Fifty-six years after his accidental death in his Porsche Spyder nicknamed “Little Bastard,” James Dean remains the personification of cool. With intense, penetrating blue eyes, pouting lips and bad boy image, there were few women (and some say men) who could escape his charm. But this is only part of the story for this TWICE posthumously Academy Award nominated actor who, over two short years, with only three films was able to change movies and our definition of cool forever.
As we planned our Indiana trip, we had no choice but to stop and honor the legend in his hometown of Fairmount, IN.
As we strolled up the sidewalk towards the door of the James Dean Gallery, we were excitedly greeted by curator David Loehr’s friendly young pooch Cleo. Her boss, a quiet New Englander and graphic design graduate also came forward to say hello and welcome us to the Dean Gallery and what is the largest private collection of Dean memorabilia in the world.
He guided us through the small gift shop in the front of the house (which doubles, upstairs as his and Cleo’s home), and provided a quick rundown of the museum and promised a map to other interesting Dean sites when we completed our self-guided tour.
We perused the many glass display cabinets filled with everything from personal photos to licensed memorabilia. Being only passive James Dean fans, Victoria and I probably could’ve used more active direction, but walking through the exhibitions you got a sense for how influential this young man was, not only on film, but on other actors and the millions of fans who he captured before and after his untimely death at 24.
Each room of the collection is as thorough as it is interesting. There’s childhood memorabilia including an original handwritten sheet from a grade school assignment, yearbook photos and even a few images from acting class. The collection includes many “licensed” products such as jeans and “Rebel” aftershave and original artwork featuring Dean, both folk art and works by Dean devotee Kenneth Kendall.
Kenneth Kendall’s story is an interesting one, as his one-time encounter with James Dean only 8-months before his death resulted in a lifelong fascination that lived out in paintings, sculptures and more. More interesting however, the bust that the star had reluctantly requested for himself during that visit to Kendall’s studio, was not completed until after his death and now appears in a memorial at the Griffith Observatory in LA and in a park dedicated to Dean in Fairmount (see picture at right). “Mozart may have written his own Requiem,” Kendall said at the time, “but James Dean ordered his own monument.”
In addition to the collection, Loehr has put together a small screening room, with a tiny television that plays clips of Dean’s career comprised of many rare clips and featuring many of Dean’s early television roles and his first ever appearance in a Pepsi Cola advertisement.
In the back of the museum is a vintage shop called “Rebel Rebel” where you can buy everything from vintage postcards to clothing.
The Dean Gallery is a cool look at cool and a must see for all Dean fans or anyone visiting Fairmount. In fact, this tiny town is a place, if not for James Dean may never have known the wonders of cable television, cell phones, or the internet. This town would have been the town that time forgot, the same rural community that the world’s biggest movie star called home in the 40s. If not for the tourism that Dean’s legacy draws, this town would have little if no contact with the outside world.
So please visit and remember Dean’s lasting legacy:
“Dream as though you’ll live forever, live as though you’ll die today.”