Editor’s note: Due to a periodic shift in the time-travel vortex, the following history feature appears in place of the Time Ranger column this week. John Boston’s regular Time Ranger column returns next week.
I find it light years beyond strange that a nearly blind, short, awkward, set of false teeth-owning and somewhat perverted haunted nerd nobody could become one of the most enduring sex symbols in American history. In about two years in the mid-1950s, James Byron Dean made just three movies. For those, Dean earned three Oscar nominations. Of course, two came posthumously. James Dean died in that infamous car crash on Sept. 30, 1955, up the road a few hours north from here in Cholame, just a mile from the San Andreas Fault in Central California. Right before, he had his last meal here in the Santa Clarita Valley, at a long-ago local institution, Tip’s.
Stranger still. His iconic posters of the cigarette-smoking, disenfranchised teen still sell by the thousands. I’m sure my old high school pal, track star and fellow historian Frank Rock, will get a kick out of the fact that Dean was a champion pole vaulter. He set several records (a smidge over 10 feet) at his old Indiana campus. Heck. I get a kick out of Dean (at 5-foot-7) being a star basketball player.
There is no shortage of gee-whiz James Dean trivia.
He had no front teeth. They were knocked out by an errant wooden swing when Dean was a boy, although he claimed he lost them in a motorcycle accident. He loved taking out his falsies to startle friends and starlets. His first acting gig was in a 1951 Pepsi commercial. Just north of Castaic and two hours before his death, Dean got a speeding ticket — for doing 65 in a 55.
There isn’t an old-timer in the Santa Clarita who doesn’t recall Tip’s. It was the nomad of coffee shops, moving around to various locations across the Santa Clarita Valley floor. For years, Tip’s sat atop Hamburger Hill, where the International House of Pancakes rests today on Pico Canyon Road next to Interstate 5. People came, sometimes from 100 miles away, just to drink. It was home to the world’s most famous bartender — Bobby Batugo. In the 1970s and 1980s, the amiable and non-English-speaking mixologist from the Philippines attracted patrons from all over Southern and Central California. He was renowned for his brightly colored and epic drinks made from countless rums. I’ll never forget interviewing Bobby — for about five minutes. I painfully discovered the gentleman didn’t really speak English. In the hustle and bustle of life in a noisy saloon, Batugo had only learned a few dozen one-liners, like, “How about those Dodgers!” Or, “Hot enough today for you?” Bartenders rarely get beyond a third question in a busy watering hole. Since the 1920s, Tip’s moved around. There was even one on Sierra Highway for a short time.
For thousands of years, Castaic Junction has been a significant trade center. The Tataviam hosted dozens of Indian cultures from all points of the compass. When Highway 99 was the main north-south artery of California in the 1930s, the old Beacon Restaurant was a mecca for tired tourists and red-eyed teamsters. Tip’s took over, then moved again in the 1950s to the intersection of The Old Road and Magic Mountain Parkway. It’s a travelers’ oasis today, home to McDonald’s, a Starbucks and some gas stations. Marie Callender’s used to sit there. That old restaurant is infamous as anchors for two historical facts: It was the site of the murder of four California Highway Patrol officers in the April 1970 parking lot shootout and it was the place (when it was Tip’s) where James Dean ate his last meal.
His was a star that burned bright but passed ever so quickly. Born James Byron Dean on Feb. 8, 1931, perhaps the signature of his bottomless angst was losing his mother at an early age.
“I didn’t know what to do. How do you tell an 8-year-old boy his mother’s going to die? I tried. In my own stumbling way, I tried to prepare Jim for it,” his father Winton Dean told a reporter from Modern Screen Magazines. “Nowadays, he lives in a world we don’t understand too well, the actor’s world. We don’t see too much of him. But he’s a good boy, my Jim. A good boy, and I’m very proud of him. Not easy to understand, no sir. He’s not easy to understand. But he’s all man, and he’ll make his mark. Mind you, my boy will make his mark.”
The odd, cruel timing of it. The article appeared just a month before his boy was killed in a fiery car crash outside Paso Robles.
Dean would attend high school in his birthplace of Marion, Indiana. He would attend classes at the James Whitmore School where Whitmore urged him to go to New York to study. Another odd Santa Clarita tie-in? James Whitmore’s son, Steve, would later become a reporter and city editor of The Signal during the 1990s. Taking James Whitmore’s advice, Dean would apply to the prestigious Actors’ Studio in New York. From his own hand, here’s Dean’s letter to his family written in 1952:
“I have made great strides in my craft. After months of auditioning, I am very proud to announce that I am a member of the Actors Studio. The greatest school of the theater. It houses great people like Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Arthur Kennedy, Mildred Dunnock …Very few get into it, and it is absolutely free. It is the best thing that can happen to an actor. I am one of the youngest to belong. If I can keep this up and nothing interferes with my progress, one of these days I might be able to contribute something to the world.”
Seven decades later, Dean is still worshipped as a god. Every mall in the country hawks giant posters of his likeness. Without a doubt, one of his three films was the mantra for Dean and the young generation he represented as the alienated Jim Stark in “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Dean had moved back and forth from Los Angeles to New York, doing television and stage. He played the Howard Hughes-like character in “Giant” opposite two other tormented stars, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, but started the year with Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” The world seemed to be his.
“(Dean’s) death caused a loss in the movie world that our industry could ill afford,” said actor Gary Cooper. “Had he lived long enough, I feel he would have made some incredible films. He had sensitivity and a capacity to express emotion.”
Though romanticized today, there was an even darker side to the troubled youth. Stories are still around today about a pornographic nature and excesses to the actor. There are claims from various books that the film legend had an insatiable sexual appetite, sleeping with many, including Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. James Dean actually not only dated, but was engaged to Liz Sheridan.
She played Jerry Seinfeld’s mom on the NBC sitcom, “Seinfeld.” She and Dean were engaged in 1952. She wrote a book about their relation, “Dizzy and Lizzy.” Sheridan died in 2022 at the age of 94.
Life seemed to imitate film for the tragedian. In March 1955, he celebrated his wild success and rave reviews by buying a Porsche Spyder. Soon, he was racing on and off the street and on tracks across Southern California. But Dean was not happy. Dean reportedly told his close friend, actor Dennis Hopper, that he was going to quit his white-hot acting career. Dean confided that he couldn’t stand being “treated like a puppet” as an actor and said he wanted to direct.
He was en route to a race in Salinas before he died. For years, the rumor circulated that he had been speeding when he hit a farmer’s truck that had rumbled onto the main highway in the flatlands of the San Joaquin Valley. Subsequent investigations noted he was only driving about 55 mph when his Porsche crashed. Interestingly, the engine from that car was sold to a Beverly Hills doctor. Dr. Troy McHenry would die in a car crash on Oct. 22, 1956. The car reportedly was powered by Dean’s engine.
There are other stories about the Porsche. Supposedly, after the crash, it rolled onto a mechanic at customizer George Barris’ garage and broke the man’s leg. There are urban legends involving the death of another doctor who bought the Porsche transmission, plus injuries of two other men who had reportedly used parts from Dean’s wreckage. Today, the body of the car is still missing. An Indiana museum has offered a $1 million reward for the racer.
Nearly 70 years later, James Dean is still with us, strong as, well — Elvis. Why? Biographer Joe Hyams summed it up best in “Little Boy Lost.”
“There is no simple explanation for why he has come to mean so much to so many people today. Perhaps it is because, in his acting, he had the intuitive talent for expressing the hopes and fears that are a part of all young people … In some movie magic way, he managed to dramatize brilliantly the questions every young person in every generation must resolve.”
Every Sept. 30, a few thousand fans still make the pilgrimage to James Dean’s grave at the Park Cemetery in Fairmont, Indiana, to place flowers.
Here? In Santa Clarita?
There’s still some small controversy on whether James Dean had his last meal at Tip’s. A handful get rather snooty, claim it never happened. In the late 1960s, The Mighty Signal ran a story, where Signal Publisher Tony Newhall interviewed the manager of Tip’s. She confirmed that Dean, indeed, had that final bite to eat here in the Santa Clarita. In the 1970s, I spoke with the Tip’s waitress who served James Dean’s last meal. She recalled he wasn’t exactly a big tipper nor conversationalist. Dean polished off a simple plate of apple pie and a glass of milk before dying, young and forever famous …
With 119 major writing awards, local author John Boston has been named one of the best newspaper columnists in America. His weekly Time Ranger column will return next week in these spaces. Visit his bookstore at johnbostonbooks.com.