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Remembering a 'Giant'

Fifty years after James Dean's death, fans gather at the site of his fatal crash.

October 01, 2005|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

CHOLAME, Calif. — You'd figure there'd be some guys brooding and intense and all slouchy at the one cafe in this one-cafe burg in the brown hills 25 miles east of Paso Robles.

After all, the Jack Ranch Cafe with its $16.95 rib eye special is just half a mile down the road from the spot where James Dean died in a momentous wreck. And Dean was one of the greatest cinematic brooders of all time, even in a career composed of just three films.

But on Friday, the 50th anniversary of his fatal accident, the only brooding in Cholame was being done by Scott Brim, a plastics salesman from Valencia who does a nice sideline in James Dean impersonations.

The rest of the few hundred folks who ambled around at the 50th anniversary observance were mostly middle-age Dean fans paying their respects, car nuts -- Dean was an aspiring racer -- and even a few old-timers who have untiringly recounted that day in 1955 for a generation or two of Dean aficionados.

During the day, they hung around outside the cafe, where a rattlesnake warning is posted on a fence. Doo-wop songs blared over speakers but the crowd at the free-form memorial tribute and car show was mainly quiet, waiting to mark the moment their idol breathed his last at 5:59 p.m.

As the shadows grew and the air cooled, they trooped down to the very spot -- or at least as close as you could get to it before the roads were realigned a few years ago. Passing big-rig drivers tooted their horns. Motorists gaped at what was no doubt the largest crowd ever to gather at the intersection of California 41 and 46, smack in the middle of nowhere.

Nothing much happened. People had their photos taken beside a new highway sign that says James Dean Memorial Junction. A couple of guys in silver Porsche Spyder 550s -- the car Dean was driving -- came down California 46, traveling the tail end of the route he took that day from Van Nuys. He was bound for a race in Salinas.

After the moment, everyone slowly dispersed.

The observance is "a Zen-type deal," said Warren Beath, a Dean biographer from Bakersfield. "On this coast, no one has co-opted his death."

Beath said he didn't think much of the annual festivities in Fairmount, Ind., where Dean spent much of his youth.

In Fairmount, there are look-alike contests, souvenirs, parades -- virtually a revel without a pause.

In Cholame, Ray Piacecki stood alone at the edge of the field where Dean's body lay before the ambulance arrived.

"Only us true fans are here," said the customer-service representative from Atlanta. "But Dylan should be here. Dennis Hopper should be here. They owe him a lot."

Outside the cafe, folks gathered at the parking-lot monument financed by Japanese fan Seita Ohnishi, savoring the lofty prose on its plaques:

"There are some things, like the hatred that accompanies war, that should be forgotten," he wrote. "There are others, like the nobler qualities of Man, to which this young actor directed our attention, that should be preserved for all time."

Penny Tingey, a retiree from Paso Robles who often takes out-of-towners to the monument, was among those who were not contemplating the nobler qualities of Man.

"He was the first person I ever heard called sex symbol," she said. "I was 10 when he died and things were just stirring. I remember seeing 'Giant' at the drive-in with my parents, and thinking, 'Wow! Who's that guy?' "

After his death, Dean was elevated to an almost spiritual prominence. There were rumors that he hadn't died, that he was in a sanitarium learning to use artificial limbs, that he hadn't even been in the car. His fatal accident was studied by a legion of amateur investigators with the intensity brought to President Kennedy's assassination.

Sitting on a lawn under a shade tree, 87-year-old Ron Nelson graciously obliged when asked by yet another stranger for his recollection of that day.

The retired California Highway Patrol officer said he and his partner were just coming off a coffee break in Paso Robles when they got the call. When he arrived, he saw Dean being loaded into an ambulance and breathing heavily -- a sign, he thought, of severe brain injury.

The collision with Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed was Turnupseed's fault, Nelson said. And Dean wasn't going 90 mph, as has been widely reported. Nelson said the wreckage and the position of Dean's body indicated his speed was more like 55 mph.

A big man in a Hawaiian shirt and a Panama hat, Nelson said he gets calls from all over the world when Sept. 30 rolls around. Reporters, biographers and avid fans all want his opinion.

"Strange thing is, I had never heard of James Dean the actor before the accident," he said. "I thought maybe this was Jimmy Dean, the country singer."

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