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AL MARTINEZ

Immortality, the James Dean way

August 25, 2008|AL MARTINEZ

CHOLAME, CALIF. — If it weren't for the fact that James Dean was killed about a mile up the road, you probably would have never heard of Cholame.

It's a dreary little town in San Luis Obispo County on a stretch of highway that connects 101 with I-5, slicing through countryside that contains almost nothing notable, unless you're one of those who still cries yourself to sleep at night over an actor's long-ago death.

About the only visible structure in the community of 116 souls is the Jack Ranch Cafe, a rustic wood building whose grounds contain a memorial to Dean around what is known as the tree of heaven. That's no typo, by the way. The eatery is called Jack Cafe, not Jack's. I don't know why.

Cinelli and I stopped there for lunch not knowing we were on sacred ground until I began noticing pictures of Dean on all of the walls. A waitress explained that they were a tribute to the actor who died in a car crash at the nearby juncture of Highways 41 and 46.

The display is also a commercial enterprise. Part of the restaurant contains a gift section where for a few bucks one can buy photos and mock license plates with a picture of Dean and the words "4 Ever Cool" inscribed across the top.

Some of you might not know, and others not care, that Dean was killed in 1955 when a college student driving a Ford cut in front of his new silver Porsche Spyder. The actor had just finished shooting the film "Giant" and was on his way to race the Porsche in Salinas.

The reason this interests me at all is that just before leaving L.A. I made a fool of myself arguing about another young actor, Heath Ledger, who is already becoming a face in heaven. He was 28 when he died last January from ingesting a mixture of prescription drugs used to treat insomnia, anxiety, depression, pain and cold symptoms.

They'll debate forever whether his death was by suicide, accident or a bad cold, but I guess we'll just never know.

He has already taken his place in a pantheon of show biz folk who have kicked off for a variety of reasons and left a lot of sobbing fans in a condition of eternal grief. The adorable dead would also include icons like Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Elvis Presley and the ever-popular Rudolph Valentino. I probably missed a few, but you get the idea.

The aforementioned dinner party argument began when some of the guests began speaking in hushed tones about what Ledger had contributed to the world and how much poorer we all were without him. For a moment I thought they were talking about Jesus and in fact suspected they might have thought so too. I took about as much of this as I could before intoning in a voice heard through the house and down the block: "For God's sake, the man was only an actor!"

It was after I glanced at Cinelli across the table and saw that she was slowly shaking her head in a gesture of dismay that the realization came to me like a still picture emerging into focus that everyone at the table was an actor.

The actor to my right commented in a quiet voice and the actor to my left said something intelligent and without rancor and the actor directly across from me added a footnote to the discussion, but I was deep into my own realizations and can't tell you what anyone said.

I made a feeble effort to atone by saying what a fine job Ledger had done in "The Dark Knight" and "Brokeback Mountain," but it was too late and I wasn't that convincing. I have a personal mantra when I give speeches never to ad-lib after the cocktail hour. I will add to that never to argue either.

What I meant to say in my outburst was that we tend to place entertainers on a plane that ought to be reserved for those who have contributed more to mankind than a performance, a tap dance or a song. I mean, I liked Frank Sinatra, but I don't put flowers on his bar stool at Matteo's every anniversary of his death.

But then I guess we all need heroes of one sort or another, dead or alive. We need monuments, statues and anniversaries to commemorate what we dare not forget. We need to cry almost as much as we need to laugh because tears cleanse memory of grief's relentless pain.

Driving away from Jack Cafe we passed another, smaller monument to James Dean, across from the site of the crash that took his life. I watched in the rear-view mirror as it disappeared behind us, lost in the distance and lost in time, but forever new in the grieving hearts of those who remember.

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almtz13@latimes.com

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