JAMES DEAN: REBEL WITH AN AGENT
It’s dusk as a van pulls alongside James Dean’s grave in a cemetery less than a mile from the stately white farmhouse in which he was raised. The blue Indiana sky is beginning to turn lavender and the cornfield across the street sparkles with the lights of thousands of fireflies.
Terry Lee Dunn, 24 and unemployed, slides open the van door and silently contemplates Dean’s small, plain gravestone. Dunn, who bears a tiny tattoo of a dagger dripping with blood on his right arm, isn’t sure why an actor who died before he was born has the power to move him. But somehow James Dean has come to epitomize the rebellion of youth.
“It’s his style,” he finally says. “He goes out to have a good time and it ends in trouble.
“That’s what happens to me.”
For 30 years the name and likeness of James Dean have lived in the hearts of fans. Now, they are up for sale.
Since his death at age 24 in a car accident on Sept. 30, 1955, near Paso Robles, Calif., fans of the actor have been able to buy posters, post cards and calendars bearing his picture. The affluent and serious collector has known how to tap into the underground network of James Dean memorabilia hawkers for years.
But these items generated relatively meager profits--none at all for the heirs to the James Dean estate--and were occasionally even distasteful, like the card festooned with a piece of denim that proclaimed: “Now you can finally get into James Dean’s jeans.”
Enter two 29-year-old Indiana attorneys who have succeeded in closing an exclusive licensing deal with the actor’s heirs where all others have failed.
Mark Roesler is the 6-foot-5, soft-spoken president of Indianapolis-based Curtis Licensing, a division of Curtis Publishing Co. His cautious, almost shy demeanor effectively deflects questions about the exact financial details of the contracts with Dean’s heirs.
Roesler drives his gun-metal gray Ferrari--with plates that read J DEAN--through the picturesque roads to his home in Zionsville, a wealthy Indianapolis suburb. “Not that I’m wealthy,” he demurs.
Greg Thomas, vice president of Curtis Licensing and an ex-divorce lawyer from Chicago, lives and breathes James Dean. Sitting astride his motorcycle wearing Schott Bros.’ $350 replica of Dean’s own leather jacket and a pair of James Dean tortoise-shell sunglasses, Thomas is the picture of rebellious youth.
His hair stands straight up, the result of a flat-top grown out, and his office in the staid headquarters of Curtis Publishing is painted a luminous shade of purple “to the dismay of everyone around,” he says happily.
Eighteen months ago, Roesler and Thomas negotiated a deal with the heirs for the exclusive right to sell manufacturers on the idea of using Dean’s name and likeness. Since then, 25 different licenses have been awarded--for everything from James Dean Stetson hats to James Dean collectors plates (see adjoining article). Roesler predicts that the retail sales of these items will exceed $100 million annually (comparable to the retail sales generated by the estate of Elvis Presley, another Curtis Licensing client).
Roesler and Thomas together have masterminded a vigorous and meticulously planned campaign designed to come to a crescendo during the 30th-anniversary commemoration of Dean’s death this month.
But Roesler prefers to talk about the company’s responsibility to protect James Dean’s image than financial matters. “When you deal with someone of this magnitude, the family is very concerned with preserving the legend--not about how much money they made this month,” he says. “They’re paying us a very good sum of money for that.”
The fastest way to get from Indianapolis to Fairmount, 60 miles to the northeast, is on Interstate 69. Trucks, motorcycles and high-powered American cars barrel down I-69 with a speed that forces slower cars to relinquish their lanes or be swallowed. The message: Only wimps dawdle on such a flat, open road.
Life is much slower off the highway in Fairmount (population 3,300). According to locals, Main Street doesn’t look much different now than when a teen-age James Dean rode his motorcycle up and down it. One grocery store, two places to eat, a handful of abandoned stores and a pool hall dot the few blocks that constitute Fairmount’s business district.
Inside the pool hall, a girl no more than 9 alternately chalks up her cue and puffs a cigarette beneath a sign that says “No Vulgarity.” At about 7 p.m., the hot spot is the Dairy Queen.
Even though Dean fans from all over the world have visited Fairmount, its residents still scrutinize anyone who might be an outsider with curious stares, and answer questions with as few words as humanly possible. “That’s Quakers for you,” pronounces Ann Warr, who runs the Fairmount Museum, largely devoted to Dean.
But Ortense Winslow, the aunt who raised Dean after his mother died when he was 9, is a friendly woman. The first time Roesler knocked on her door in this tiny town, it was the weekend of the anniversary of Dean’s birth. Now 85 and in ill health, Winslow was used to such calls. Fans would ring her doorbell at all hours. “She’d open the door to anyone,” marvels Ortense’s daughter-in-law, Mary Lou Winslow.
Roesler’s visit to discuss the possibility of a licensing arrangement was just the first of many of what Thomas calls “sofa chats” during the four months it took to nail down an agreement.
“We thought hard about it. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing,” says Marcus Winslow, 45, who is James Dean’s cousin and Ortense Winslow’s son. He works in a farm equipment store and serves as a volunteer fireman. He talks in a slow, deliberate twang and shares his cousin’s compact physique and open, guileless expression.
Marcus and his wife, Mary Lou, sit on the sofa this summer evening, while their two sons work out in the garage. Their home is the white farmhouse immortalized in the evocative black-and-white photos of Dean shot by Dennis Stock for Life magazine.
“There was so much on the market,” says Marcus Winslow. “Not all of it was bad. But it was running wild, and no one was keeping an eye on it.” They had been particularly hurt by a book that contained lewd illustrations of Dean.
“The financial part is secondary,” he says. “The first thing is that anything on the market of Jimmy’s is respectful to him. I guess we’re kind of protective of him. But you know, a lot of people out there are only after the buck.”
Now, Marcus Winslow and the other heirs, who constitute a legal entity called the James Dean Foundation, have the right at monthly meetings in Indianapolis to approve or disapprove anything bearing Dean’s name or likeness.
Rejects so far include Mylar balloons with Dean’s face on them, jeans made by a company of questionable stature, and some decoupage items deemed tacky.
Marcus Winslow’s favorite is “the poster of Jimmy wearing his leather jacket and sitting on his cycle. That’s what the fans like.”
“We don’t really call them fans anymore,” says Mary Lou Winslow, a chatty, amiable woman with frosted hair, referring to those who have come year after year to Fairmount. “They’re friends.”
These friends send touching letters and portraits they’ve done of Dean. Some come from as far away as Germany, and a few even bring their children to see Dean’s childhood home.
“He gave them the courage to feel” is the way Marcus Winslow explains this enduring worship.
Although the family had been approached many times over the years by those who wanted to license James Dean, they never overtly sought out such an arrangement. Even now, Marcus Winslow figures he might not have signed with Curtis if they had sent anyone but Roesler and Thomas.
“Mark and Greg seemed down-to-earth and sincere,” he says, “like everyday people you can talk to. Not high society.”
“We love him like a son,” giggles his wife, shooting an affectionate glance across the room at Thomas.
Visiting the Winslows one day, Thomas is dressed, like Marcus, in jeans, boots and a short-sleeve plaid shirt.
But back in Indianapolis, Thomas sports a different image: clad in a stylish Nino Cerruti suit, he flips through a stack of messages from people like a movie director and advertising executives and scrutinizes contracts that are awaiting his signature. He would only say that William Friedkin was inquiring about a project involving Dean.
Standing in the corner of Thomas’ office is an Elvis Presley toy guitar. When the subject of Elvis comes up, Thomas can’t quite hide his feelings.
“Jimmy didn’t grow old and fat like Elvis. From a marketing perspective, that plays very well. He died that glorious dramatic death that seems to appeal to the people he speaks to.”
He shrugs off the notion that exploiting that death for commercial purposes might be a bit macabre. “From a marketing standpoint, it’s important to stress the commemoration of the 30th anniversary,” he says. “Commemorations are honorable, and that’s what we do. These items have come out this year to recognize and reflect the genius of James Dean.”
In addition to the onslaught of commemorative products that are pouring into the marketplace now, a sudden flurry of Dean-related entertainment activity is brewing:
A musical play based on the last three years of Dean’s life is being offered to potential investors at backers’ auditions in several cities. Actor-playwright Garen Garson, 31, an alumnus of Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, is the composer/lyricist/librettist.
A documentary on the actor written by Dean biographer David Dalton and directed by Bob Giraldi for MGM/UA Home Video will be available in early 1986.
Warner Home Video is releasing a commemorative James Dean “Legacy” package of Dean’s three films--"Rebel Without a Cause,” “East of Eden” and “Giant,” the latter of which was previously unavailable on videocassette. “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause” have been re-mastered for this edition, and all three movies’ sound tracks have been reprocessed for stereo sound. The “Giant” sound track will include some exit music that was part of the original road show engagement.
Warner Bros. has re-released “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden” on a double bill for showing in major cities. (In Los Angeles, the films are being shown at the UA Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.)
Why the intensity of interest in James Dean?
Much of it has been prompted by the 30th anniversary. “Obviously, we’re trying to tie in with the national fan celebration,” says Michael Finnegan, publicity and promotions manager for Warner Home Video. But, he admits, “when we were first planning this, we didn’t know what kind of groundswell there would be. Now that it’s getting closer to the date, we’re gratified that there’s so much going on.”
But the anniversary doesn’t explain the appeal Dean holds for a youthful market unfamiliar with his life or his films.
Producer Jeff Lawenda, whose New York-based Chelsea Communications is producing the Dean documentary, encountered the Dean mystique on a personal level: “I have a teen-age daughter who had three posters of Dean on her wall--and she’d never seen a Dean movie in her life.”
Mirage Editions, a Santa Monica-based publisher and distributor of limited editions and fine art, has sold “close to 10,000 James Dean posters in nine months,” according to Vice President Rick Leonard, “and mostly to women 18 to 24. Maybe he represents a metaphor for contained rebellion.”
Greg Thomas’s theory isn’t quite so highbrow.
“Dean embodies that kind of tough guy-cool guy that the teen market relates to today. But he also appeals to the 45- to 65-year-olds who sat in the back seats of cars at drive-ins when Dean’s films hit the screens.”
In between those two groups lies the lucrative yuppie market--a big potential market in Thomas’ view. “They appreciate Dean from an artistic point of view. They appreciate his existential attitude.”
Although it might be hard to target a product for the existentialist market, there’s something in the James Dean product list for just about every other demographic category. Nostalgia Collectibles, for example, produces a set of plates depicting scenes from Dean’s movies. “These are aimed at the 45-year-old female who grew up with James Dean,” Thomas says. “She won’t buy the Schott Bros. motorcycle jacket, but she will buy a porcelain plate.”
And a young girl who cannot afford a collector’s plate will be able to buy a Hallmark button with Dean’s smiling face for under $1.
The terms of the agreement between the James Dean Foundation and Curtis Licensing are protected by a privacy clause in the contract--a common practice according to a Los Angeles licensing expert, especially when it involves families. The standard contract used in such matters requires the licensee to pay an advance against earned royalties to the licensor. How high the royalty is depends on what the licensee wants to manufacture, and whether the licensee wants an exclusive arrangement.
Also shrouded in secrecy is the percentage of royalties the James Dean Foundation pays to Curtis. “In general terms,” Thomas allows, “the percentage of royalties that goes to the licensing company depends on the kinds of services provided.” Companies that act as consultants only might get as little as 20%, while companies like Curtis, which offers a full range of services, could command as much as 50%.
Even using conservative figures, the James Dean licensing arrangement probably will be a healthy one for all parties. Still, Roesler is concerned about Curtis’ image. “It’s a common misperception,” he complains, “that a big company goes out and buys the rights and makes a lot of money. That’s not true. We’re simply the agents. We try to do everything for the family.” And the fans, he adds. “The fans are just ecstatic about our involvement.”
Sylvia Bongiovanni, 44, a Fullerton secretary, can instantly recall the moment she fell in love with James Dean: “The movie was ‘East of Eden,’ and I saw it in a theater in the Bronx when I was 15 with my best friend. He mesmerized us.”
Just a few days after Dean’s death, Bongiovanni started buying whatever she could find about her idol--books, fan magazines, photos. Today, she has 15 scrapbooks chronicling the actor’s life and death, and runs a fan club in his honor.
We Remember Dean International was founded by Bongiovanni in 1978, and its 158 other members, scattered all over the world, are as devoted to the memory of James Dean as she.
“It’s nice to be able to share your feelings with people who don’t think it’s crazy to like a star who’s been dead for 30 years,” she says.
There is no such thing as a typical James Dean fan. The club’s membership roster includes a fan who is 15 and one in his 70s, an equal number of men and women, and occupations that defy easy categorizing--a pharmacist, a housewife, a student, a fashion designer and a photographer.
They were all somewhat shocked, Bongiovanni says, when informed of Curtis’ plans to market Dean’s image. “I thought, ‘Oh, God, they’re licensing his name!’
“But then I thought about it and now I’m glad that for the first time in 30 years the family is finally going to get something. They’ve been through so much with the fans.”
Best of all, in her opinion, the licensing agreement will rid the market of “horrible items with pictures that don’t even look like Jimmy.”
So far, Curtis has only had to issue sternly worded cease-and-desist letters to James Dean copyright infringers. Thomas, who sometimes delivers the letters in person, says: “We’ve been successful in avoiding court action up to this stage. But that doesn’t mean we won’t go to court if we have to.”