Pamela Crawford is the President of The James Dean Remembered Fan Club as well as editor of the DeanZine publication. I recently sat down with her to discuss her work there and her fascination for one of the world’s most talented actors.
For those not familiar with the story can you tell us a little about how you came to be such an admirer of James Dean?
My James Dean journey was kind of a process of osmosis. I turned seven years old exactly one month before Jimmy died in the car crash. At the time of his death, I’d never seen him in anything. I was still into Disney. But my teenaged cousin and babysitter had both seen him in East of Eden and went wild for him. My cousin wallpapered her walls and ceiling with magazine photos of him. It was quite impressive! But then, before Rebel even came out, he was dead. Gone at first blush. They were like widowed war brides –it was over before it really began. There is something especially tragic about the loss of someone so talented before their true potential is fully realized. It was hard to believe it was true. Various rumors began to circulate that Jimmy hadn’t really died in the crash. The theory that our teen girls grabbed on to was that Jimmy was angry with the director of Giant and had fled Hollywood on a cross-country road trip. At that time, my family lived on Highway 65 — a busy, pre-freeway, main artery between smaller Arkansas towns and the state capital in Little Rock. So those two love-struck teens came up with the crazy idea that if James Dean was traveling cross-country then he would just naturally have to come down the busy highway where our family lived. So they put my sister and me up to sitting on the side of the road waiting for James Dean to drive by. Our mission was to get him to stop at our house. Then we were to stall him until they could get there. They made signs for us to hold with edicts like “JAMES DEAN –STOP HERE.” My sister was only a year older than me so we had no idea how impossibly unrealistic the idea was! They described his car and gave us a photo of him so we’d recognize him. We were thrilled that we were entrusted with such an important job by the older girls! It was very exciting because he was a movie star and he drove a convertible. The two of us sat there day after day after school and looked at those photos and watched the road. Naïve as we were, it never occurred to us that we might have missed him while we were at school! We simply had a child’s faith that he would come down that road and stop when he saw our signs. While we waited, we both become infatuated with the young, handsome movie star, Jimmy Dean. We wanted him to come down that highway so bad. We sat out there every day until our mother finally broke down and told us that this beautiful young boy really was dead. She cried when she told us, and of course, we cried, too. Our hearts were broken. All these years later it still pains me to think about his death. It was my first brush with tragedy.
Do you think the death of someone at such a young age affected you deeply because you were such a young person yourself at the time?
Absolutely. It was probably the first time I experienced a twinge of the devastating pain that accompanies loss – as much as such a young kid can absorb that. I’m not sure that I realized then just how permanent death is. I remember wondering if that meant that he would be gone forever, not even being sure how long forever was. Even though I’d never met James Dean, or even seen him in a movie at the time, it felt like I had come to know him. Sitting out there by the road focusing on him, believing with all my heart that we could flag him down, I think I fell hard for Jimmy Dean. At 7, I guess you could say that he was my first love. Being so young and impressionable, it had a huge effect on me. I dreamed about him and that car crash for years after that. In my dreams I was always trying to save him. Years later, when I went to Fairmount to visit his grave for the first time, my dad jokingly teased that after all those years I was still sitting on the side of the road waiting on James Dean to come by. He was right; that experience stuck with me. Maybe by going to Fairmount, I was seeking some kind of closure.
How do you think that whole experience affected who are you today?
I think it triggered a fear of losing people I love. I absolutely cherish my family and friends. I wrap my arms tight around them and would do just about anything to protect them. I am determined to be there for them, to be with them through thick and thin, and above all, to keep them from harm. It is hard for me to let go. Some of that probably comes from that early realization that people can vanish from the earth in a second. So you better cherish them while they are here.
On the upside, I came to realize that you have to live your life to the fullest each day because tomorrow is never guaranteed. Jimmy did that. He made the most of the time he had. It still seems cruel that someone as young, talented and hard-working as Jimmy would be cut off at the cusp of his career. There was so much that he had accomplished in his short life but so much more that he had to give. His future was short-changed but he definitely lived life to the hilt while he walked this earth. It is a lesson for all of us. I try to live my life in the moment, maybe not as extraordinarily as Jimmy, but definitely present.
Jimmy made an impact on me from the beginning – but through the years, I learned more about Jimmy and his philosophy of life. His embracement of new ideas and of people of all walks of life and all cultures – his openness and tolerance and probing spirit — has inspired my whole life.
What are some of your most fond memories of growing up as you did?
Probably my earliest, fondest memories are of playing with my cousins on the bayou where my grandparents lived. I adored my grandparents. I had a great childhood with wonderful parents and siblings and a big and loving extended family. Also, I treasure memories like watching my babysitter and her boyfriend rock ‘n’ roll like maniacs – totally oblivious to the rest of the world — to vinyl records back in the 50s. Kids back then had so much fun! And naturally, sitting by the side of the road waiting on Jimmy Dean to come by is always with me. Elvis … The Beatles … JFK … the sixties … the moon landing… backpacking through Europe — all are tucked inside my heart and mind. I kept diaries of everything. I’ve been fortunate to live through some astounding times and events. It’s been a full, eventful life. I’m grateful for that.
What is it like running the James Dean Remembered Fan Club? How can our readers find out more about that if they’d like?
It is an honor. I have made wonderful friends all over the world through this club. It is always growing. James Dean was an iconic actor who had that unique ability to make everyone feel that he was speaking to them personally and his legend has grown, not abated, through the years. To have a part in paying tribute to his memory is a special privilege. The fan club is a place where Dean Fans can connect with each other and share their experiences, Dean memorabilia, memories and feelings. In addition to paying homage to the incredible man who inspired the club, it is a club that is very much focused on the people who are in it. We are the only James Dean fan club that is sanctioned by the James Dean Estate. You can find us on Facebook under James Dean Remembered Fan Club. We also have a full-color brochure that describes JDR and our goals. And as you know, we publish a full-color, glossy, tribute magazine called the Deanzine three times a year for our members.
You are also the editor of DeanZine, is it challenging coming up with the content for each issue?
Actually, not at all. When I was first approached about becoming the editor of the Deanzine, I was concerned about how I would come up with interesting content to fill up issues year after year. But I worried needlessly. I’ve been publishing it around 17 years and lack of content has never been a problem. Dean Fans send me ideas and content from all over the world. When you think about it, it is absolutely amazing that 62 years after his death, James Dean is still inspiring people. He is still featured regularly in magazines and newspaper articles, TV, film, art, fashion, songs, poems, etc. His name is brought up somewhere every single day. The sheer number of other actors who were – and still are – inspired by him is mind-boggling. The biggest problem I have is wheedling down all the content to fit in a 32 to 36 page publication!
What would you say are some of the most interesting things you have learned about Jimmy through your work?
My initial attraction as a child was likely to Jimmy’s iconic image of youthful beauty and teen angst. That searching, seeking face with its penetrating blue eyes — all wrapped up in such an appealingly shy, enigmatic persona — is a natural hook for the young. But my interest has evolved over the years into a deeper respect for the man as a human being. I still appreciate the former but absolutely adore the latter! The most interesting and amazing things I’ve learned about him is his full-on embracement of life and total commitment to his art. I also admire his unfettered willingness to grow and learn. As a fellow human being, the most inspiring thing for me has always been his openness to new ideas, people and possibilities. He was an enthusiastic student of life – always pulling and probing and seeking the truth so he could embody his characters fully. I love that he embraced real people with no distinctions regarding color of skin, social class, money, circumstances, or employment. He was not blinded by inane prejudices. He was from a very small town but he openly cultivated a worldlier viewpoint. I love his openness and appreciation for unique ideas and individuality. He was a doer and a learner, always aiming higher.
Is everyone looking forward to this year’s festival and the dedication of the high school stage? Will there be more about all of that in an upcoming issue?
Oh yes. The James Dean Festival is always an exciting event for Dean Fans. Fans come from all over the world to attend the Festival and James Dean Run Car Show. There’s extra excitement this year over the restoration and relocation of the former FHS Stage to Playacres Park in Fairmount. It was a terrible shame that the high school could not be saved but we are all thankful to the Fairmount Lion’s Club for rescuing the stage. That stage is where James Dean first honed his acting skills – it is an intricate part of his history. Naturally the next issue of the Deanzine will be full of photos and articles about Festival activities. My personal favorite event is the James Dean Memorial Service coming up on September 30th. The Memorial Service (1pm) and accompanying Candlelight Vigil that evening are always genuine, moving tributes to Jimmy’s memory.
What are the typical festival days like up there?
Busy, busy, busy. The Fairmount Historical Museum has a full line-up of activities over a 4-day period, September 21, 2017 – September 24, 2017. There’s live music, an old-fashioned hometown parade, a 50’s dance contest, a Dean-inspired rock lasso contest, pet parade, carnival rides, vendors of all kinds, great food, a world-class antique car show (The James Dean Run) and World-famous James Dean Lookalike Contest. There’s so much going on that I’m sure I’ve forgotten something! It’s a fun-filled, exciting time for the whole family.
Why do you think it is important to honor the memory of those who are no longer with us?
Because they are intrinsically connected to the people we become. They inspire us and help us determine core values and traits that define our character as we develop into adults. The examples set by the people who came before us help us navigate through life ourselves. What we learn from their struggles prepares us for being the best of our human selves. We learn from their good deeds and traits and also their foibles. By honoring the good in them we bring honor upon ourselves. They are our blueprint for character development.
Is there anything else you’d like to say in closing?
Just that I am thankful for James Dean and how his inquisitive, full-throttle approach to life has enriched my own life. He is more than a movie icon to me; he’s a role model. I have been especially blessed to be part of James Dean Remembered and the whole Dean family. We are truly a great big, wonderful family made up of many different personalities from all walks of life and all parts of the world. Like his multidimensional characters, we are alike yet different and somehow we meld together like magic. James Dean fans are truly the best, most interesting people in the world! My life is richer because of them.