I grew up surrounded by James Dean. His presence was inescapable in Fairmount, the town where he came of age, learned acting under the tutelage of the great Adeline Nall, took the stage at Fairmount High School and was eventually buried in a simple grave at the top of the hill in the town cemetery.
The spirit of Dean has always felt out of place in Fairmount. The white picket fence image of this small, conservative town seems at odds with the screen icon whose idea of solving parental problems was smacking the hell out of his dad.
In the 1980s, the treatment of the Dean image reflected this unspoken tension. The memorial to Dean in the cemetery was taken down after the statue of his head was stolen; the Fairmount High School building was closed in 1986. I remember that day clearly - the place was right across the street from my house. It has not been kept up over the years, most of it is still a wreck, further threatened by a leaking roof.
But Dean was always spoken of. I couldn't mention my hometown anywhere without someone responding, "Oh, the James Dean place," and as a young man I came to resent it. Being so close to the Dean Mecca, I didn't quite understand his place in film and cultural history. As I grew older, though, I began to visit his grave on a frequent basis, more out of boredom than anything else, but always aware that what was a simple bike ride for me was a transcontinental pilgrimage for others.
It was late in the 1980s when the Dean phenomenon began to grip the town on a year-round basis. David Loehr, perhaps the world's foremost Dean fan and the owner of the world's largest collection of Dean memorabilia, opened the James Dean Gallery in 1987 to display his massive exhibit. He once told me that he was driving past the farm where Dean grew up, saw a shooting star and took it as a good omen. So he moved there from New York and got into business.
Much like Dean himself, Loehr and his partner, Lenny NYC, never quite fit into Fairmount. New York City might as well have been a foreign country to Fairmount residents. I always perceived a vague air of disdain from townsfolk for the two city slickers who came into town and claimed stewardship of the Dean legacy.
But there was an effect, all right. It was more than Dave and Lenny; the 1950s got big again, and Fairmount began to see vintage clothing stores, antique stores, 1950s gear, everything from Dean to Bettie Page being packaged and sold. Fairmount discovered Dean commercialism. Now we have a downtown memorial and a highway sign that says, "Fairmount: Where Cool Was Born."
The first incarnation of the James Dean Gallery opened in a Victorian house in downtown Fairmount. Loehr moved into a larger spot near the highway when he outgrew the Victorian house. Now, nearly 20 years after Loehr's celestial revelation, the James Dean Gallery is closing, with an uncertain future before it. For the first time in nearly two decades, the single most visible icon of the Dean legacy, aside from his own grave, will be absent from the scene.
Fifty years after his death, coming up on what would have been his 75th birthday, where does James Dean fit into this world? Do people outside of film historians understand the impact of the man who effortlessly stole the show from Rock Hudson AND Elizabeth Taylor?
It's a strange time to be interested in James Dean. I meet fewer and fewer people who have even heard of him, let alone understand his enormous impact on cinema. Last summer, there was a Dean celebration expected to bring in 100,000 people. It was a dismal, money-losing disaster.
Yet Dean remains a consistent name among the top 20 moneymaking dead celebrities. The annual Fairmount James Dean celebration in September regularly brings in 30,000 people. And with the 50th anniversary of his death last September, at least eight new books and four new documentaries on Dean's life hit the popular media. The gallery is closing not because of poor attendance, as it's been a record year, but because the slow winter months can't cover the overhead.
In recent months, there's been an effort to raise money to restore Fairmount High School. There's talk of moving the gallery into that space and Loehr remains hopeful.
"It feels like a new beginning rather than an end," he says.
For more on the James Dean Gallery: www.jamesdeangallery.com.