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After you read this page, you can see Magdalin's photos from the walk, well-captioned by Magdalin herself!

In Search of a Legend in New York

by Magdalin Leonardo

        There’s a group of people about 70 strong lining the sidewalk of a relatively nondescript apartment building on New York’s Upper West Side. About a dozen or so crowd the small entranceway with dozens more waiting outside. They stand on the street, lean on parked cars, rest on neighboring stairs. Their eyes, straining against a blazing sun, scan its brick-lined facade, resting now and then on a lone, circular-shaped window high above them.

        "Is somebody looking for an apartment? " asks a curious passerby.

        "Nope," comes the answer from the crowd, "we’re looking for James Dean."

        The fifth floor window belonged to that famous former tenant. And for five hours on August 23, the city belonged to his fans. Led by Dean archivist David Loehr, they came to pay tribute to their favorite legend on Loehr’s 1997 Walking Tour of James Dean’s New York Hangouts.

        They came from as close as 52nd Street, and as far away as Colorado. They came in all shapes and sizes. They were as young as 14, and as old as 70. But they all came for the same thing: a guided tour of the places James Dean lived and loved.

        Decked out in all kinds of "Deanwear" -- from silkscreened T-shirts to handpainted ties -- this diverse group included all kinds of fans. There were actors, artists, construction workers, travel agents, students, secretaries, even an Avon lady. And the James Dean tattoos were in no short supply.

        "Some people have a monkey on their back; I’ve got Jimmy on my back," said Chris Matthews, a ponytailed mechanic and part-time actor from Bergenfield, New Jersey. Matthews, 29, who attended the Dean Walk with his wife Gayle, certainly seemed to be the owner of the most impressive skin shrine.

        Dean’s famous Rebel Without a Cause pose is draped along the full-length of Matthews’ back, a feat that took over two months and 11 sittings to complete. But that’s not the only bit of Dean this fan sports. Matthews is also the proud owner of Jett Rink Motors, an auto mechanic shop named after Dean’s infamous villain in the 1956 film, Giant.

        This diehard fan even planned his wedding around Dean. "My wife and I had our honeymoon in Fairmount (IN)," he said with a smile. "We got married on September 26th so we could be there for the annual James Dean festival."

        As fans know, New York was not the first (or last) home of James Dean. Fairmount was where Dean spent most of his childhood and the sleepy Indiana town has long been a popular gathering place for fans worldwide.

        But New York was where Dean’s boyhood dream of becoming an actor came true. He lived there in the early 1950s, appearing in local theaters and hanging out in a slew of bars and restaurants from the Upper West Side all the way down to Greenwich Village. Visiting these places now, fans got a chance to walk in Dean’s footsteps—and they loved every minute of it.

        They strolled through Central Park (one of Dean’s favorite rehearsal sites) and cruised by Rockefeller Center, where Dean spent hours skating. They visited the Royalton Hotel on West 44th Street, where Dean lived for a short time while appearing in his first Broadway play. They even stopped to socialize at the legendary Algonquin Hotel, where Jimmy himself hobnobbed with some of the greatest literary, social and theatrical figures of his day.

        But no matter where they went, the dedication of these Dean fans was obvious. At the Museum of Modern Art, another Dean hangout, Frank Minerva showed off his pair of matching Dean tattoos.

        "I’ll admit, I’m borderline obsessive," said the Brooklyn native. "My friends just don’t understand."

        But Dean fans will. Especially when they find out that Minerva got both tattoos done on September 30th, the anniversary of the late star’s death. "I got them done on two different years, though," he added.

        Other fans had different ways of paying tribute to their favorite rebel. Victor Bent, 56, drove three hours from Albany, New York to attend his first Dean Walk. But he left his most prized possession at home.

        "I cloned Dean’s car," said Brent of his black ‘49 Mercury. This classic model, immortalized by Dean in the famous "chickie run" scene from Rebel Without A Cause, is a coveted item for car buffs and Dean fans alike.

        Tom Fagen of Vermont wore his most prized Dean possession on his back: a familiar red windbreaker with the words "Disciples of James Dean" embroidered in fancy white script. While mimicking a famous Dean pose in Times Square, Fagen explained the story behind it.

        "Disciples of James Dean" was the name of the fan club in the play, "Come Back the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," he said. "Me and my buddies liked the name so much, we had these jackets made up." That was over 15 years ago. Fagen’s been wearing the jacket ever since.

        The well-known photograph Fagen emulated is just one of the many legendary shots taken by Dean’s friend, photographer Dennis Stock. Stock shot many more photos of Dean at various sites in Manhattan and the Walking Tour fans got to visit each one, including a curb on West 53rd Street, the site of Jimmy Ryans on West 52nd Street, and The RCA Building, former site of a furniture store where Jimmy sat in the window watching passersby.

        Another place made "Dean famous" was The Actors Studio, formerly at 1545 Broadway at 46th Street. But for some fans, this was nothing new.

        Brent Stavig, a local actor and musician, is well aware of the New York haunts Dean frequented. "I’ve seen many of the sites on my own since I moved here," said the west coast native, "because I read about them in books."

        Many of the sites like Sardi’s Restaurant, The Cherry Lane Theatre and The Iroquois Hotel have remained popular New York landmarks. Others have changed drastically in the 42 years since Dean’s death.

        At the site of The Rivoli Theatre on Broadway, there’s a New York Sports Club. The Brown Derby Restaurant on West 52nd Street has been replaced by a Liz Claiborne store. Saddest of all was the site of The Rehearsal Club on West 53rd Street, where Dean met his friend and roommate, Dizzy Sheridan. All that remained of that old hangout was an empty, boarded-up lot, stained with graffiti and theatre posters.

        The fans didn’t seem to mind, though. Especially since, for many, the Walking Tour served as a pep rally for an even bigger Dean event, the annual Fairmount Museum Days Festival in September.

        Sue Pelletier of Illinois, who attended the Walking Tour with her son, Adam, has been going to the festival every year since the two became fans six years ago -- when Adam was only eight.

        "It was really strange, actually," Mrs. Pelletier recalled. "It happened for both of us at the same time. I had rented Giant one night because I liked Rock Hudson," she continued. "As soon as we saw James Dean, we were hooked."

        Mother and son are serious about their idol. Mrs. Pelletier is even pulling Adam out of school for two days so he can go to Fairmount with her. "It never gets boring," she explained. "We meet more people every year we go there."

        The same could be said for Loehr’s Walking Tour. "The crowd was great, the weather was great," Loehr said. "And it’s always wonderful to meet all the fan club members and old friends from over the years."

        His friend Lenny agreed. "It’s cool. It’s fun. I think we should do it every year. Besides, it’s New York!"



MORE MAGDALIN WRITING

See Magdalin's photos from the walk, well-captioned by Magdalin herself!
See Magdalin's wonderful new Deaners section about Marfa, Texas where James Dean filmed Giant. Great photos and great writing!
Read about the book Mag is writing.

Wow, thanks to Magdalin Leonardo for this wonderful report of a great event. Plan to go on this tour in 1999, Deansters, and I hope to see you there!

Email Magdalin Leonardo at magdalin2000@earthlink.net  

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Email Magdalin Leonardo at magdalin2000@earthlink.net