troops
Legendary USO entertainer Johnny Grant often likes to relate an amusing gem of a story about his first visit to Korea during the Korean War.
“Everywhere we went, we had to use the password ‘Windy City.’ Everyone kept on telling us, ‘don’t forget the password. You just got here; you have to get used to it. Don’t forget the password,’” recalled Grant fondly. “Sure enough, I have to go to the benjo that night and I get stopped and the guard goes ‘halt, what’s the password?’ And I say, `Chicago’!”
Grant, who got started as a USO performer with a little help from another USO performer and Hollywood Legend Bob Hope, is back in Korea for what has been billed as his last overseas tour. Grant took time out from his busy schedule, which includes a number of visits to troops in Korea to sit down with the Korea Times in downtown Seoul on Tuesday.
At 78, Grant hasn’t slowed down in the least. He’s just as sharp as ever whether it’s telling some amusing little anecdote or a joke. For his last birthday, he spent it with the troops in a bunker on the side of a hill in Kosovo watching the insurgents creeping through the valley on their way to Macedonian.
“That was pretty exciting,” recalled Grant who had already visited the soldiers there once before.
He has had a distinguished career in radio and television that has spanned over six decades, from his earliest work as a newscaster in Goldsboro, North Carolina, to his star-studded productions of the Hollywood Christmas Parade and hundreds of charity telecasts. Grant has been called “Hollywood’s most recognized spokesman” for his work as Chairman of the Walk of Fame Selection Committee and as Hollywood’s Ambassador of Goodwill.
However, the heart and soul of Grant’s life has been his devoted USO service. He has been the master of over 4,500 ceremonies, completed more than 14 trips to Korea, 14 tours to Vietnam and a colossal 50 USO overseas shows and personally organized visits to lift the morale, hopes and dreams to service members overseas.
It all started when Grant met Bob Hope in 1943 when Grant was a sergeant in the Army Air Corps. “I was asked to introduce him. I decided I’d do my own little monologue before I brought him on. Fortunately, he liked it,” laughed Grant. “He gave me some more jokes before he left and told me to stay in touch, which I did.”
Grant’s big break came a few years later when Hope was unable to perform at a function. Hope told the organizers that ‘Johnny knew that jokes as well as he did.’ Grant got the job.
Working with Bob Hope was great experience for Grant. According to Grant, one always had to be on their toes because Hope was always fast with the lines. He also found the time to give advice to Grant who had at least one good anecdote about this legendary performer.
“Hope tells a wonderful story about giving me some jokes,” explained Grant. “Well, people started calling me the ‘poor man’s Bob Hope.’ He [Hope] later said in an interview that Johnny does so well that the last time he [Hope] went out to the Far East, people referred to him as the ‘rich man’s Johnny Grant.’
Grant has never forgotten his first USO tour in Korea who came here during Christmas in 1951. “The first time I remember landing at Kimpo and finally coming into downtown Seoul and about the only building that was still standing was the old Chosun Hotel,” recalled Grant. “We stayed there. I just couldn’t believe the devastation that had already taken place here in Seoul.”
He has many fond memories of coming to Korea, especially when it came to entertaining the troops which has been his lifeline as a USO entertainer. Accompanying on some of his tours here were such Hollywood legends like Piper Laurie, Angie Dickinson, Stephanie Powers, Connie Stevens, Jayne Mansfield, Rita Moreno, and Jane Russell to name but a few.
“I remember freezing to death when I was here,” recalled Grant about one USO tour in Korea. “I had a little girl with me named Virginia Hall who was under contract at Paramount. In those days, we stayed in the same tents that the GIs did. They had these big 50 gallon barrels. They had the oil that would drip down and that’s how they got their heat. Well, it was so cold she got out of bed, backed up too close to this barrel, and got burned. I’m going to tell you, she had some burned buns. And every medic in Korea volunteered to take care of her!”
Entertaining the troops also gave Grant the opportunity to meet many of the great military leaders of the era like General Ridgway, Van Fleet, and Mark Clark. They remained friends after the war. Grant ended up doing six USO tours during the Korean War. He did 14 during Vietnam. His first USO show in Vietnam was in 1965.
“It was a whole different thing in Vietnam,” explained Grant. “The attitude in America was different. Then, when they started televising the war on the evening news, everything went crazy.”
Grant had fond memories of General Creighton Abrams who often invited Grant to his quarters for dinner or for a debriefing. “He told me one day, ‘Johnny, you’ve seen more of Vietnam than 99 percent of the people that have been here,’ because we went from the DMZ all the way down to the Delta,” said Grant.
There was also another side to entertaining in Vietnam. Grant explained that when he was on a USO tour in Vietnam he sometimes felt more like a chaplain than an entertainer. Young men didn’t want to confess or admit that they were having problems so they talked to Grant instead. Sometimes these men weren’t too sure if their wives or their girlfriends were being faithful. Other times a Colonel would come and tell him, that he had a problem with his son whom was back home demonstrating against the war.
Sometimes soldiers would tell Grant that they did something that they should have never done, like pray to God to kill the son of a b*tch who killed their buddy. “It was a very interesting time,” reflected Grant. “It was very educational.”
Whether it was performing for the troops in war or peace, Grant thinks that there is no audience better than a GI audience.
“There’s a certain feeling to a laugh or applause from a GI audience. Once you hear it, you’re addicted for life,” noted Grant. “That feeling, that sound that you get from them that you don’t get from anyone else seems to be saying something like thank you. Thank you for not forgetting.”
According to Grant, these days the USO does more “handshake tours” than shows. In a handshake tour, performers and celebrities can go right into the GIs work area, into his or her space. And it doesn’t have to be the most famous face in the world. It’s just someone they recognize.
“They feel pretty damn good that someone would take the time to come and say hello,” said Grant. Sometimes the people that Grant lines up for these shows or handshake tours are not some well-known celebrities, either. “One day I got Warren Buffet the financier and Jimmy Buffet,” said Grant. “Another time I got Darryl Gates the former Police Chief of LA and Bill Gates because all these GIs have laptops. They said “get Bill Gates over here and tell us how to run these things.’ So, it’s any familiar face that comes into their area that makes them very happy.”
Aside from his USO work, another one of Grant’s more visible roles has been the Ceremonial Mayor of Hollywood. One of the functions that he presides over are the ceremonies to place a ‘star’ on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He has presided over 550 such ceremonies. His most recent was a ceremony for Magic Johnson who got his ‘star’ not for being an athlete, but for being the owner of a chain of movie theaters across the United States.
Grant also took time during the interview to reflect on the passing of a Hollywood legend Jack Lemmon who died last week.
“Jack was the most unassuming big star I think I’ve ever met. He could do anything. He was a man for all seasons,” remembered Grant fondly.
“He came to my Walk of Fame ceremonies. When I knew he was coming, I would be on the look out for him because I loved the way he walked down the street. He came alone. No bodyguards. No agents. No publicists. Just Jack.
“And he’d walk down the street in this strange little walk he had. He had a smile for everybody. And the fun part was watching the reaction of the people he just passed because all of a sudden they realize that Jack Lemmon had just passed by! And he always had time to listen to whatever people wanted to say to him.”
One of the saddest parts of his job has to do the eulogies when he puts the flowers on the Walk of Fame’s star when they die. “I’m doing too many eulogies lately,” said Grant sadly. “Our group is rapidly passing on.”
Coming back to Korea, whether to perform or to visit has also been quite rewarding for Grant. He’s been impressed with how Korea has changed so much since the Korean War. “I’ve loved the spirit of the Korean people. In many ways they are entrepreneurs, they love adventure,” noted Grant. “They love to take chances.”
Looking back on all the tours, all the shows, all the lives that he has touched, Grant was rather humbled by it all. His passion remains just as fervent today as it was when he first performed in Korea. Grant, who has been preparing for this trip since January, will spend the next couple of days entertaining soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division. He leaves on Saturday.
“It’s been a very thrilling hobby,” reflected Grant. “I just hope that when people think of me, they say ‘he did what he said he was going to do.’ That would be nice.”
This article first appeared in The Korea Times July 4, 2001