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Laughter without a cause

The joy of James Dean off-screen

Dean's iconic image - seemingly far from his true self. (Photograph provided by Pixabay)

Dean’s iconic image – seemingly far from his true self. (Photograph provided by Pixabay)

By Katherine Yeager | Echo

“We better not go that way again,” young James “Jimmy” Dean said to his cousin Eula Davis after the two narrowly escaped a swarm of bees. The two only children had taken a pony ride in the land surrounding Dean’s aunt’s home – until the bees came.

Davis, now 89, remembers fondly the times she and Dean spent together as young children while their mothers would talk. Both were only children and grew up in neighboring towns, Fairmount and Jonesboro.

Once, Davis remembers Dean emerging from the Winslow – Dean’s aunt and uncle’s – home only to miss a porch step and fall face first on the ground. He began to laugh and Davis, concerned at first, began to join in the laughter.

“He was funny to be around, oh gosh,” Davis said.“You had to laugh when you heard him laugh. He was nothing like they portrayed him on the movies.”

Dean and his parents, Winton and Mildred, moved to Santa Monica, California and the cousins saw less of each other. When nine-year-old Dean returned after his mother’s death to live with his uncle and aunt, Marcus and Ortense Winslow, Davis remembers seeing Dean less but treasuring the times he’d ride his bicycle over to her home.

Upon returning to Grant County, Dean became involved in sports, including basketball and pole vaulting. He also became involved in the arts and debate club. Lenny Prussack, Manager of the James Dean Gallery Gift Shop, acknowledged Dean’s involvement in many plays at Fairmount High School under the leadership of Adeline Nall, a drama teacher who proved to be instrumental in Dean’s acting. Dean went on the win the Grant County Voice of Youth award for a dramatic reading of Charles Dicken’s “A Madman’s Manuscript” – a reading beginning with a visceral yell.

Davis remembers the first time she and her family saw Dean’s films. Their family was given a private viewing of “East of Eden”. Toward the end of the film, Dean portrayed an older man, a man whom his family believed to be his uncle. The resemblance between Dean and his uncle in the scene was so striking that Davis remembers their family collectively gasp at the premiere.

“You couldn’t believe it was him up there,” Davis said. “He was still Jimmy. We were all so proud of him. We always thought of how proud his mother would be of him.”

Eula Davis remembers her cousin "Jimmy" and his infectious laughter. (Photograph by Katherine Yeager)

Eula Davis remembers her cousin “Jimmy” and his infectious laughter. (Photograph by Katherine Yeager)

To Davis, Dean was always “Jimmy.” To Dorothy Schultz, a volunteer at the Fairmount Historical Museum, he became the reason people wear jeans and Converse shoes today – a cigarette-smoking, iconic leather jacket wearing, 50’s American icon – the face of “Rebel Without a Cause”.

Prussack grew up in New York but moved to Fairmount after experiencing the James Dean festival and developing a passion for Dean – his life and work.

“I like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, old movies and old cars,” Prussack said. For him, The James Dean Gallery became a natural job fit. Today, he’s worked at the gallery for 29 years and is still surprised at the number of visitors worldwide who come to Fairmount each year to learn more of Dean’s legacy.

Davis believes people from the Grant County area are more focused on people than money and accolades. When someone who supports the community does well as was the case with Dean, the whole town celebrates.

Driving through Fairmount, the community pride for Dean is still evident – the James Dean Gallery and Fairmount Historical Museum pay tribute to Dean as does the community water tower featuring Dean’s portrait on the side.

The Fairmount Lions Club purchased and preserved the former Fairmount High School stage – Dean’s first stage. On September 23 at noon, the stage will be dedicated by Marcus Winslow – Dean’s cousin, J. David Nall – Adeline Nall’s son and Judy Solms – member of the Fairmount Town Council. The new home of the stage will be the pavillion at Play Acres Park in Fairmount.

The 2017 James Dean festival will occur Sept. 21-24. The festival, a free event, will include a car show, parade, street vendors, carnival rides, James Dean lookalike contest and live music.

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