More than six decades have passed since James Dean shuffled off this mortal coil, yet the actor remains as vivid an icon to individuality and rebelliousness as he was before that fateful evening of September 30, 1955. Despite having seen him in just one film, East of Eden (Rebel Without a Cause and Giant would be released posthumously), youthful audiences eager to watch people like themselves on the screen had turned the charismatic 24-year-old actor into a major star. When the brand-new silver Porsche Spyder he was driving to a race in Salinas, California was struck by a 1950 Ford Custom Tudor Coupe driven by 23-year-old local Donald Turnupseed, Dean was blasted into immortality. Since then, the actor’s memory has been kept alive by countless tell-alls, biopics (this 1976 TV film, based on the memoir by writer Bill Bast, who was Dean’s former roommate/one-time lover, is still my favorite), documentaries, magazine articles and fan worship across the globe. Each year on the anniversary of his death, many thousands of people from around the world make a pilgrimage to Fairmount, Indiana, Dean’s hometown, to see where their idol grew up.
My buddy, filmmaker Heath Daniels, and I met at a fancy-ish soiree in the hills above Hollywood a few years ago and became instant pals when we realized we had a lot in common, including some things that can’t be shared here, but mainly a strong affinity for Dean. We decided to recreate the actor’s final day as accurately as possible and took photos of all the major stops along the way. Scroll down to accompany us on our journey.
9:20 a.m. We begin at 14611 Sutton St. in Sherman Oaks, a quiet thoroughfare just a few blocks from bustling Ventura Boulevard. Dean’s rustic A-frame log cabin (above left) is long gone, rumored to have burned down decades ago. In its place is an expansive and rather posh modern residence behind a secure gate designed to keep out looky-loos like us.
9:55 a.m. We arrive at the 1200 block of Vine St. in Hollywood. Before he hit the road to head north out of L.A., Dean met his photographer pal Sanford Roth at Competition Motors then stopped for donuts and coffee at Hollywood Ranch Market across the street. As proof that nothing lasts forever in Hollywood, Competition Motors is now an Armenian banquet hall and the Ranch Market is home to
high-end Mexican eatery El Pollo Loco.
We need breakfast and decide Huevos Rancheros probably isn’t a good idea before a long road trip so we walk to nearby Winchell’s Donut House. We order two crullers and coffee. Keenly aware of our own muffin tops barely camouflaged by our T-shirts, we each take a bite to honor Jimmy and then toss the rest of the carb-crazy breakfast in the trash on the sidewalk.
10:30 a.m. We get back in the car and head north on Highway 101 (just like Dean and mechanic Rolf Wütherich, pictured above). To help while away the driving time we made a Spotify playlist with more than four hours of tunes we imagine Dean might have listened to during the early 1950s. The first song we hear is, appropriately, “Earth Angel” by The Penguins. We decide this is a good omen.
10:45 a.m. Corner of Beverly Glen and Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks. We snapped selfies in front of what is now a car wash and flower shop where Dean was famously photographed getting gas (see pic at top of article). We wondered how many of the waiting customers realized the historical significance of this location. Probably zero. We’re Dean nerds.
11:10 a.m. It feels as if we’ve been driving for
days weeks. There’s nothing but drab gray highway and sun-scorched brown hills for miles in the distance. We decide we hate road trips. Whose idea was this anyhow?
12:25 p.m. Spotify has now played “Come On-A My House” three times. WTF? We decide we can’t listen to anymore Rosemary Clooney. We begin to ask each other searingly personal questions, such as “What’s your favorite Brenda Vaccaro movie?” and “Which was your favorite episode of Laverne and Shirley?”
5:05 p.m. We pulled to the side of the road near where Dean collided with Turnupseed. This is very close to the exact time of day (estimated to be 5:45 p.m.) the collision took place. According to accounts written at the time, the sun was beginning to set and the silver color of Dean’s Porsche melded with the gray of the highway, making it difficult for Turnupseed to see our boy. The intersection of Route 46 and Route 41 was officially dedicated as the James Dean Memorial Junction on September 30, 2005, as part of the State of California’s official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dean’s death. It’s a lonely strip of road and other fans have left souvenirs against the nearby fence.
5:25 p.m. We begin our return to L.A. The drive back seems even longer on the way home. We feel a bit melancholy that we’re doing something Dean didn’t live to do. We try to lighten the mood by turning highways exits into names for ’50s movie starlets. We create Buttonwillow McKittrick and Pumpkin Lamont and make up exciting back stories for them. We also create a memorable gay pornstar moniker, PrEP Felcher. Thanks to ever-hideous L.A.-bound traffic, it takes more than four hours to get home and we arrive at my house at 9:45 p.m. completely wiped out.
No matter what the future holds, we’ll always have the Blackwell’s Corner fudge factory.