Rebel…With a Cause

“You are who you are meant to be. Dance as if no one’s watching. Love as if it’s all you know. Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” ~ James Dean

Quirky dame that I am, I admit to never swooning over Elvis Presley…with one exception. His rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” ranks as powerfully stunning! Instead, I wore out my sister Sarah’s 1958 double LP, “Belafonte at Carnegie Hall”, which she purchased at the Indiana University Bookstore prior to her spring break. “Oh, come, Mister tally man, tally me banana! Daylight come and me wan’ go home…” Calypso style. I giddily sat three rows away from the handsomest gentleman in creation when Harry staged his concert at a Detroit Opera House 10 years ago. A smoothly exquisite performer! Fast forward to the recent present with me and my own particularly idolized spirits of Cal Trask/Jett Rink/Jim Stark all of us seated in folding chairs around a rickety card table nestling in the front yard of the James Dean Gallery in Jimmy’s hometown of Fairmount, Indiana!

Picture a stack of soft-bound issues of “Secrets of an Old Typewriter — Stories of a Smart and Sassy Small-town Girl” somewhat blocking our view of an impressive flock of passers-by anxious to enjoy the downtown mid-way rides, parade, craft booths, dance contest, Jimmy Dean Look-a-Like competition, and lemonade and cotton candy and elephant ear confections. Representative of the dreamscape of mankind, — ranging from townsfolk as well as school chums of the legendary native son to toddlers in strollers or perched on their mamas’ hips, miniature doggies peeking from shoulder-bags and pocketbooks, baby boomers, Generation X-ers, teenagers, infants OR white poodles in baby carriages, celebrities, authors, and musicians of every ethnicity imaginable and from around the globe–, humanity eagerly, reverently congregates annually to celebrate the amazing life of an iconic resident who died in 1955 at the age of 24.

The James Dean Festival…commemorates yet another anniversary since the boy wonder abandoned all of us star-struck fans still earthbound on that sad date of September 30th with our hearts broken and our eyes cast heavenward, wishing he would return and star in further films rivaling his three cinematic classics — “East of Eden”, “Giant”, and “Rebel Without a Cause” — released within one magic year. These movies offer mesmerizing, truthful, impacting, instructive stories sharing themes of forgiveness, coming of age, redemption, and the human need for inclusion. In our 21st century, this Hoosier figure continues to magnetize crowds with his amazing talent, devotion to craft, and poignant portrayals of credible characters with whom we can both empathize and identify.

Tooling down Highway 9 South, I quickly find myself only two counties from my Whitley County house. While lingering on the lawns and side-walks of Grant County, I have delighted in chatting with Texan/stunt man Bob Hinkle who served as Jimmy’s dialect and lasso trick coach on the set of “Giant”, Dean’s high school speech and drama instructor Adeline Mart Nall, famous Hollywood sculptor/painter Kenneth Kendall, and I probably brushed right by George Stevens, Jr. and maybe Martin Sheen who often frequented Fairmount the final week of each September. I count as forever friends, from this year of 2012: novelist-poet Ted B. Guevara from the Philippines; Fan Club originators Sandra Weinhardt and her sis from Livonia, Michigan; Linda Levine and Kirk Shield from South Bend, Indiana; Professor Del Rae and his Hungarian wife from Akron, Ohio; author/Rock ‘n Roll expert gorgeous Pamela Des Barres; a history buff/electrical engineer who drove from Alabama — and a passel of Dean’s “8th” cousins once and twice removed also from Akron –the Hausknecht family who share a common ancestry with Jesse James as well. Jesse and Jimmy and the Hausknechts! Who knew?

Supportive friend Lucy Langohr Grant, currently a resident of North Carolina, recently wrote to me, “Have fun with your writing projects — turning ‘pillars’ into real, accessible people!” Speaking of that genre of gracious folks, I wish to thank Columbia City Library’s Ray Ranier, South Whitley-Cleveland Township Library’s staff of Renae and LeAnn and Darci and Virginia (whose mother-in-law once owned the house where my family rented an upstairs apartment when the Duncans first landed in town and which later Jim and Connie Rohrbach inhabited for many years –small world!), Whitley County Historical Museum’s Dani Tippman and assistants, and the Churubusco Library for facilitating my appearances and book signings during October and November. A special bonus involved Deb Lowrance interviewing me, of all people, as a contributor to her astounding 42 part Whitley County Oral History series –we filled two tapes! South Whitley’s (windy) Souper Stompin’ Saturday I shall never forget not only because several readers added my memoirs of local history to their personal libraries — but also, two “intellectual” llamas, a half dozen ponies, and a couple of sheep expressed an animated interest in digesting my bound recollections as well.

Dean’s genius reached an entire generation which included my two sisters…and spoke to me a tad when I viewed “Giant” as a nine year old, squirming in my Columbia Theater seat about fifth row back. I genuinely discovered the psyche and depth of this young man when I reached middle-age, via my favorite of his films, “East of Eden”. Simultaneously, I also became fast friends with David Loehr, originally from Massachusetts, who established the James Dean Gallery with his photographer pal Lenny Prussack. Fairmount boasts two museums, the other being the Fairmount Historical Museum — many of Dean’s high school friends hang out there–to this very day! Marcus Winslow –who resides in the perfectly preserved farmhouse where the freshly, tragically motherless Jimmy arrived at age nine to be raised by his (paternal) Aunt Hortense and Uncle Marcus Winslow (the parents of Marcus) — speaks so lovingly and proudly of his older cousin’s global influence and his impact upon a continual stream of America’s youth since the early 50s: “When ‘Giant’ premiered in 1955, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor received top billing, but today my cousin’s name, even though he is featured in just 35 minutes of a three and one half hour movie with intermission, appears above theirs on marquees and posters. Jimmy genuinely wished to leave his mark, and he certainly did just that.”

“Jimmy gave expression to the discontent, the unhappy, the suppressed, the latchkey kids, the spiritually starved. Jimmy up on the screen and hundreds of like-minded in the darkness, sprawled in their seats chewing gum and eating popcorn. The identification worked for both boys and girls. For the girls he was an ideal figure of the courageous yet sensitive friend. And the boys felt the way (novelist/artist) John Dos Passos had described : ‘…they still lined up… before the mirrors in the restroom… to look at themselves and see James Dean…’ ” ~ Axel Arens, writer and journalist

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