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James Dean: Last meal of a legend

Film icon James Dean may have stopped at Tip's Coffee Shop in Santa Clarita Valley on his final day

Posted: March 2, 2009 12:32 a.m.
Updated: March 2, 2009 4:55 a.m.

It was sometime around noon on a Friday when 24-year-old James Dean hopped in his new Porsche 550 Spyder and headed north on the four-lane highway through the Santa Clarita Valley.

He wore a beat-up pair of jeans, a rope for a belt, no laces in his shoes.

Sept. 30, 1955 would be the last day for the actor who had just starred in "East of Eden" and was becoming known as the rebellious twenty-something whom a rising generation could identify with.

He was headed for Salinas to compete in a car race but right around sunset was killed in a head-on collision at a highway junction near Paso Robles.

And a few hours before his death, some believe that Dean stopped in the Santa Clarita Valley for what may have been his last meal.

It has been said that Dean stopped at Tip's Coffee Shop near Castaic, but the lack of hard evidence has kept some local historians from declaring it as fact. On Saturday, the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society hosted a panel discussion to sort it all out.

"What if he didn't?" said Leon Worden, past president of the historical society. "We have not yet proved that James Dean stopped in Santa Clarita on the day he died. We need to put an asterisk by it until we prove it."

Former Signal Publisher Tony Newhall said he interviewed waitresses and a former manager of Tip's Coffee Shop in 1985 and believes Dean did stop in the Santa Clarita Valley.

"She confirmed everything. She said, yes, James Dean did stop there on his last day," Newhall said. "(She said) ‘He sat at the counter. We all recognized him. I believe he ordered breakfast."

Newhall said a former waitress confirmed that police officers later questioned restaurant workers to determine what time Dean stopped by because they were trying to calculate how fast Dean may have been traveling.

"The one thing that leads me to believe is not only this personal testimony, but that Tip's has never tried to capitalize on this famous stop," Newhall said. "They've kind of swept it under the rug, which makes me believe that it probably did happen."

The other panelists, which included authors and documentary filmmakers, said it has been written in books and magazines that Dean stopped in the Santa Clarita Valley. But no one has come forward with hard proof.

"I always took it to be true," said Chris Epting, author of "James Dean Died Here: The Locations of America's Pop Culture Landmarks."

"My one question is why there isn't at least one photo because a stop like that would have provided a great photo-op."

Though Dean has become a historic American icon, he starred in only three films, one of which was released after his death. It wasn't until after his death that he became a true Hollywood legend, panelists said.

"He died very young, but he was frozen in time," said filmmaker Jack Tucker. "He'll always be 24 years old - forever young."

"He's so beautifully preserved," said Epting. "He never had a chance to falter."

Ron Nelson, the California Highway Patrol officer who responded to the crash more than 50 years ago, said Saturday that at the time, he didn't know who James Dean was since he wasn't quite a household name.

"I thought he was the sausage man," he said.

Dean was stopped on the north side of the Grapevine that afternoon for speeding, but Nelson said there's no proof that speed was the cause of the crash.

Canyon Country resident Joe Montgomery, 77, was about the same age as Dean and became an instant fan when he saw Dean on the big screen.

"He mimicked me without knowing it," Montgomery said at Saturday's event, where more than one Dean look-alike sported slick hair, jeans and the red jacket that became iconic in "Rebel Without a Cause."

"I had the duck-tail haircut at the time, and wore the red jacket, although mine was suede. I was the guy who wore sunglasses at night," he said. "When he came on the screen, I said, ‘Yeah, hey, I dig him.'"


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