LOS ANGELES – The biggest stars at the Hollywood Christmas Parade (search) this year will be the marble ones under the feet of spectators. The annual parade, which winds past the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was once a tradition as rich and famous as the celebrities who graced its floats: Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope (search), Mary Pickford and Gregory Peck, to name a few.
But the event's cachet has declined so much in recent years that the Hollywood personality generating the most excitement for the 73rd parade on Sunday is a cartoon character — SpongeBob SquarePants.
The other big names? Female boxer Laila Ali, the winners of the reality show "The Amazing Race 5" and out-of-tune "American Idol" loser William Hung.
"The parade used to be huge — a million people would come and there were huge stars," said Michael Levine, author and publicist to the stars. "But today there's no sense of obligation to anyone except yourself and the immediate. It's a shame. The celebrities are missing a great opportunity."
The event has been in such dire straits recently that the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce called celebrity impresario and Walk of Fame boss Johnny Grant out of retirement last year to try to resuscitate it.
But even Grant — who rescued the parade in 1978 and kept it going for 20 years — has had trouble restoring its faded luster. The 81-year-old honorary Hollywood mayor said he called "just about every star in town" for this year's event, but most were already booked.
"I'm not sure we have the caliber stars today that we had back in the era of the golden days of Hollywood. It has changed drastically," Grant said. "Today the young kids are making a lot of money and they hop the charter jet to Miami or the ski slopes or wherever."
Grant hopes that with more publicity, the parade will return to its glory days, when he could call the biggest Hollywood names directly and ask them to appear. In those days, he said, celebrities would fight to be in the parade because it was a sign they had arrived.
"Arnold Schwarzenegger told me once that he spent his first night in Hollywood sitting on the curb watching the Hollywood Christmas Parade and wondering if he would ever get in it," Grant said. The actor-turned-governor has appeared in the parade, but last year he couldn't commit to be grand marshal.
The history of the parade is as storied as Hollywood itself.
The first, called the Santa Claus Lane Parade, was staged in 1928 by merchants who wanted to drum up holiday business on Hollywood Boulevard. It consisted of a sleigh on wheels pulled by two live reindeer, with starlet Jeanette Loff on board.
In 1946, Gene Autry heard the children along the parade route shouting for Santa Claus and was inspired to write the holiday classic "Here Comes Santa Claus." The parade has been held every year except for 1930 and three years during World War II.
In 1978, the event started to lose its appeal and then-TV personality Grant swooped in with financial backing from Autry to revive it. He renamed it the Hollywood Christmas Parade to draw attention to its star quality and to generate national interest.
But the event has faltered in the five years since Grant stepped down as executive producer, losing live television coverage, corporate sponsors and much of its star power. In 2002, NBC decided to ignore the parade in favor of a one-hour "variety show" taped a week earlier.
Grant hopes his involvement this year will show Hollywood's A-list that they have a vested interest in Tinseltown's past.
"I don't think we've done a very good job telling them how important a tradition this is," he said. "They are using the most famous brand name in the world to enhance their career at no cost."
Grant's former employer, KTLA-TV, agreed to broadcast the parade live locally and on its sister stations in New York and Chicago. Former Laker great Magic Johnson is the grand marshal and "Desperate Housewives" narrator Brenda Strong is on board.
Oh, and never underestimate the pull of that larger-than-life invertebrate, SpongeBob.