James Dean’s Last Day On Earth Gets Recreated By Two Obsessed Fans

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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 tumblr_nuzx89cvkx1r6u2awo1_400major 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.

Sutton

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.

last breakfast

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.

donuts

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.

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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.

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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.

hwy

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?”

ticket pole

1:16 p.m. Near Bakersfield. A notorious speed demon, Dean had been issued a ticket just south of Bakersfield, a lively SoCal metropolis. Kidding. We exit the 5 freeway near the Mettler Station junction and take surface streets past many miles of fruit trees searching for the exact location where Dean was cited. Heath makes a bad joke about getting lost among fruit trees. I begin singing along to yet another Rosemary Clooney tune. We look for a telephone pole with the metal letters that spell “DEAN” affixed to it, which is alleged to signify the exact spot where Dean was pulled over by a cop. Some monster swiped the “D” as a morbid souvenir, but some considerate soul has nailed a flyer for the James Dean Last Drive event that will takes place on September 30. We realize that we aren’t the only James Dean freaks in SoCal.
BC2:38 p.m. We arrive at Blackwell’s Corner, where Dean made his last stop at what was then a small roadside café, but is now a convenience store/demented tourist attraction. The giant standup replica of Dean’s famous Rebel pose is a harbinger for what awaits us inside.
fudge
Fudge Factory!! We couldn’t have made this up. The clerk in the convenience store has no idea why we’re laughing so hard.
mannequin
This replica of a ’50s diner is plenty authentic. Well, except for the life-size James Dean look-alike doll holding a machine gun. We didn’t know Dean was so gung-ho about the Second Amendment.
mural
One wall boasts this incredibly evocative mural. Let’s see, there’s Elvis, Marilyn, Dean…and, um…is that Richard Burton? Johnny Cash? One of these things is not like the others. We’re perplexed.
open
And despite the blinding neon “open” sign, the diner is closed weekends. We were both really craving an authentic chocolate malt, too. Heath settles for a Diet Pepsi, while I bravely munch on a package of Trump-colored cheese-and-crackers that expired in 2014.
BC2
Behold the north end of Blackwell’s Corner. They’re really proud of that fudge factory.
cholame
3:35 p.m. Cholame, California. We arrive at our destination: the James Dean memorial, which is an abstract steel monument erected in 1977 by Japanese businessman/James Dean worshiper Seita Ohnishi next to a tree in the small gravel parking lot of the Jack Ranch Cafe. We’d been told that the metal was originally designed as a mirror to reflect the site of the intersection where Dean crashed with Turnupseed, which is just a few hundred feet away, but time has dimmed its luster. A couple of local fans have set up shop in front to sell a random collection of souvenirs, including vintage paperback biographies, fan club newsletters and — cat burglar alert — a floor plan of the Cholame post office.
diner
3:50 p.m. We walk into the cafe, which is another virtual shrine to Dean, and order sandwiches. The waiter notices my tattoos (I have one of Dean on my right bicep) and asks if I’m Mexican. Heath laughs. I wonder how having a tattoo indicates one’s ethnicity.
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4:30 p.m. We finish our meal and after paying the bill, we notice the gift shop shelving unit filled with Dean memorabilia and and Fritos corn chips. There was a time when, as Dean collectors, we’d have both probably purchased one of each as keepsakes of our trip, but in the spirit of downsizing we don’t even spring for the corn chips.

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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.

junction5:25 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.

blackwell

No matter what the future holds, we’ll always have the Blackwell’s Corner fudge factory.

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