James Dean, Fairmount, Indiana: Star Trekking
Road Trips to Hollywood Across America
The story seemed to recede unusually quickly but you may be aware of it. When Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor passed away in 2011, a journalist revealed something that Taylor wished to have kept secret until after her death. She related that while filming the motion picture Giant, actor James Dean - the embodiment of youthful angst, male sensitivity, and unwillingness to accept the standards of a stitched-up society (not to mention being a leading icon of American cool for not only his own 1950's generation but for all the time that has followed him so far) - told her that, at age 11, he began to be molested by his minister.
I asked David Loehr, curator of the popular James Dean Gallery in Fairmount, Indiana - where Dean grew up - what seemed to be the consensus of feeling among the town's residents about Taylor's revelation. "It just seems to happen a lot," he said, "when somebody's gone, they say things about them and they're not here to defend themselves...There wasn't any huge emotion about it." Well, that was 2011.
A more comforting recollection of James Dean comes from actress Carroll Baker, another Giant co-star and a fellow student with Dean at the Actors Studio. In her autobiography Baby Doll, Baker described a motorcycle ride she once took with her arms tightened around Dean's waist as they flew through the just-awakening, drowsy lots of Warner Brothers studios early one morning in 1955:
"The bike slowed...We were entering the back lot and approaching the replica of a small American town...When I released Jimmy, he swung off the bike and sauntered up the empty street to a white frame house...It even had a picket fence...
'Gee, this is nice,' I murmured...I was transported to all the other times, from my seat in a dark movie house, that I had lived on this same street.
'I must have seen this street in a hundred movies,' I whispered.
'Yeah, it's nice. Kinda reminds me of home,' he said..."
Most of us have probably seen streets "in a hundred movies" like the one that reminded James Dean of home; and while I can't put you on a motorcycle with him, I can direct you to the actual streets he was homesick for in Fairmount, Indiana. [All the Festival events mentioned in this article are from the 2012 celebration. Check with the links below for the September 2019 schedule.] The 37th annual James Dean Festival is our final stop of the year in the Road Trips to Hollywood Across America: Star Trekking series.
The word "tragic" could easily be applied to some major events in James Dean's life. Losing his loving playmate of a mother to cancer when he was just 9 years old then having his father bow out and give over James' upbringing to relatives could certainly be called "tragic." The unverified molestation and, of course, the horrific, heavily documented car crash that slammed his life to a close at the age of 24 - in the same year as that motorbike ride with Carroll Baker - things don't get much more tragic than that.
But the town of Fairmount has no time for the "tragic" label. The community is too busy with the exuberance of inviting the world to share its pride in celebrating the cinematic idol who was reared in their farmlands, schools and streets. Even Dean's gravestone, within a mile or so from the center of town, seems less tragic when covered with the scarlet lipstick lip prints that fans are so fond of kissing onto it.
The James Dean Festival is divided into two components of attractions. The Annual Museum Days of the Fairmount Historical Museum pay tribute to Dean in a variety of entertaining ways. The party kicks off when the streets of Fairmount are closed off the first morning and a series of events and activities for people of all ages overflows the town all weekend. Among the highlights are music, trivia, a grand parade, pet parade, swap meet and contests, including a 50's dance contest and a lasso contest. Remember Dean's knock-out lasso scene in Giant (1956)? If not, you can view free screenings of that film and the only other 2 movies he ever starred in, East of Eden (1955) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). (Could it be that an actor received two Best Actor Oscar nominations when he starred in only three films? Yes, Dean did.) His famously appealing face, style and form were uber-photographed so, naturally, there is a look-alike contest. There is even a contest for amazing kiddie James Dean look-alikes.
The other festival component is the Annual James Dean Run - a show in Playacres Park celebrating the Dean mystique through the splendor of fabulous 50's cars. There are preliminaries then, during the course of the long weekend, exhibitions and judgings take place, including a Parade of Neon - flashing the cars' glowing neon trim - and a flame throwing contest! (Even if you care little about cars you've got to want to see long tongues of flame licking out of the tailpipes, don't you?)
The dates of his young life: February 8, 1931 to September 30, 1955. Each September 30, church services in Fairmount, Indiana memorialize James Byron Dean.
He starred in only 3 movies but this ground-breaking actor appeared on New York stages and in a long list of classic television series such as Omnibus, Studio One in Hollywood, and Kraft Theatre. It may come as a surprise to know that Dean also showed talent and craft as a visual artist (but almost nothing about the singular James Dean could really be a big surprise, could it?).
LOOK at the four artworks at the end of this article. Which do you think is the work of James Dean? Click on a number to find out if you are right: #1 Marin II ~ #2 Matador ~ #3 Rebecca ~ #4 The Coming Light. All artworks shown here with permission of the artist or the collector/owner.
Check the links below for more information on the annual James Dean Festival. Because of Dean (and a little bit because of the self-assured comic strip cat Garfield who was created by Jim Davis, another Grant County native), the whole of Fairmount, Indiana's Grant County claims to have a reputation for being, "the coolest destination in the Midwest." No doubt, it's true.